Before starting classes at the University of Pennsylvania, David Zhao made $2.4 million as the founder and chief executive officer of NXTFactor, a media conglomerate based in New York City.
On March 8, Zhao spoke to the Rutgers Entrepreneurship Society (RES) in the Red Lion Café on the College Avenue campus about his past successes and failures, providing advice and answering questions during the hour-long meeting.
The RES invited him because his experience combined with the fact that he is still attending a university makes him relatable to Rutgers students who are trying to launch their own projects, said Abhisek Vyas, president of the society.
“What we’re trying to do is create entrepreneurs and help them (succeed),” the School of Arts and Sciences sophomore said. “RES is a community of doers, that’s what we are in a nutshell.”
The event was designed as a question-and-answer panel rather than a traditional lecture to ensure guests would be able to get as much as possible out of the experience, he said.
During the evening, Zhao spoke about his various projects, including how some did not succeed in the way others had. His failures did not stand in the way of his later successes, which is one lesson he hoped guests would take away from the night.
He said it is important that people who want to launch a venture start immediately.
“Rather than say ‘I have an idea’ and not take action, if you really have an idea and you really want to do it, start it,” Zhao said. “Starting it could just be making a website, or a survey and sending it to your friends and asking if they like it.”
Unlike most college students in the United States, Zhao did not go to college or enter the workforce immediately after graduating high school.
Instead, he took two years off to focus on creating his own businesses, which helped him more when he did begin taking classes.
Zhao said he can apply his coursework to actual lessons he has learned from his businesses, which makes it easier to understand what he is earning.
“The amazing thing is there’s a lot of people taking gap years, whether for military purposes or traveling or starting their own businesses,” he said. “I really enjoy the experience of taking the same classes.”
His roommate is 18, but the nearly 5-year gap in their ages has not prevented them from trying to launch their own real-estate venture, Zhao said.
Taking some time off to work on his own projects has also given Zhao some perspective on his role at school, he said.
“I don’t feel a disconnect (from my peers) but it’s actually a good thing that I came in with more experience and have a wider scope of looking at things, and I’m not stuck in ‘grades are everything,’” he said. “Especially at (the University of Pennsylvania) – it’s (a) very competitive environment … and me being able to say ‘I don’t have to compete with all you guys, I can do my own thing,’ that’s kind of nice.”
Another advantage to taking a gap year is that people are generally not committed to any one field or program prior to entering college, he said.
“Second advantage is a lot of students have an idea (and) it’s a perfect time to take some time off and focus on what they’re doing and give it 100 percent,” Zhao said.
Students can benefit from dedicating all of their time toward a venture they are passionate about instead of trying to succeed in a field they have no interest in, he said.
For those students already at Rutgers, the RES exists to help them gain the skill sets they need to work on their own ventures or become successful interns, Vyas said. Any student can join the organization, regardless of their background.
“We’re industry-agnostic in the sense that no matter what kind of student you are, what kind of major you have, you’re welcome in our community,” he said.
The group has grown dramatically over the last semester, with an executive board of two people jumping to 25 within a few months.
Vyas said he hopes to establish the organization more permanently at Rutgers.
“The goal is to make upper administration at Rutgers realize that entrepreneurship is important and we really want to establish a presence with a building or physical location,” Vyas said. “We have some people that are championing us, but really it’s through events like this that you really get recognition.”
Zhao’s talk – the third event in a series hosted by the RES – saw around 50 attendees.
Vyas said the first event they held saw 35 guests, and the second had about 45.
“It’s okay to live a different life,” Zhao said. “Use your own judgment of an eventful life, try something, (just) don’t be afraid of failure.”
Nikhilesh De is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. He is a School of Arts and Sciences senior. Follow him on Twitter @nikhileshde for more.