Why am I still in Boston?

Recently a friend asked me why I was still staying put in Boston? That got me thinking…

I didn’t move after my graduate degree even though I could have moved with the consulting gig to NYC. My start up primarily had markets in Europe, Michigan or California. And now, when I am a cleantech VC, some say CA is a bigger playground.

So I tried to list a few reasons for myself, personal and professional, for why I am still in Boston. Maybe I am missing out on big opportunities elsewhere. But so far I like it here even after 13 years. Having been here for more than a decade, it feels like home. If I had to move I can think of a few places that would be high on the list – and two driving factors would be (a) where can I have a bigger impact, and (b) weather.

Professional:

  • Networks matter. I went to grad school here (MIT) and I know the local colleges and universities reasonably well. I have friends I can reach out to for help in technical due diligence, and I know entrepreneurs here who have built successful companies. It will take me at least a few years to develop such a network elsewhere. Besides, can any place but SF/Palo Alto provide the kind of dense network opportunity that exists in Boston?
  • Intellectual stimulation. I am amazed at the level of intellect I see around myself in the Boston community. Academically, politically, socially, culturally – my friends and acquaintances wow me everyday on the depth with which they have analyzed problems and how engaged they are in big issues/ideas. Where would I get a chance to interact with the kind of IQ I am exposed to by just camping out at one of the coffee shops at Kendall Square?
  • Collaborative culture. At least during my time spent in the academia, then as an entrepreneur, and now as a VC, I find the community here inviting and collegial. At a recent New England Clean Energy Council dinner, my colleague Hemant addressed the audience as “my brothers and sisters in cleantech”. It really feels that way despite the some times competitive chases after exciting startups. Maybe it’s just the younger generation – but there is a real desire to be more connected, to be more collaborative, and to be encouraging of people with big ideas, bold ambitions, and audacious goals. We mean well, and are honest about our shortcomings.
  • Closeness. Everything seems so nearby in Boston. I realize this every time I go to CA, or to MI or TX, driving for hours to get to a meeting. I need only drive 20 minutes from center of the city to visit companies on Rt 128/I95, and I can practically stroll from my home in Cambridge to Boston Public Gardens in Boston or to the NorthEnd on any decent weather day. I remember my first time in Boston when I was given wrong directions at the Central Square T-stop and instead of MIT, ended up walking to Harvard. I realized then how close these places really were to each other. No wonder I still attend lectures fairly often at BU, Harvard, MIT, Tufts etc all the time, and never think twice about the distance to get to them.
  • Career. I am biased since my firm is based in Cambridge. But I was lucky to have a few choices when I joined General Catalyst and so far I am very happy with my decision. East Coast has a unique VC culture (with remnants of frat/boys’ club) and I am still learning to navigate my way around ‘old money’. But my colleagues have been super accommodating and helping me learn the ropes. All else being equal, I am fascinated by the entrepreneurs that come out of our ecosystem, and I consider it a privilege to be working with them. They may eventually choose to move out of Boston, but what a privilege to have an opportunity to meet them and persuade them to let me be their partner.

Personal:

  • Closeness to the rest of the world. My family still lives in the Middle East and Pakistan. So I travel often and being closer to continental Europe and South Asia is nice. I also like visiting to Europe (and Europeans who usually make Boston a first stop on their travels through the US) for a wider exposure to culture, literature, music, history. There are 4 nationalities that live at my home and probably 40 in the condo building where I live.
  • Family. My wife has built her pediatric medical practice here. She knows each one of her patients by their first name. Leaving them behind would be a huge barrier to a move. That said, I recently tallied the cost of living in Boston for my family and the first reaction was eeks!
  • Culture. I can’t say I quite fully know of or understand Boston’s art/theatre scene. And it’s certainly no NYC. But there is a vibrant cultural/artistic streak in the city. It appears a bit more conservative, but that probably suits my taste.
  • Diversity. Not to be underestimated is the international, ethnic, racial, religious diversity that one finds in Boston. I can’t speak for the broader region but Boston is very much a melting pot – at least as far as the younger generation is concerned. Students arrive for all corners of the earth, some stick around for 4, others for 6 years, and some stay forever. Cambridge is actually the Republic of Cambridge, and Harvard Square is hip-hopping pretty much any time of the day. I have my favorite Thai, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Afghan, and Arabic food spots…but can somebody please find me a nice Pakistani restaurant in Boston?
  • Political activism. I am not overly political, but perhaps more so than an average American. And I love the civic/political activism that one observes in the Boston/Cambridge area. Consciousness about our role as global citizens and as leaders in our domains of influence is high. People regularly participate in charities, going beyond the act of passive donations – in fact since I have a view of the river Charles from my living room, I admiringly watch the many walks and races that bring millions to the riverbanks for terrific causes. Such community activism is much appreciated and admired by a Pakistani boy. People here don’t wait to become millionaire/billionaires before wanting to make a better world for others. They start as grad students and keep their activist spirit alive.
  • Subway. I don’t use the T as much as I used to, but I blame that largely on needing a kid/car seat now. Despite all its problems, our subway and extended train system is really not that bad. It is safe (for the most part), inexpensive, and life is golden if you work and live close to the red line. But if you are on the green line, you might be better off biking.
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3 Responses to Why am I still in Boston?

  1. zsultan says:

    Nice post Bilal! I can relate to most of these points, having been in Boston for a decade as well, and having both MIT and VC in common with you. Next time people ask me this question (and it happens often), I will point them to this post 🙂

  2. cookie says:

    You stole the words right out of my mouth 🙂 I feel the same, Boston is a very special place!
    I don’t know of any Pakistani restaurants – but on that same note, any Cuban or good Brazilian restaurants that you know of?

    • Bilal Zuberi says:

      Cookie: let’s do a Brazilion or Cuban food outing in Boston. I know a friend who can guide us to the perfect place.

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