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Cornell Alum Newly Minted CEO of Unrenowned Silicon Valley Startup

This is a guest post from Walter Chen, BS '04, as part of an ongoing series of posts about his experiences as a Cornell startup founder in San Francisco. He is the co-founder of Leasely, which makes online tenant screening dead simple. Walter previously contributed to Lincoln on MetaEzra.

My dad's a mathematician, and he can be stern. When I was applying to college, I asked my dad at dinner, "What do you think about Cornell?" A guy a year older than me had gone there from my high school. "It's overrated," he said. "Well that's where I'm going!" I replied. I applied early sight-unseen, got in, and off I went to frosty Ithaca, New York.

I had this thought when I was in high school, like, "Uh oh, in college, I'm expected to pick one thing and study it. How will I be able to do that when I hate everything?" Driving around my hometown before freshman orientation, I figured that computer science would be my major because that was the only high school class I didn't sleep in. My dad had been worried that Ithaca was geographically situated too far from Silicon Valley, but was mollified by a Cornell admissions person who told him that half the CS graduating class in 2000 were CEOs. I don't remember any CEOs from my graduating class.

I didn't know much back in my high school days. I thought about applying to USC to be near Silicon Valley and date hot snobby girls. Well USC has a great football team with lots of tradition and cool colors. That's the same reason I liked Michigan growing up. I remember talking to my older cousin Mike about where he'd go to college. I said, "You should go to Michigan because they have a great football team with lots of tradition and cool colors." Mike said, "I'm thinking of going to Cornell." I said, "Where?"

After Cornell, I went to Michigan for law school (following in the footsteps of my idol, Ann Coulter), then I had a year in Detroit clerking for a judge, and then a year in New York City working at a law firm. Now I'm in San Francisco, working on my own startup with a few of my buddies. Earlier today, I went to buy some pricey health insurance because I spent half the day yesterday first discovering, and then freaking out about necrotizing fasciitis (also known as "flesh-eating bacteria"). The insurance agent asked me what my current occupation is. That's a long way of saying -- I'm finally a CEO.

The managing partner at my old law firm had worked his way up in the prosecutor's office in the Southern District of New York, had made partner at the big important New York law firm of Cleary Gottlieb, and used to be General Counsel at 3M. I founded my startup in a day and then I told him, "Hey, now we're both General Counsels!" He graciously wished me well without diminishing my accomplishment.

Picking a college was just a shot in the dark for me, but more than ever what it's shaping into is a band of fellow travelers. As a startup, I feel more alone than ever without the support of an institution, its prestige and history, and its people and processes. My insurance agent gave me an apple to eat for my walk home because she figured that I was poor. But what I have as a result of my associations with fancy institutions is not a name for strangers to know but friends and friendly people with a shared past wanting to see me succeed.

Check out my upcoming series of posts to follow the harrowing life of a Cornell kid doing the startup thing in the San Francisco Bay Area. And if you want up-to-the-minute updates, then follow me on Twitter. I can be reached by email at walter@leasely.com.

Walter Chen | Posted on December 10, 2010 (#)

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