Niel Robertson launched an Internet company when he graduated from MIT in 1996. Seventeen months later, he sold the company for $280 million.
When it sank in, he says, he nearly fainted.
Recently the 25-year-old entrepreneur gave MIT $431,000 to establish the Meryl and Stewart Robertson UROP Fund in honor of his parents, whom he says made great sacrifices to get him where he is today.
“My parents paid my tuition. They put things they wanted to do on hold — like making renovations to their home and saving for retirement. My gift kills two wonderful birds with one stone. I can help students and thank my parents.”
Robertson says it was MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) — which brings faculty and students together in research partnerships — that made him a big success.
“My first UROP project was at the Lab for Computer Science. The people I worked with were the most influential group in the formation of the Internet. Experiences like this definitely contributed to the success of our company.”
Robertson’s gift also will provide UROP with funds to help students improve their public speaking skills. As a student, communication was not Robertson’s forte. He recalls the first time he was asked to speak in public at a Web conference at Harvard.
“It was the most embarrassing experience of my life,” he says. “I stood up and felt like a deer caught in the headlights. Somehow I suffered through it, but when I sat down, I was still shaking.” “Now,” he adds, “good communication is a big, burning thing for me. Students have to learn this. You just can’t bury yourself in a cubicle anymore. The world just doesn’t work that way. ”
MONEY DOESN’T GROW ON TREES
“It doesn’t matter if you have brilliant ideas if you don’t have the ability to convey them to others. Developing relationships and talking to people is what business is all about.”
Robertson earned an MIT degree in electrical engineering and computer science. After two years at net.Genesis, an MIT startup company, he co-founded Service Metrics, which last year was acquired by Exodus Communications. He is now vice president for research at Exodus in Boulder, Colorado. “I always hoped to be successful,” he says. “I just never expected it to happen so fast, or to the extent that it did.”
Robertson says he is now glad to share his wealth with others because he learned early that money doesn’t grow on trees. His family immigrated to the United States from Scotland when he was five. Always, he says, his family encouraged him to go to a private high school.
“When I got in, my parents said, ‘Look. This costs money. You ‘re going to have to come up with $750 per year.'” At 14, he got a job in a kitchen chopping carrots. Later he sold tickets in a movie theater. Then he entered data at a research company.
“I used to walk up to that building every day and see the name of the company etched into the building. That’s really where I got the desire to start a company.” As an MIT student, often he was broke. “That’s when I got the job with the UROP program. I worked 20 hours a week for $6 an hour. To me, it was gold.”
OPPORTUNITIES FOR OTHERS
Robertson now thinks deeply about how best to share his wealth. “My philosophy for giving is about thanking those who helped me out along the way by looking for a new set of people to help as well.”
He chose to support UROP students, he says. “Passing along the opportunities is the thank you itself. Sometimes money can create the right opportunities to hand down, and I feel so fortunate to be able to do this.”
Where life takes Robertson from here is anybody’s guess, he says, but at the moment he and some friends are opening a restaurant and jazz bar in Boston. “I’m very social. I like talking to people, and it’s a great way to mix being social and doing business at the same time.” Robertson says he has come a long way since the day he gave that speech at Harvard. He has learned much about the business of communicating.
“To be a success, you need a dream,” he says. “But you can’t make your dream a reality by yourself. As soon as you enlist other people to help you, you have to know how to communicate. “It doesn’t matter if you have brilliant ideas if you don’t have the ability to convey them to others. Developing relationships and talking to people is what business is all about.”