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Q&A with Ning CEO Gina Bianchini

By Christopher Schonberger

When it comes to social networking, Mark Zuckerberg and that dingus “Tom” from MySpace are the two names on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But if you haven’t heard about Gina Bianchini yet, you probably will soon. She’s the CEO and co-founder of Ning.com, an online platform that allows users to create their own social networks around any topic (e.g., fingerstaches). A Stanford MBA and former analyst at Goldman Sachs, she was recently featured on the cover of Fast Company magazine with her business partner Marc Andreessen, one of Silion Valley’s most successful entrepreneurs.

We caught up with Gina at New York City's Algonquin Hotel to chop it up over some waters and Wi-Fi. Turns out that she has a lot of advice for recent grads and, refreshingly, she can swear like a reformed sailor. In Part I of our Q&A, she let us know what it takes to be an entrepreneur, why she's suspicious of grad school, and why it makes sense to take career risks as a recent grad.

Q: Looking back on your career so far, did you make a lot of conscious decisions that led you to where you are now? How did it unfold?

A: I decided to go into banking. I had no clue coming out of Stanford [Business School] what to do with my life. I thought I wanted to go to law school, but I had a professor who told me not to go to law school. He told me to go and work for a couple of years. When I started as an analyst, I realized that lawyers worked later and harder and with less visibility than the bankers. And then I realized that being a lawyer was [not for me]. Every single one of my friends who has become a lawyer—with the exception of one—has regretted that decision. What's great about banking is that you learn to work really hard, because I did not pull all-nighters in college or do super intense stuff. It was fantastic meeting amazing people and having huge exposure to a variety of different things. Then I got this broad base, this technology base because I was in the technology industry, and it was right at the time that the Internet was hitting. I went to a client company and I ran all their acquisitions and their investments in the business unit development. Then I went to business school and then I started a company with my former boss, Sylvester, when he was like, “We have to start a company together.” We ended up selling that, and then Marc and I started Ning in 2004.

Q: Does building your own company or working in a start-up environment require a certain personality type?

A: I’ve always been ambitious—there’s no question that you don’t do start-up stuff if you don’t have a level of ambition and desire to see something through to an actual product or service. But at the same time, I’m a huge believer in going with the flow. And I’ve been fortunate enough that different opportunities have presented themselves, because I’ve worked hard and I’ve tried to do my best. I’ve always taken huge amounts of pride in my work; I’ve always been ambitious, although it’s tough. I loved it because at Stanford, everybody was like, “Oh, I don’t want to work that hard, I’m always partying.” Meanwhile, it was always those assholes who were in the library studying until 4:00AM just pretending like they didn’t study. I studied. I worked hard.

Q: So, let’s get this straight: You think business school is a waste of time for some people?

A: In my experience, business school was fantastic for the people who wanted to change industries. So, for example, one of my friends had been an officer in the Navy and he was looking to get out of the Navy. He went to business school and then became an entrepreneur. I think that was great experience and a great reason to take a left turn and do something different. I think if you want to stay in the same industry and if you have a lot of ambition, and especially if you want to be an entrepreneur, business school can be helpful just to be able to take two years and take a step back and have a legitimate way of exploring a lot of different things. But at least in my experience, the difference between successful entrepreneurs—and I by no stretch put myself into this category—is totally tenacity. And you can’t teach tenacity. Tenacity is something that comes with a passion for your product or service, a real desire to create something special, to lead a team, to do something that makes a difference in people’s lives. You can’t learn that in business school.

My favorite people were always the ones that were really "passionate about entrepreneurship" and spent two years writing cases after business school. If you’re really passionate about entrepreneurship and you spent two years writing cases, you’re actually not that passionate about entrepreneurship! It’s such a great time to be an entrepreneur, especially with a shitty economy.

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