This is part of an occasional series of articles spotlighting students and recent alumni who are working with Berkeley-Haas to start a new business or social enterprise.
Willy Chu, MBA 15
Co-founder and CEO
Though crowdfunding is becoming a crowded space, WeFinance is the first platform focused on truly peer-to-peer loans, says co-founder Willy Chu.
“Many students are paying seven to 8 percent on their student loans—even higher if you’re international—and they have living and moving expenses,” Chu says. “They’re low-risk borrowers but their credit scores don’t reflect that, and they can’t refinance until they have more credit history. Meanwhile, a peer lender in these students’ network could earn four percent or more on their extra savings.”
WeFinance launched with two critical resources. First, it has a software platform built by co-founder and CEO Eric Mayefsky, a Stanford econ PhD grad and ex-Facebook product manager who spearheaded the concept. This platform fully automates disbursements and repayments between borrowers and lenders, allowing both parties to rest easy that payments are made on time. Second, WeFinance has been tested by Chu’s network of fellow Haasies, a dozen of whom have signed on as guinea pigs seeking funding.
Ton Chookhare, MBA 14, used the platform to refinance some of his higher-interest student loans, raising $5,000 in just a few weeks and lowering his interest rate from 8 percent to 4 percent. He already had accepted an offer with Kaiser Permanente, and was working on a side project involving custom suits made in his hometown of Bangkok, Thailand. “I think many people will be surprised at how willing people in their network are to offer financial support, especially when they’re getting much better returns while supporting someone they know and trust,” he says.
Chu says when he came to Berkeley-Haas, he thought he might end up working for a startup—but had no intention of launching his own. His thinking evolved while taking Entrepreneurship with Prof. Toby Stuart and Lecturer Rob Chandra. His new path began last summer when a Stanford MBA friend saw an email from Mayefsky seeking help with the venture. After a few months of working well together, Chu—who previously worked at Credit Karma and Kiva—became a co-founder. He’s focusing on marketing, partnerships, and growth while Mayefsky develops the technological infrastructure.
“I’ve benefitted from starting this in my second year, after I had a strong base, and I’ve been able to piggyback on my coursework and lessons learned from my peers who launched businesses last year,” he says. “In particular, New Venture Finance with Asst. Prof. Adair Morse has been useful.”
Chu’s goal is to expand WeFinance to 40 schools within a year, beginning with Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton. In addition to MBAs, the company will focus on law and other top master’s and undergrad program students.
Read more about WeFinance in TechCrunch.
Stewart Wells, EMBA 15,
Founder and CEO
Stewart Wells pulled three parts of his life together to form startup California Artesian: convenience stores, artesian water, and time spent in Asia as an F-16 pilot.
Wells, chief operating officer of a gas station/convenience store chain, uncovered a natural artesian aquifer during a routine well drilling on his company’s property. The water tasted surprisingly good and analysis later proved the water was very pure.
“Our artesian water, sourced from 7,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Nevadas, has a much softer and smoother taste than any type of purified or spring water because it has incredibly low mineral content,” Wells said.
Wells thought the water had immediate commercial potential. He determined that he could sell the it in two markets: Northern California natural food stores and in Asian markets, where he saw a demand for high-quality water and products from California during the time he spent time there in the Air Force.
Wells—an aptly named CEO of a water company— is taking full advantage of his classes at Haas to launch California Artesian. “Three instrumental classes were Finance, which allowed me to change my business model and estimate cash flow; Marketing, which gave me incredible insight into consumer preferences; and Strategy, where I assessed and dissected the competition.”
Another pivotal experience was the EMBA program’s Silicon Valley Immersion Week, led by Professor Toby Stewart, where students visited companies such as Facebook, Google, and Airbnb and talked face-to-face with company founders. “The founders were very candid, sharing stories about how they put their money on the line,” he says. “Sometimes they’re failing and trying again, sometimes succeeding. It was a priceless experience.”
Vik Thairani, CEO and co-founder, and Nivas Chervirala, CTO and co-founder, both MBA 13
Vik Thairani and Nivas Chervirala formed the idea for a startup over a unique libation—a bottle of their very own smart wine. The two, who met in Lecturer Naeem Zafar’s Entrepreneurship class, created a wine label that consumers could scan on their smart phones to grab information about a wine’s quality and authenticity. The team’s original startup, which focused on wine labels, was a semi-finalist in the 2013 Berkeley Startup Competition.
That original wine idea has since evolved into a mobile application called TINE, (pronounced TINY), which works with TINE tags that the company designed that they mail out to consumers. “You can stick a TINE tag on anything, scan it with the TINE app, and add a video or audio message,” Thairaini explains. “When someone else scans the tag with the TINE app, your message instantly plays on their phone and you get notified. Think Post-it note meets YouTube.”
The TINE team earned a slot at UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator SkyDeck and is now producing TINE Tags that can be stuck on anything from a resume sent to a hiring exec to a birthday present to add a personal happy birthday song. The company has raised close to $1 million, including investments from a former Goldman Sachs partner, and Founder.org, a nonprofit run by Michael Baum, founding CEO of Splunk.
With that support, Thairani and the TINE team is focused on growing the company. “One of the reasons I came to Haas was entrepreneurship—to meet the people and gain the skills I needed to form a company,” says Thairani. “It worked out perfectly.”
Nick Livingston, EWMBA 14
Co-founder and CEO
After spending 10 years on all sides of the recruiting industry, Nick Livingston understood the frustrations of trying to interview and hire effectively from hundreds of resumes: You miss potential job candidates who are weeded out by keyword. You lack the time or resources to screen all candidates who could potentially be great.
“Most companies today are adamant about hiring for soft skills and culture fit,” says Livingston, the former director of global recruiting for TubeMogul, the digital branding company founded at Haas. “They are looking for talent that is enthusiastic, passionate, and well-spoken, but 85 to 90 percent of applicants are declined before any of those competencies can be considered.”
To address these pain points, Livingston founded Honeit with senior engineers James Craft and Kim Duong, who shared his frustration with today’s interview process.
The company developed a real-time live interview platform that helps agency and in-house recruiters streamline the candidate screening and submittal process.
Here’s how it works: Recruiters use the system to conduct live interviews with job applicants. Recruiters can then share recorded highlights from the calls with clients and hiring managers, to give them a better sense of the candidate’s enthusiasm, personality, and professional aptitude. “This has the potential to be a real game-changer in time and costs for companies” Livingston says.
Job seekers can also leverage Honeit’s Interview Marketplace to book industry experts, who will conduct realistic “mock” interviews that can be used to help attract potential employers during their own job searches.
The company—currently part of SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s startup accelerator—secured $120,000 in startup funding and is now preparing for a seed round, Livingston says. It’s also partnered with the Hult Business School, and General Assembly, a programming, business and design boot camp. These platform partnerships allow students to conduct interviews with university’s alumni to help their graduates get hired.
One of the most valuable resources for Honeit, Livingston says, is SkyDeck. “Through SkyDeck we have access to great advisors who answer questions we might not be able to ask typical investors. That’s a pretty powerful resource.”
-Karen Sorensen and Laura Counts