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Oxford’s first ‘hacker house’: For the RICH, by the RICH?

RICH – Rebellious, Intellectually Curious Hustlers. These are the people Jack Chong wanted to live with when he started looking for a house to rent during his final year of PPE. So he put out a manifesto for “the first hacker house for young startup founders in the entire United Kingdom”.

After spending a summer in San Francisco, Jack says he wanted to bring the culture from Silicon Valley to Oxford. And what exactly is that culture? According to his manifesto: “An Oxford education undermines intellectual curiosity. The ego is the enemy. Anyone with the prestige of Oxford (or Harvard, or Stanford) will likely care about who is right, not what is right. University education is meant to preach the radical pursuit of truth. It failed its purpose and now is at the risk of being unbundled. We want to be formidable by radically pursuing truth.” 

And while you could be forgiven for mistaking parts of Jack’s programme for an excerpt from The Social Network, he and his flatmates are not just all talk. One of them, James O’Leary, has raised over £200,000 for his Non-Fungible Token (NFT) football manager game Footium. Speaking to Cherwell, James said: “Living with motivated people is a great catalyst for improving one’s own motivation, and I’ve found it to be useful so far. I truly believe that the RICH house is a great initiative for aggregating people of similar interests, [and] I think that the RICH house allows people who are passionate to connect with a network of people without having to fall at the barrier of formal credentialism.” Jack, who refers to himself as “Chief Meme Officer”, has built companies and products from education technology to drug testing AI software. He currently runs OX1 Incubator which awards more than £15,000 in equity-free grants annually to idea-stage startups. 

The idea of “hacker houses” isn’t new. In San Francisco, home to tomorrow’s billion-dollar startups and tech founders in Patagonia vests, they’ve been an integral part of Bay Area entrepreneurism since the early 2000s. Inspired by a mix of curiosity and soaring housing prices, young builders are banding together in co-living spaces, working on collaborative startup projects and securing funding rounds well in excess of a million dollars, while hosting speaker events and think tank sessions on the weekends. Jack told me that living with other builders has allowed for great synergy: James inspired him to join a coding bootcamp and thanks to his other housemates’ extensive experience in cryptocurrency and quantitative finance, their kitchen table chats never get boring.

Do hacker houses make start-up culture more accessible? Or are they prone to creating exclusive spaces for the few that have the right connections and understand the latest tech buzzwords? Granted, both Jack and James went to elite private schools and the RICH house’s gender diversity score could probably be improved (like many of its counterparts in the United States, it has so far been exclusively inhabited by men). But speaking to Jack, I learned that everyone can be a Rebellious Intellectually Curious Hustler (RICH) with the right motivation, the right readings, and the right goals. He believes that “gatekeepers suck value out of a network” and assures you that even if you’re only a fresher, if you’re already working on cool projects, you will be as respected as anyone else in the house.

It’s easy to understand Jack’s frustration with the state of entrepreneurial culture at Oxford. At a university where one needs to obtain special permission just to take on a part-time job while students across the big pond are building the next Facebook or Uber, it’s not hard to agree with his manifesto claim: “Oxford is all about thinking and talking with no doing.” Sharing a living space with like-minded people could not only boost productivity, it also provides company in the lonely periods that every startup founder must go through. And if you’re a young builder yourself, maybe this is the sign you’ve been waiting for. 

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