Harvard University senior Michael Wong, founder of an online calendar for the Harvard community, wouldn’t miss this opportunity. Neither would sophomore Zachary Hamed, who created a website that helps students prepare financial aid applications.
Both will be among an invitation-only audience of 200 students to meet today with Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder and chief executive of Facebook and perhaps Harvard’s best-known dropout since Microsoft Corp.’s Bill Gates.
To recruit talent for Facebook, Zuckerberg is making his first official visit to Harvard since he left seven years ago for Silicon Valley. Since then, the social media site has become an Internet giant, and an example that has prompted students and faculty at Harvard to embrace technology entrepreneurship.
“If you’ve seen the movie ‘Social Network,’ you know that when Zuckerberg attended a talk by Bill Gates it was a pivotal moment,’’ Wong said. “This could be another iteration of that. The next Mark Zuckerberg could be in the audience.’’
Zuckerberg famously founded Facebook in his dorm room, with the help of friends. Today’s Harvard students are more likely to refine their projects through events and classes offered by the school to foster future Zuckerbergs.
A number of projects are launched during the annual weeklong, midwinter “Hack Harvard’’ incubator program, when students are taught how to translate ideas into business models. A start-up competition, the Harvard Innovation Challenge, annually awards $10,000 to two projects. The introductory computer science course CS50 is now the second-most-popular class on campus, attracting more than 600 students. And in less than two weeks, the university is opening its Innovation Lab next to the Harvard Business School, with a mission to promote innovation and entrepreneurship campuswide.
Hamed, 18, is one of the students Zuckerberg may be looking for. A computer science major, Hamed created AidAide.com, a “TurboTax for financial aid,’’ during his freshman year. Last summer, he partnered with a Chicago-based start-up called Alltuition.com and accompanied the larger site’s team to an “accelerator’’ event called 500Startups in Palo Alto, California’s white-hot center of technological innovation.
“I loved it,’’ he said. “It was an infectious place to be.’’
At the end of the summer, Hamed could have stayed in Chicago and worked on his project. He decided to return to school. “I had more to learn here,’’ he said.
One factor that kept him at Harvard was its expanded commitment to entrepreneurship. This year, for example, Hamed is serving as a student coordinator at the Innovation Lab.
“It’s really a different environment from when Zuckerberg was here,’’ Hamed said. “He was working with his roommates in his dorm room; I’ve been able to work with an innovation lab. I’ve talked to venture capitalists; I’ve looked at term sheets. I have office space and people to work with.
“If Zuckerberg were here today, I bet he would have stayed a little longer,’’ he said.
Even the founder of Facebook might agree. Speaking at Stanford University last month, Zuckerberg said, “If I were starting now, I would have just stayed in Boston.’’
Zuckerberg did not respond to requests for comment.
Wong, 21, could also be a strong candidate for Facebook. A physics and computer science major, Wong started EventPlease.com after he found it frustrating to publicize events across the campus.
One problem, he discovered, was that Facebook does not offer a comprehensive guide to all campus events, just the ones that your Facebook friends are recommending. So Wong created a centralized portal where students can post events such as concerts and interest group meetings. Ultimately, the events can be saved to users’ Facebook accounts, further widening their exposure.
Wong said he “isn’t quite happy’’ with EventPlease yet, but he’s already been contacted by two colleges that would like to implement it. “Sometimes I think that the idea might have potential,’’ he said.
“There’s a lot of energy and community’’ around these kinds of projects at Harvard, Wong said.
Students don’t have to study computers to follow the Zuckerberg path. Senior Seth Riddley, 25, literally woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for a website that encouraged students to have lunch with a randomly chosen fellow student as a way of getting out of a social rut.
Riddley, who studies the history of science, figured out how to put the site on the Web. Then a favorable mention in the Harvard Crimson sparked hundreds of lunch requests. Versions of the site are now running at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania.
Working on the project, Riddley said, “thrust me inadvertently into the entrepreneurial community. Now I’m really interested in it.’’
After graduation, Riddley is hoping to work with a nonprofit organization that serves people with mental illness, he said.
“It’s not techie,’’ he said, “but now that I’m learning how to start something and gain support for a project and pitch an idea, I’m going to approach it with that start-up spirit.’’
Two students who won’t be attending the Zuckerberg event are Axel Hansen and Jonah Varon, both 20, who are taking a year off to work on a project they developed during their freshman and sophomore years at Harvard: Newsle.com.
Newsle is a social media site that allows users to track actual news events involving people you know, the kind of events that make it into newspapers, blogs, and newsletters, rather than wait for news to be posted by friends, as on Facebook.
“One big change that came after Zuckerberg is that now it’s OK to start your own company as an undergraduate,’’ Hansen said.
“We got a lot of encouragement,’’ Varon added.
Last year, when they were sophomores, the partners won a $10,000 innovation grant from Harvard. After exams, they moved to San Francisco.
They’re still there. As the summer came to a close, they decided to take the academic year off to work on their project.
“At some point we made the transition from a student project to a start-up,’’ Varon said in a phone interview. “Since then, we haven’t been thinking a whole lot about school.’’
Both said that if they were still at Harvard, they would have tried to attend the Zuckerberg event, but that he would not have had much of a chance to woo them.
In fact, they are looking to hire a programmer themselves - a big step for a potential next Facebook.
But it’s tough to hire in San Francisco, where there is so much competition for tech talent.
“It’s frustrating because they say hire from your network,’’ Hansen said. “And most of the people in our network are still in school.’’