An Unconventional Journey to the Startup Institute

(Gemma Fay is a mathematican and student in the Technical Marketing Track. She is interested in data, analytics, edtech, cleantech. She is a lover of beautiful food, beautiful places and beautiful design.)


And so it began like this on a (probably) damp, (almost certainly) cold September evening in a pub in the UK:

"So, you want to go to Boston?".


"To do a 6-week business course?"


"…which university runs this course?"

"Well, none."

"And you want to study marketing?"

"Yes. Well, marketing in the startup sense."


Admittedly, my path to the Startup Institute Boston wasn’t the most conventional. I graduated this summer with a PhD in applied math(s) from the University of Oxford, and, well, it’s a bit of a leap from a career in research to a career in startups.

Except it really isn’t. Academics are passionate people; so are Founders, Co-Founders, CEOs and CTOs of startups. Crafting a PhD thesis? Well, it looks to me like it’s a lot like crafting a startup:

- You work pretty long hours for minimal reward, and most of your friends haven’t got a clue why this motivates you.

- Your pay ain’t great, and you’re pretty delighted when someone gives you free food. Or beer.

- You spent hours working on a great research/business plan, only to find out nobody liked it anyway, and now you need to think of something better.

- Nobody wants to give you any money.

- And your dad isn’t sure that any of this is really such a good idea.

But, still, a PhD? That’s a bit left-of-field right? So, am I the anomaly? Does everyone else I’ve met at the Startup Institute have a background that suggests they’ve taken the conventional route to the Boston startup scene? Not one. Our backgrounds are all unconventional, with one common thread: passion to learn and passion to do something more than ‘just a job’.  

In the three weeks I’ve been at the Startup Institute, I’ve learned more than I even thought I could from my classmates, the Startup Institute team and the speakers and mentors that have come in to see us. I’ve learned about the perseverance needed to pull an idea from ‘just an idea’ to a fully-functioning business, and heard from so many inspirational, unconventional and talented CEOs, Founders and Co-Founders — sparing valuable hours of their time to encourage us all in our pursuits. My fellow classmates have put in hours of work, some beyond anything I could ever imagine — how DO you all tweet so succinctly and stylishly whilst also managing to sleep and get assignments done!? And the main thing I’ve realised is: no-one’s path to the Startup Institute has been conventional — many people have traveled a long way to be here; are still traveling a long way to be here every day. Many are juggling families, new babies, weddings, businesses, jobs, house moves, hobbies and passions, well beyond the walls of the Startup Institute Boston. But it’s this that makes a startup great — a real mix of backgrounds and experiences brings richness to a startup in a way that larger companies can’t capture, or don’t want to encourage. A startup is unconventional by nature.

And so, back in that Oxford pub I say: “I know, it’s amazing, right?! A 6-week course, in the centre of the Boston startup scene, working with 60 classmates and meeting hundreds of people from hundreds of incredible startups. It’s going to be great! It’s called the “Startup Institute” — I think they’re on to something.” And they really are.