Why Waterloo grads are everywhere in Silicon Valley

4 months ago   •   3 min read

By Saba Yasrebi

If you work in Silicon Valley, you’ve probably heard of The University of Waterloo (UW). And if you haven’t, the easiest way to explain it is that Waterloo is Canada’s answer to Stanford.

Located in Canada’s burgeoning tech hub, Kitchener-Waterloo, Waterloo has become famous for two things: its comprehensive STEM programs, and the increasing number of alums who are making a name for themselves in tech.

In an ecosystem full of famous drop-outs, when a university is able to compete in Silicon Valley, it stands out. As a Waterloo student myself, here’s why I think they’ve been able to.

The co-op program, or what makes UW’s STEM programs different.

One of the most frequent criticisms about university you’ll hear in Silicon Valley is that it doesn’t give you as robust of a tech education as real life work experience does. The idea is that anything you learn in a classroom you could learn out in the field, and usually, not only better, but at no cost to you.  

Waterloo’s Cooperative Education program, also known as the co-op program, solves for this issue.

At Waterloo, students can choose to alternate between academic terms and paid work. If they take advantage of this opportunity, they can graduate with up to two years of work experience. By contrast, in the United States, it’s a difficult dance between work and school—you’re often left with the choice of staying in university, or dropping out to pursue work.

The benefits of the co-op program extend beyond the hands-on learning experience, too.

  1. Students who participate in the co-op program can earn an average of $80,500 over their working semesters. This gives students the opportunity, regardless of their socioeconomic status coming into school, to graduate with little or no debt.

  2. Waterloo also has a phenomenal alumni network, with people like Chamath Palihapitiya, Vitalik Buterin, and David Cheriton among the list of notable graduates. Many of them return to join the pool of employers, creating a network that many students have access to before they even graduate.

    The city of Waterloo has the highest start-up density in North America, only second to the San Francisco Bay Area. With entrepreneurship accelerators and incubators like Velocity and the Accelerator Centre, early-stage startups within the Waterloo region have created over 7,500 jobs, and generated $2.3 billion in revenue in a decade.

A little more on the benefits of graduating without debt.

Between the lower cost of Canadian education, and the opportunity to start earning an income while still in school, very few Waterloo students end up worrying about debt.

This detail might seem like a footnote, icing on the cake of an otherwise nurturing academic environment, but it’s a nontrivial component to why Waterloo students are succeeding. They simply have the freedom to.

Starting a business, working at a former classmate’s start-up, or really, taking any entrepreneurial risk at all, is much less of a gamble when you don’t have to worry about making your student loan payments on time. Having the freedom to experiment is invaluable, especially if you also have a strong foundation of technical skills.

A self-reinforcing cycle.

Waterloo has managed to strike the perfect balance. Students are able to build complex technical skills with institutional support while still fostering an entrepreneurial spirit, both of which are essential for innovation. With alum that have gone on to found companies like PagerDuty, Instacart, and Wish Shopping, it’s clear we’re doing something right.

Maybe the question Silicon Valley is asking shouldn’t be “to stay in school or to drop out,” but instead, “How can we make schools more amenable to technical innovation?”

Waterloo might just have an answer.


This fall, I have been working as a Product Management intern at Arctype. We are building the modern SQL client, which is faster and more intuitive than many of the clients on the market, designed with your needs in mind as a modern developer. Make sure to check out the newly-designed Arctype SQL client!

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