Fei Xiao could easily be a poster child for the Millennial tech workforce (but not in the entitled brogrammer sense). The 2012 University of Southern California graduate currently lives in San Francisco and works as a product designer at ThirdLove, a mobile app that has been featured in Vogue, Mashable, and USA TODAY. In 2011, she co-founded trueRSVP and later pivoted it to Planana, which raised funding from DreamIt Ventures and Tech Coast Angels and eventually achieved profitability.
Xiao wasn’t always involved in tech, though. She began her journey through the startup world during the first class she took at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. It was an introduction to starting your own business, taught by Professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship Patrick Henry. He encouraged students to step outside of their comfort zones, so Xiao picked a hackathon and signed up with a friend. It was filled with engineers, designers, and MBAs; as a pair of 20-year-old undergraduates, they kind of stuck out. “It was a little overwhelming,” Xiao recalls.
Regardless, the hackathon turned out to be a huge success. The two pitched an idea that wound up being one of ten chosen. Without even knowing the difference between front-end and back-end development, Xiao wound up leading a team of designers and engineers to build a product. The experience led her to start her company halfway through that very first business class.
GETTING IN THE DOOR
With traditional liberal arts majors getting so much flak, it’s no surprise that a hands-on program like business is so popular at this Los Angeles school: 19% undergraduates major in it. “We have far more students that want to get into the program than we can handle,” says Debbie MacInnis, USC’s vice dean for undergraduate programs.
Around 10 years ago, Marshall had a two-year undergraduate business program. Today, though, business majors begin taking Marshall classes from the very beginning of their time at USC. “As a faculty member and someone who’s taught here for 20 years, I’ve really appreciated the change to a four-year program,” MacInnis says. She explains that the additional two years give students more time to understand what a business degree actually encompasses. It also gives faculty members four years to know and advise them — and they’ll likely be the ones writing students’ letters of recommendation.
It’s much easier to get into Marshall as a fresh applicant than as a transfer from another school within USC. In the latter case, Marshall hopefuls compete with other USC students instead of with the general applicant pool. So, even if you only sort of think you’d like to study business, declaring a business major from the very beginning could save you major headaches later on.
Not that Marshall is that easy to get into straight out of high school: as of 2012, it has a 20% admission rate, according to Businessweek. Xiao applied directly to Marshall (along with other large California schools, like UC Berkeley and UCLA). She guesses that she got in thanks to a combination of good grades, a solid SAT score, multiple clubs, and leadership positions; for example, she was the editor-in-chief of the yearbook. “I think that’s something that they look for,” she says.
DINNER WITH THE FOUNDER OF KINKO’S — FOR CLASS
Marshall requires business majors to pick a concentration. “You choose four classes in a specific field within business that you find interesting,” Xiao says. She picked entrepreneurship. At that point, she hadn’t planned on starting her own business, but once TrueRSVP was underway, it turned out to be the most challenging undertaking of her undergraduate career. Even though she was technically making her own schedule, she often found herself staying at the office until 11 p.m. and giving up a lot of normal 20-year-old activities.
Part of what helped was the support of professors. Occasionally, Xiao asked for permission to skip class and write a report on whatever she’d done for her business instead. Thomas Knapp, assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship, introduced her to people he knew in business and the media. Knapp also helped her get into a once-a-week class that consisted of having dinner and talking about entrepreneurship with the founder of Kinko’s. “It was just one of the coolest classes,” Xiao says.
Some of her classes were a little bit less cool. “Organizational behavior probably wasn’t the most useful,” she says. Her major complaint about the accounting classes was that they focused on the corporate end of things — which was probably fine for many people, but as an entrepreneur, she wished she could’ve learned about things like filing her own taxes.
If she had to do everything all over again, Xiao admits that she’d pick business as a minor and focus on design, engineering, or something more technical instead. She advises incoming business majors to explore other schools within USC and to avoid limiting themselves to traditional fields like finance and marketing. “Don’t get so bottled into what your major is defined as,” she says.
AN INTERDISCIPLINARY PROGRAM WITH CELEBRITY DONORS
There’s evidence that the folks at USC share Xiao’s view on the importance of pairing business with design and engineering. Last year, the school launched a new interdisciplinary degree program: the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy of Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation. (Andre Young as in Dr. Dre. Yep.) Behind this bombastic name is a pretty simple idea: Technology is having a profound impact on our day-to-day lives, and there should be a program that teaches people how to make it both functional and visually appealing. “I think it’s reflective of the way our world is going,” MacInnis says.
Marshall is also experimenting with programs that teach students how to be members of a global workforce. The most unique of those programs is the World Bachelor in Business, which allows students to graduate with three different bachelor’s degrees from institutions in three different countries: the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Università Bocconi and, of course, USC. It’s a four-year program that enrolled its first class just last fall. Having just spent their first year at USC, students will spend their second year in Hong Kong, their third year in Milan, and their fourth year at whichever of the three schools they choose.
Regular business majors also have many opportunities to go abroad, even as freshmen. “About 80% of our freshman class take advantage of one of these opportunities,” MacInnis says. Destinations have included Thailand, India, Australia, China, Turkey, and Argentina, and there are plans for a potential trip to Dubai.
All this opportunity comes at a hefty price: 2013-2014 undergraduate tuition was $46,298. But if you major in business, at least you’ll have a fighting chance of paying off your loans before you’re geriatric.