Henry's big adventure

Henry got a letter, and this is what it said...

Dear Henry,

On behalf of the MIT Bootcamps Admissions Committee, I am delighted to inform you of your admission to the MIT Innovation and Entrepreurship Bootcamp in Brisbane Australia in February 10-16 February 2018...

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again." - Steve Jobs

There was a point in time when my life changed forever. I don’t know whether it was the decision to apply, the moment I was accepted, or the entire MIT experience altogether, but I do know that nothing would be the same had it not been for this first moment.

In October 2017, I was scrolling down my newly created LinkedIn profile when I saw a reference to an MIT program. I had always dreamed of studying with MIT, but it was certainly not in my immediate plans.

The program was an Innovation and Entrepreneurship Bootcamp, titled the Future of Sustainability.

The host city changes each year, and this year it happened to be in Brisbane. I was about to graduate from UQ with a Business degree majoring in Sustainability, and I lived in Brisbane. The deadline to apply for this program was in one hour’s time.

I thought; “Couldn’t hurt, right?”

It turned out that decision would hurt a lot, but nothing in comparison to the joy that it would also provide. After several rounds of selection, I received a letter that read:

What followed is most accurately described as life-changing.

The cohort consisted of 130 of the most gifted people I will ever meet - engineers, scientists, lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs from 41 different countries coming together in Brisbane to learn from MIT professors and coaches.

My selection for this program completely baffled me. The acceptance rate was about eight per cent, roughly that of all MIT courses.

I certainly can’t boast the credentials of most other applicants. The only thing I offered was a fervour for sustainability, which I entirely credit to lecturers at UQ, such as Professor Paul Dargusch and Dr Adrian Ward.

But I trusted the selection committee. Perhaps they saw something in me the I didn’t see for myself.

The structure of the program was brutal, borderline masochistic.

After an introductory evening on Saturday, it formally commenced on the Sunday. The program essentially condensed a six month MIT course into a week, with lectures running from 8:30am to anywhere between 8pm and midnight each day. Even lunches and dinners were often accompanied by a lecture. 

This included lectures from global CEO’s including Greg Creed (CEO of Yum! Brands – KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell), and Don Meij (CEO of Dominos).

We were required to organise into teams of five. These teams would start a company and develop a product or service to be pitched to investors on the Friday.

The calibre of my team was the most humbling thing about the whole experience.

Teams formed organically on the first day by the process of whirlwind intellectual speed-networking.

I was extremely fortunate that we formed a team so diverse in skillset yet unified in our vision for this Bootcamp. The company we created, ‘Setonix’, was in the air purifier market. The innovation was in the filtration process, using Titanium Dioxide filters to react with carcinogenic and neurotoxic ultrafine particles.

The team consisted of Razvan, a computer scientist studying at Kings College London. Raz is from Romania. At 21, he is already CTO and Co-founder of two companies in robotics and Artificial Intelligence. He has won 20 London hackathons (every single one he’s competed in), and is fluent in essentially every programming language.

Gerardo, 55, from Mexico has been CEO of 3 companies and employs tens of thousands of people. He brought a remarkable wealth of experience.

Ella, 19, was the youngest person at the Bootcamp as well as one of the few other Brisbane residents. She is an extremely gifted science and business student who already writes environmental reports for companies.

Bevon, 25, started a successful agritech business in Jamaica before being awarded a scholarship to NASA’s Singularity University. He now helms a clean air start-up in Singapore while working on a larger project - starting Jamaica’s first space agency with the backing of several NASA employees.

Then there was me.

You can imagine the imposter syndrome I suffered.

One of the most surreal moments I had at the Bootcamp came from a conversation with Jocko Willink.

Jocko was a Navy Seal commander during the Iraq war, a now highly decorated veteran. He was also the guest coach at the Bootcamp and indispensable to our learning of leadership and operating as a team.

If you think meeting Chris Kyle (American Sniper) would be intimidating, imagine trying to convince his superior to buy your air filter.

Jocko’s podcast has over a million listeners, myself included.

I had come to discover it through a conversation he had with Sam Harris on his podcast some years back. Sam is a public intellectual whom I consider as one of my heroes.

At one point, I asked Jocko: “What’s Sam like in person?” He responded, “He’s a good guy… Want to call him?”

He made it clear that this was a legitimate offer - an opportunity to speak to one of my greatest idols. I am still not confident if my answer resembled sanity or not, but I declined. I told him that I hope to be on both his and Sam’s podcasts someday, but only by becoming someone worth speaking to.

I knew that, right now, I was a stranger bothering him while he spent time with his family. What I gained from this was a total perspective shift - I no longer saw a cognitive elite circle that I could only look up towards. These were people who I now could speak to directly.

We’re not yet the same circle, but I was now somewhere in their vicinity.

The intensity of the program is best characterised by the final night, which was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

The entire cohort was collectively racing time in a cacophony of coffee-fuelled anxiety and excitement. Pitches were due at 7am, and if this doesn’t sound like a time restraint, you are as mistaken as we were.

To be told at 3am that your entire product may require some rethinking is not a good feeling, but it’s certainly better than presenting a half-baked idea to actual investors.

I wrapped up the presentation 10 minutes before 7am - still in good company.

At 7am, I ran to the street to collect business attire dropped off in a drive-by. From there I ran to campus, changed, and got to the pitch at 8am after 0.000 hours sleep.

There’s an inexhaustible list of practical things we gained from the Bootcamp. MIT compared the learning experience to 'drinking from a firehose' - this was not hyperbolic.

If anything, it was a euphemism.

I learned more about the world of start-ups in a week than I had in my entire life.

We gained an immense amount of knowledge about the corporate world, particularly in relation to sustainability. We gained the first-hand experience of developing a company and a product. We gained a world-wide network of invaluable contacts. 

But what I personally gained was much more than all this. I had theorised that, in my selection, they did not see me for who I was, but for who I could be, which is something I hadn’t yet seen for myself.

The boot camp revealed all the opportunities this world has that are waiting to be seized - to invent something new, to solve difficult problems, to influence hearts and minds.

There is no such thing as problems that are reserved for someone else’s experience or skill-set, only to those who apply themselves, with discipline and rigour.

MIT showed me what I could become, and now I can’t settle for anything less.

To detail the entire experience of studying with MIT would warrant a book. This is only a snapshot. The only way to appreciate the full experience is to participate.

If this sounds like a challenge you would enjoy, I strongly encourage you to  apply to the next MIT Bootcamp in Rio De Janeiro.