Classified: Teaching students to think like entrepreneurs and investors

Justin Jeffers, an MBA student in the “Bay Area Innovation and Entrepreneurship” course
Justin Jeffers, EWMBA 21, pitched the class on a mobile robot that could assist in emergencies. Photo: Jim Block

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

 

Just seconds into his funding pitch for a mobile robot that could assist in emergencies, Justin Jeffers realized that his carefully timed audio of a detonation had failed. Jeffers quickly pivoted.

“Boom! Big explosion!” yelled Jeffers, EWMBA 21, as the students gathered in Chou Hall last month for the “Bay Area Innovation and Entrepreneurship” course erupted in laughter.

Jeffers, an entrepreneur who is contemplating a career in venture capital, went on to successfully deliver his final five-minute presentation, which was required to cap off the week-long immersive course.

Taught by a trio of Haas faculty members—David Charron, Sara Beckman, and Vivek Rao— the course aims to teach students how to think and act like both entrepreneurs and investors. A total of 50 students from 16 countries enrolled, a quarter of them Haas MBA students.

The course is one of many network weeks offered through The Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM), an international consortium of graduate business schools. The international makeup of the course is intentional; GNAM, formed by the Yale School of Management in 2012 with Haas as the only other U.S. member, has a mission to broaden MBA students’ exposure to ideas and each other. Through GNAM, a diverse range of courses are offered around the world, from “Economic Analysis of High Tech Industries,” taught at Yale SOM, to “Brand Cultures and Emerging City Markets,” held at EGADE Business School, Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico.

Working in teams, meeting with founders       

The curriculum for “Bay Area Innovation and Entrepreneurship” combines core concepts of entrepreneurship, investing, and innovation that are often taught separately in business school. “We wanted students to learn to see what entrepreneurs look like from the investor’s side and what investors look like from the entrepreneur’s side,” said Beckman, a veteran innovation and design expert and the Earl F. Cheit Faculty Fellow.

Beckman recruited 10 entrepreneurs, most of whom are Haas or UC Berkeley graduates running startups that are facing very different challenges. Students were assigned to one of the companies and, working in teams, spoke with the founders. On the second day, they headed to San Francisco to meet with leaders at four companies, including the corporate innovation arms of Salesforce and the French telecom giant Orange.

Sarah Beckman, David Charron and Vivek Rao.
(left to right) Sara Beckman, David Charron, and Vivek Rao teach Bay Area Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Photo: Jim Block

Their assignment for the week was to identify and make the case for a pivot in the direction of the business. Among other things, they learned from Beckman how to “diverge and converge” as they brainstormed ideas and about the power of compelling storytelling in attracting customers and investors. From Rao, they learned how to measure risk and about the need to “re-risk” throughout the capital raising process.

Throughout, the faculty kept returning to one critical question: does an innovation solve a real customer problem and, if so, is the problem big enough to build a business around?

On the investing side, Charron led students through the fundamentals of evaluating ideas and the people behind them. Three venture capitalists came to class to describe the divergent paths they each took into the profession.

Each team was also tasked with setting up a fictitious fund, ranging from angel to mega, with a partnership structure and dollar size that they determined. “One of the goals was to get them thinking about how this all works, including the decision-making process when you have partners who have put more money in than others,” said Charron, MBA 95, the former executive director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship at Haas.

“Why does this matter to you?”

In the week’s closing exercise, “Designing Your Life,” students were asked to reflect openly on how their new perspectives on entrepreneurship and investing might apply to their own career aspirations.

MBA students huddle with Entrepreneurship Lecturer Dave Charron. Photo: Jim Block

Sean Li, EWMBA 20, who has launched a half dozen companies in the last 10 years, said the course got him thinking deeply about the core elements of entrepreneurial success.

“I was chatting with Dave (Charron) about an idea for the problem my team was trying to solve and he asked me, ‘Why do you care? Why does this matter to you?’” said Li. “He was telling me that if you don’t care deeply about a problem, then you’re not going to have the endurance or persistence to follow through when you hit a roadblock. The question has stuck with me.”

The role of passion has been on Siún Tobin’s mind, too. An MBA student at Ireland’s UCD Smurfit School of Business, Tobin left her career as a pharmacist out of frustration with the country’s antiquated healthcare system. “It felt like the only alternative was a drastic career change,” said Tobin.

Now, she’s thinking about starting her own digital health business and using the framework she learned in class to do it. “I realized that I needn’t walk away from health care,” said Tobin. “Now I feel like the sky’s the limit.”

Vrinda Gupta
Vrinda Gupta, MBA 20, was also inspired by the connections she made during the week. Photo: Jim Block

Vrinda Gupta, MBA 20, was also inspired by the connections she made and the encouragement she got as she prepared to launch her own women-focused credit card company, Sequin. A classmate who is studying in Spain got her thinking about potential new markets abroad.

“Feeling everyone’s excitement and hearing ideas from members of the MBA community from around the world was so energizing,” she said.

 

Cultural renaissance: How Haas faculty are leading a new wave of data-driven culture research

Unraveling the mystery of culture

Your company has a mission statement and carefully crafted values. Maybe they’re painted on the office walls. But what’s the real, day-to-day culture like? If you’re like a lot of managers, the answer has often been, “I know it when I see it.”

Not anymore. The same digital services that have upended how workers communicate—think G Suite, Slack, and Zoom—are also helping to unravel one of the great mysteries of the workplace: culture. And they’re ushering in a new wave of research based on how employees act that until now has been elusive.

“Any time employees interact with each other, they are leaving digital traces and creating sources of data that weren’t available before,” says Sameer Srivastava, a Haas associate professor of organizational behavior. “This not only helps us to better understand how employees behave but to do so in ways that are dynamic.”

Jennifer Chatman and Sameer Srivastava
Prof. Jennifer Chatman and Assoc. Prof. Sameer Srivastava

Srivastava and Prof. Jennifer Chatman are at the forefront of this new wave: This year, they co-founded the Berkeley Haas Culture Initiative to help make Berkeley a hub for advancing the field. They launched the effort with a groundbreaking conference last January, bringing together leading academics with executives from “culture-forward” companies like Netflix, Zappos, Deloitte, and Goldman Sachs to potentially collaborate on new, data-driven studies. The second Berkeley Haas Culture Conference is scheduled for January.

Chatman, the co-creator of the Organizational Culture Profile (OCP)—a survey tool that’s been a dominant measure of organizational culture for more than 30 years—wants to ensure that new approaches as not only methodologically rigorous but also useful to managers.

The quantitative side of culture research

For too long, Chatman says, culture research amounted to little more than “advanced gossiping,” with scholars visiting companies and writing reports based on observations. That all changed a few years ago when, buoyed in part by new data sources and research methodologies, a group of academics set out to jumpstart the quantitative side of culture research.

“Managers, too, eventually realized that they would rather learn about the links between organizational culture and performance in analyses of millions of emails, thousands of anonymous reviews, or other data on large swaths of employees rather than a few stories about what did or did not work in one specific organization or another,” says Chatman.

In fact, a dataset of over 5 million emails from a technology company has been fodder for a series of studies by Srivastava and Amir Goldberg of Stanford, who co-directs the Computational Culture Lab—a joint Berkeley-Stanford project that harnesses data science and computational methods to study culture. In one paper, Srivastava and collaborators found that the extent to which workers’ language matched their peers’ communication styles predicted performance and retention. A more recent paper co-authored by Chatman, Srivastava, Goldberg, and PhD student Richard Lu demonstrates the power of combining culture measures based on surveys with natural language analysis through machine learning to predict culture fit and key performance outcomes.

Both Srivastava and Chatman have analyzed hundreds of thousands of company reviews on the job site Glassdoor: Chatman has recently published a study showing that employees perceive a more negative environment in companies with “fixed-mindset” rather than “growth-mindset” cultures. Srivastava found that the most highly valued and innovative firms were those whose employees embraced a variety of cultural values—suggesting that people can be creative and innovative, but still conform to company norms and beliefs.

Srivastava is also co-authoring a study that shows how managers trying to shape culture after mergers can anticipate—from employee emails and other forms of communication—where integration challenges might lie.

The researchers say this new era of culture research extends far beyond text analyses. With the right privacy and confidentiality protocols in place, the tone of voice and even facial expressions people use when communicating might become common sources for understanding subtle, real-time shifts in culture—enabling managers to better manage culture as a strategic asset.

“By combining new digital tools with established survey-based approaches, we can get a more nuanced view of culture than ever before,” Chatman says.

How opioid use spreads in families, worsening crisis

A bottle of opioids

Berkeley Haas researchers have identified another driver of the opioid epidemic in the United States: family ties.

In a new study published in American Sociological Review, Asst. Prof. Mathijs de Vaan and Prof. Toby Stuart show that the likelihood of someone using opioids increases significantly once a family member living in the same household has a prescription. They also find that the chances of a relative obtaining a prescription for opioids within a year after a relative they live with gets one rises by 19 percent to over 100 percent, depending on family circumstances. Individuals from low-income households, for example, are the most likely to secure their own prescription after a family member does.

The study is one of the few analyses of the opioid crisis that finds a causal link between a specific action—in this case, the introduction of painkillers into a home—and their growing use. In all, de Vaan and Stuart analyzed hundreds of millions of medical claims and almost 14 million opioid prescriptions written between 2010 and 2015 and contained in a database operated by the state of Massachusetts. They were able to track family members’ health care through shared medical insurance policy numbers.

“Our research finds huge effects on the likelihood that family members who are influenced by other family members will start using opioids,” says de Vaan, a sociologist who studies social networks.

“Social contagion”

De Vaan and Stuart, who holds the Leo Helzel Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Haas, suggest two reasons for this contagion: when a family member takes painkillers, other relatives in the home observe firsthand its effects. Patients also typically receive more pills than they need, which means relatives may be tempted to experiment with leftovers sitting in the medicine cabinet.

Family members’ exposure to painkillers then increases the likelihood that they will visit a doctor within a year and obtain their own prescription. Other research has shown that Americans are more willing to ask for—and receive—specific treatments than consumers in other countries.

Because of this, de Vaan and Stuart offer a new insight into the role of physicians in the opioid epidemic. While it’s long been believed that physicians who work in the same community or are connected in other ways rely on each other for advice and adopt similar forms of treatment, the authors show that the explosion in opioid prescription rates may be coming from patients, too.

“The actions of one doctor toward one patient affect the requests that that patient then makes of other doctors he or she visits,” says de Vaan. “We find that physicians are not only influencing each other directly when it comes to opioid prescriptions. They’re influencing each other by steering patient demand.”

A causal link

Sociologists have long studied the role that social networks have on people’s health. Smoking and alcohol use are two prominent examples of habits families often share.

The problem with research into social contagion is that most of it identifies correlations, but can’t establish cause and effect. It’s possible that other factors—like genetics or the tendency for people to marry others like them—come into play, too.

De Vaan and Stuart, however, were able to establish a causal link between opioid prescriptions and an increase in the drug’s use within families. They did this by narrowing their research to emergency room visits only, where patients are randomly assigned to doctors who prescribe opioids at vastly different rates—so the likelihood that one patient received a painkiller prescription over another was random. The experiment also eliminated the possibility that family members who later got a prescription got one from the same doctor or that family members were visiting the same provider, such as a primary care physician.

 Finding prevention methods that work

De Vaan and Stuart suggest several steps to address the spread of opioid use within families. To prevent so-called “doc shopping,” states that track prescription drug use and make that information available to doctors could also include data on family members’ access to medications. To avoid violating the privacy of relatives, de Vaan says the program could simply issue a “risk” score that would signal to doctors that their patient has been indirectly exposed to painkillers at home.

Policymakers could also expand upon existing efforts to collect leftover prescription drugs—namely through National Prescription Drug Take Back Day—by paying people to return their excess supply. The upfront costs would likely be offset by the money saved in addiction treatment and other costs, de Vaan says. Doctors should also be trained on how to push back when patients ask for painkillers.

“We’ve identified a specific driver of opioid consumption, so all of these steps make a lot of sense,” de Vaan says.

Classified: Empowering undergrads to be changemakers

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Alex Budak teaches a new undergraduate course called Becoming a Changemaker
Alex Budak teaches a new undergraduate course called Becoming a Changemaker.

Nearly 40 students poured out of the Chou Hall elevators on a recent morning on a strange mission: to find ways to get rejected in less than 15 minutes.

One student told a passerby it was her birthday. “Could you sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me?” she asked.  Another offered to swap his jacket for a person’s laptop. Yet another went from table to table at Café Think, asking for bites of food.

The exercise may sound like improv, but it’s just part of Haas Lecturer Alex Budak’s new undergraduate course called Becoming a Changemaker. The course aims to inspire and empower future leaders with the mindset and tools to make a positive impact on the world—a mission that includes learning to overcome fear of failure by confronting it head-on.

“If you seek to do anything innovative or meaningful in your life, you’re inevitably going to fail along the way,” Budak said. “It’s one thing to intellectualize failure, but it’s another to feel it personally. How often do we hold back asking for something because we’re sure we’ll fail when in reality we may not? We’re failing even before we try.”

Turning panic into confidence

The rejection exercise is just one example of how Becoming a Changemaker tries to upend traditional notions of leadership. In follow-up interviews, students described how a near sense of panic turned to newfound confidence as they practiced asking for something and not getting it.

“It was one of the most powerful educational experiences I’ve ever had,” said Nye Avilla, BS 20, who overcame her fear of asking people if she could borrow their umbrellas. Despite getting rebuffed time and again, she basically realized it was no big deal to ask. “By being more open to failure, I know now that I can be a better leader and a better individual.”

The course includes a little improv, with a goal of creating leaders.
The course uses many tools (including this “act it out” exercise) to create a new kind of leader.

The students were also struck by how many strangers agreed to their outlandish requests, because it reminded them that people do want to help and that their own reticence can be inhibiting.

“Outdated notions of leadership tell young people to wait their turn; to wait for permission to lead,” Budak said. “But while leaders might be scarce, leadership is abundant. We can all lead positive change from wherever we are, whether we’re an intern or a CEO. Leadership is not a title; it’s an act. This course reflects the Haas commitment to building a different kind of leader.”

That’s why the Haas Defining Leadership Principles—Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Student Always, and Beyond Yourself—are woven throughout the course curriculum, he said.

The sum of “small, daily acts”

Students say the course has fundamentally changed how they think about leadership and has transformed how they see themselves in the world.

Sarika Saksena, for example, was 14 years old when she launched a nonprofit, Ujala, that has taught more than 1,000 women in India how to make and sell candles to gain financial independence. Despite her success and experience, the self-described introvert says she never thought she had what it takes to succeed as a leader.

“Before this class, I believed, like many others, that successful leaders are always extroverts, outspoken, bold, and dominating,” said Saksena, a freshman who plans to apply to Haas. She said Budak has taught her that leadership instead requires, among other things, humility, trust in yourself and others, a collaborative team spirit, and the resilience to “fail forward” after taking calculated risks. She sees leadership now as the sum of these small, daily acts that are within anyone’s reach.

Adeel Cheema, a senior computer science major who will work as a software engineer at Facebook after he graduates in May, said he didn’t know what leadership in a culture meant before taking the course. “Now I know how to lead culture,” he says.

Budak gives students many opportunities to put what they learn into practice. Throughout weekly two-hour sessions, students break into groups to discuss the topic at hand—including, for example, the role of corporate cultures on change—and their own experiences with it.

Budak’s teaching approach is to help all students recognize their capabilities as changemakers, which involves many techniques. When students arrive in class, they’re greeted with classic songs about change by the likes of Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan, and Sam Cooke, and written quotes from some of history’s greatest changemakers. His “Changemaker of the Week” exercise gets students to select a favorite change agent and present on how course frameworks and theories apply to their impact.  For their final projects, students will work in small teams to identify a positive change they want to make on campus, in the community, or even globally, and develop a strategy for achieving it.

“A dream come true”

Budak says his commitment to fostering changemakers is deeply personal. In 2010, he co-founded the social enterprise StartSomeGood, which has helped over 1,000 people in 50 countries raise over $10 million to launch and scale new social ventures. He joined Haas in 2016, first as the founding executive director of the former UC Berkeley Center for Reinventing Leadership, and then as the director of the Berkeley Haas Global Access Program. Becoming a Changemaker is Budak’s first foray into teaching and, he says, a decade-long dream come true.

For their final projects, students will work in small teams to identify a positive change they want to make.
For their final projects, students will work in small teams to identify a positive change they want to make.

“In a world where the only constant is change, our companies, our communities, and our world are yearning for changemakers who can not just survive change but can leverage it to improve lives. These students give me so much hope for the future.” he said.

Ibrahim Balde, BS 20, said the course has opened his eyes to the leader he wants to be and has helped him gain confidence. Balde, who is active in student organizations such as Faces of African Muslims and Black Collectivism for California Students, came to Haas with visions of one day helping disadvantaged groups find economic empowerment.

Balde said the class, with its focus on putting lessons into practice, has been a welcome balance to courses in microeconomics and other technical business subjects.

“This class allows me to think about my mission and purpose and to understand that leadership isn’t a defined trait,” Balde said. “It’s a series of actions, a conscious effort every day to do the right thing.”

Choreographing Haas’ future: New Dean Ann Harrison outlines her plans to advance Haas

Dean Ann HarrisonBerkeley Haas Dean Ann Harrison grew up with an insatiable curiosity and a dream to make the world a better place.

No surprise, then, that she ended up at Berkeley—first as a double major in history and economics and later, after receiving a PhD in economics from Princeton, as a professor in the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics from 2001 until 2011. She then joined the World Bank as director of development policy and after that the Wharton School of Business, where she gained international acclaim for her research on foreign investment and multinational firms. On January 1, Harrison “came home” to Berkeley once more—this time to serve as the 15th dean of Berkeley Haas.

She recently spoke to BerkeleyHaas magazine about her early years on campus, her groundbreaking research, and her plans for strengthening Haas as a leader in 21st century business education.

What was your experience as a Cal undergrad?

Being a Berkeley student and growing up in the Bay Area pretty much shaped who I am today. I had an independent streak and had hiked all over California by the time I was in junior high. I remember campaigning door-to-door in support of a statewide ballot initiative to protect our coastline. When I came to Berkeley, I lived in a co-op on the North Side. I was—and still am—into modern dance and loved that I could take dance classes on campus from former stars with the Martha Graham company and go to Zellerbach Hall and see great performances. I wrote dance reviews for the Daily Cal and was elected to the ASUC senate.

How did you get interested in economics?

I started off as a history major with a plan to go to law school. But then I took economics and loved it. One day I saw a posting for someone to do the grading for Econ 101A and the professor, Leo Simon, hired me—although he was taking a bit of a risk since I was an undergraduate. He became my mentor and convinced me to get a PhD. He really changed my life. After college I became a health economist at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. It opened my world to the power of data. Kaiser had millions of members, and I would stay in the office until 10:00 p.m., just analyzing the data.

How did your time at the World Bank shape you as a leader?

It taught me diplomacy, patience, and how people can do amazing things when they have the will to work together. After the financial crisis a decade ago, the bank’s lending tripled but its overall budget stayed flat. So, there was a lot of competition internally for fewer resources. The different parts of the bank were able to overcome that because of the strong relationships between people.

You are a much-cited scholar in your field. What inspires your research?

As a trade economist, I’m interested in real-world questions and their policy implications. What I find most interesting are big-picture policy issues. During my first business trip to India in 1986, I was part of a team that helped the Indian government formulate policies to increase competition and reduce monopoly power. To be able to take part in a project that helps economies solve problems in real time is very satisfying.

The question I have been most obsessed with recently is whether rising international competition has led to job losses and stagnating wages for the American worker—and whether free-trade economists miscalculated the costs of globalization or whether trade is just a scapegoat. I’ve concluded through my research that China is not the culprit. The cause of all those job losses is automation. The Factory-Free Economy, a book I co-edited with French economist Lionel Fontagné, looks at what will happen to high-income economies when many tasks become automated and jobs that used to exist are done by machines.

Read the full interview here.

Culture club: Top scholars and execs meet at Haas to discuss why culture counts

University of Maryland Prof. Michele Gelfand_Berkeley Haas Culture Conference
Michele Gelfand, a University of Maryland psychology professor, presents on her work examining “tight” vs “loose” cultures at the inaugural Berkeley Haas Culture Conference.

More than 100 senior business leaders and top scholars from around the world gathered at the Haas School last week to kick off the Berkeley Haas Culture Initiative, which will explore the role of culture and its impact in and across organizations.

The inaugural event was a two-day conference that brought together executives from Facebook, Netflix, Zappos, Pixar Animation Studios, Deloitte, Maersk, and other “culture-aware” companies with academics from a wide range of disciplines, including economics, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

Jennifer Chatman and Sameer Srivastava
Jennifer Chatman and Sameer Srivastava

The initiative is the brainchild of Prof. Jennifer Chatman and Assoc. Prof. Sameer Srivastava of the Haas Management of Organizations Group, who aim to build a community of researchers and practitioners interested in how culture affects everything from hiring to promoting to the bottom line of corporate performance and strategic success.

“We invited a set of organizations that are already devoted to thinking about culture and asked them to explain the problems they are having on the ground, and we invited top academics to offer up a set of approaches to studying culture,” said Chatman. “What we are interested in is developing a shared research agenda to address some of the challenges we haven’t yet been able to solve.”

Launching the Berkeley Haas Culture Initiative

The Berkeley Haas Culture Conference was the first in what Chatman and Srivastava say will be an ongoing series of events, interdisciplinary research collaborations and industry partnerships, as well as communication exchanges on best practices. The idea was to start by taking stock of a field that has become increasing fragmented as it has expanded, Srivastava said.

“Economists study culture, psychologists study culture, and sociologists study culture—all in different ways,” Srivastava said. “At the same time, companies are developing innovative practices related to culture, and it’s often hard to disentangle what works and what doesn’t. We wanted to bring everyone together to start a conversation.”

Berkeley Haas Dean Ann Harrison
Berkeley Haas Dean Ann Harrison

Haas Dean Ann Harrison welcomed conference attendees by highlighting the school’s commitment to its own distinctive culture.

“You don’t have to be here very long to realize that we at Haas believe that our culture is what really sets us apart,” she said. “If we ask our students why they chose to come here, most say ‘We came here because of the culture.’ And they all refer to our Defining Leadership Principles.”

UC Berkeley at the center of organizational culture research

Attendees noted that UC Berkeley has long been a leader in the study of organizational culture. “It’s really appropriate to have a conference like this here at Berkeley,” said Michael Morris, a cross-cultural psychologist and professor of management at Columbia University. Much of the classic work on organizational culture and cultural sociology came out of the university, he said.

Chatman and Charles O’Reilly, a Haas professor emeritus now at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, are pioneers in the field (both are Haas PhD alumni). Influential work has also come out of Berkeley’s anthropology, sociology, and psychology departments. More than two dozen Berkeley faculty members—including a dozen from Haas—were among those in attendance at the conference.

Prof. Chatman presenting her work.
Prof. Chatman presented on how to measure culture.

New data, new methods

Over two days, more than 100 invited attendees tackled a breadth of issues around organizational culture. Academics described their latest research with an emphasis on how data and new research methods, such as using computational approaches and unobtrusive culture measures of culture, are opening up opportunities for companies to better understand how their overall culture—and subcultures within departments or teams—affect their organizations.

For example, researchers are analyzing words used in employee emails for signs of cultural fit among individuals. They can use apps to unobtrusively capture group conversations or obtain video from body cameras. They’re also looking at historical data, such as folklore in pre-industrial countries, to better understand modern social norms. Social media platforms such as Glassdoor, too, have become a rich source of data.

“What is amazing about the papers presented here—and what is very different from 20 years ago—is the quality of the research, the use of lab and field studies, the use of archival data and ethnographies, and the use of sophisticated measurement techniques,” O’Reilly said.

Challenges on the ground

Bethany Brodsky of Netflix
Bethany Brodsky of Netflix discussed the company’s distinctive culture.

For their part, company speakers spoke candidly about the challenges around culture they are confronting as their businesses evolve, whether through mass hiring, mergers, new business strategies, or changes in leadership.

“Every time we add employees or a group of employees, our culture shifts,” said Inyong Kim, the vice president of employee experience at Adobe, who described how and why the company abolished formal performance reviews in favor of the “ongoing check-in.”

Ever-changing cultures was a theme echoed by others. For Deloitte, the question of how to transition a 150-year-old company for the future meant embracing “courage” as a key cultural value and embedding the attribute throughout the firm, said Jen Steinmann, Deloitte’s chief transformation officer. “Our three tenets of culture are the need to speak openly, support one another, and act boldly,” she said.

Bethany Brodsky, VP of talent for Netflix, talked about the enormous challenges that came with the company’s massive hiring spree after it launched simultaneously in more than 130 countries three years ago.

Grail CEO Jennifer Cook
Grail CEO Jennifer Cook

“When you have all these new people, how do you transmit [your] culture?” asked Brodsky. A word like “feedback,” she noted, doesn’t always translate. “It Russian, it translates closest to ‘criticism,’” she said.

Jennifer Cook, MBA 98 and the CEO of cancer detection startup Grail, said her experiences at six companies of varying sizes over 15 years have taught her that culture is a key leadership tool. “What I’ve realized in looking back is that there were any number of organizational themes and challenges that I had faced, and our teams had faced, for which culture was the relevant solution,” she said.

Seeds of a shared agenda

Bob Gibbons, a professor of organizational economics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said he is pleased that the culture initiative’s goals match his own agenda of nudging his field in an applied direction. In his case, that means addressing the question of “How can an economist help a fixed set of people collaborate better together?”

“People in the world know that culture is a thing and that it matters, and they are looking to us for help,” he said. “There’s an enormous academic opportunity, and it’s super important to do it across a whole bunch of disciplines that are represented in this room. I loved hearing that part.”

Founding sponsors of the Berkeley Haas Culture Initiative include Goldman Sachs, Adobe, Deloitte, Maersk, Spencer Stuart, and the UC Investments Office.

Assoc. Prof. Sameer Srivastava
Assoc. Prof. Sameer Srivastava

 

Solomon Darwin’s new books explore the Smart Village movement

Solomon Darwin, the executive director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, has just published two new books, The Road to Mori: Smart Villages of Tomorrow and The Untouchables: Three Generations of Triumph Over Torment.

The first book is a case study about the modernization efforts underway in his hometown of Mori, a village of 8,000 people in southeastern India; the second is a memoir of how three generations of his family overcame their status as members of India’s lowest caste. We recently spoke to him about both efforts.

Q: How would you describe the Smart Villages movement, and Mori’s role in it?

A: Smart Villages are not about building infrastructure, roads, buildings, water tanks, and public toilets. They are about empowering people with digital technologies so they can access global markets. They are about using the concept of open innovation that my friend and colleague Henry Chesbrough pioneered to share ideas that build ecosystems where everyone benefits. In early 2016, the Garwood Center, UC Berkeley, and Mori’s regional government partnered to build a scalable prototype of a smart village in Mori. I think of Mori as more of an idea, or a mindset, than a place.

Q: In your books, you tell two very powerful, closely related stories. Why now?

Solomon Darwin has written two new books about India: a memoir and a book about Smart Villages.
Solomon Darwin has written two new books about India: a memoir and a book about Smart Villages.

A: One book actually inspired the other. We’ve accomplished enough in Mori that I wanted to share our successes and lessons and help corporate executives understand that 3.4 billion poor people are a big market opportunity. As I was writing that story, I got inspired to write about my family. I was born in Mori as an Untouchable, which is the lowest social caste in India and usually means a life of extreme hardship. But my grandmother was very entrepreneurial and built a number of thriving global businesses without the benefit of technology. My father also rose above the narrow constraints of our caste to earn a PhD in biology and become an American university professor. As a teenager, I went to college in the U.S. with the equivalent of a fifth-grade education. This is a story I’ve long been encouraged to tell, and there are echoes of my family’s struggles and successes in what’s happening in Mori.

Q: What is happening in Mori, and how is technology changing villagers’ lives?

 A:  The Mori Smart Village started with Internet connectivity. We just marked the two-year anniversary of the day that I, literally, flipped the switch that brought Internet access to every home. The good news is, people were streaming YouTube videos live, buying goods, and transferring money within an hour. The bad news is there isn’t enough bandwidth to handle all of the traffic. We’re working to fix that. We knew people were hungry for the Internet, but we didn’t realize they were starving for it.

Today, we have 22 corporate partners from around the world, including Google, PayPal, Ericsson, Dell-EMC, Wipro, Hella, and Hitachi bringing services to Mori. PayPal, for example, has developed the Digital Mall, where residents can open a bank account and get paid for their work when selling online. Before, there was no easy way to use a bank, but now a simple digital and mobile solution is beginning to create a thriving economy.

Q: Are there other important lessons?

A: I’m discovering that startups have a big role to play. Large companies tend to be more reluctant to adapt their technologies and business model to the rural emerging markets. Startups can move faster and they have very progressive products and services that have a great match for the villagers, like New Sun Road, a company founded by two Berkeley graduates that is working to bring electricity and the Internet to remote villages. My team just wrote a proposal to India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi encouraging his government to invest in startups.

Q: You write a lot about the importance of using Smart Villages to make villagers happier, not just better off financially.

A: Mori had one of the highest suicide rates among farmers in India. Since the farmers don’t own their land, they are slaves to their landlords. They are also debtors to the companies that sell them seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and water. If companies, instead of working in silos and squeezing farmers, can work together as one ecosystem and create one distribution channel, they benefit and the farmers benefit. Costs are eliminated, time is saved, and speed-to-market improves. The farmer is happier. The Smart Village movement is raising the happiness index—not just raising standards of living.

Q: What’s next for Smart Villages?

A: We’re working to bring the Smart Village concept to 455 villages in the state of Andhra Pradesh, which is where Mori is, and to another state near the Himalayas. We’re still in experimental stages of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But there are 650,000 villages in India. To scale this, we just started working with several companies to develop a publicly available online platform where villagers, researchers, startups, global firms, government entities, and entrepreneurs come together to develop digital solutions. This process provides an open innovation process to test and scale solutions co-innovated by the whole ecosystem. The process also allows many half-baked technologies to completion that empowers people. The data-rich Smart Village platform will help generate new insights to posted challenges to solve them rapidly in a cost-effective and affordable fashion.

Nine universities, including Berkeley, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, and Aachen, have just signed up to participate, along with 80 corporations.

In big data course, MBA students learn how to second-guess an AI

Berkeley MBA students listen intently in the "Big Data, Better Decisions" course.
MBA students listen intently during a session of the new “Big Data, Better Decisions” course. | Copyright Noah Berger 2018

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

On a recent spring morning, the future of business education was on full display in Connie & Kevin Chou Hall on the Haas School of Business campus. Standing before a 5th-floor classroom packed with aspiring MBAs, Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Kolstad was talking advanced data science as part of his new course, “Big Data and Better Decisions.”

Kolstad asked students to pick between two common models for designing a predictive algorithm. “Tell me a situation where you would want to use a regression tree over a linear regression,” said Kolstad. A student spoke up: “When you’re using Facebook likes to analyze Metallica fans versus people who like to eat hamburgers.”

“Nice,” said Kolstad. “You can reach a subtler conclusion by using a tree that puts hamburger ‘likes’ and Metallica ‘likes’ together—you can see when a combination of these factors matters, rather than looking at each one alone.”  

Assoc. Prof Jonathan Kolstad immerses himself in his teaching. | Copyright Noah Berger, 2018

If ever there was a moment that captured how far business education has come from its 19th century roots, this was it. With data now pervasive across company operations—from marketing and sales to human resources and finance—there’s a demand for business managers and leaders who know a lot more than the basics. Companies are embracing data-driven machine learning to forecast everything from consumer behavior to worker productivity. They’re also relying more on randomized trials, a process long associated with medicine, to test sales promotions or advertising campaigns before they launch.

“There’s a growing need within companies for MBAs trained in data analytics,” says Prof. Paul Gertler, an economist who is co-teaching the course. “This class is designed to prepare students to be part of the modern labor force and leaders of industry.”

New breed of data-driven MBAs

Kolstad and Gertler aren’t looking to train data scientists. Their goal is to enable MBAs to bring a question-the-status-quo mindset to data-driven initiatives within their organizations—whether they are themselves part of a data team, managing one, or tasked as a C-suite leader with setting strategy based on what the numbers suggest. Students learn to blend business strategy with new tools from machine learning.

Yet equipping students with the right data skills means one thing: delving into the nitty-gritty of data analytics—even if, as Gertler says “they never touch another piece of data in their lives.”

“This isn’t a theory course,” said Gertler, who is the Li Ka Shing Professor at Haas with a joint appointment at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “This is a get-your-hands-dirty-up-to-your-elbows-in-data course.”

This meant, among other things, requiring students to learn a programming language called R, which is popular for data mining. They also had to complete a prerequisite, “Data and Decisions,” and a core statistics course.

“This isn’t a theory course. This is a get-your-hands-dirty-up-to-your-elbows-in-data course.” —Prof. Paul Gertler

To be sure, this hands-on approach made the class a stretch for students without experience in big data analytics—but also made it particularly rewarding for those who pushed through the technical challenges.

Laura Andersen, MBA 19, appreciated that the course was the real deal. She says data is changing the game in her chosen field of social services, but non-profits and government agencies often lack the resources to take full advantage of it.

“I need to know the vocabulary and to be able to pull some of the best practices around data from the private sector,” says Anderson, who plans to learn more by tapping into university-wide resources like UC Berkeley’s D-Lab, which offers classes and other services that support data-intensive research in social sciences. “This class has been a great investment, and experiencing it on a campus with some of the best academic resources in the world on these topics has been a great way to get started.”

Causation + prediction

Prof. Paul Gertler, center, joins students in listening to a course session. | Copyright Noah Berger, 2018

Led by Gertler, the first months of the class were devoted to the growing use of randomized trials in business and different tests for finding causation—a critical step in data analysis. “Businesses are no longer saying, ‘Let’s try this and see whether we feel like it worked or not,'” says Gertler, who is also the scientific director at the UC Berkeley Center for Effective Global Action. “They want hard evidence, not only that a strategy worked but also by how much.”

To that end, students learned how one randomized trial showed that buyer discounts drove car sales faster than boosting incentives for sales teams. They studied how eBay ran a series of random experiments to test its Google advertising and found zero upside to running ads alongside brand-specific searches. In a third case study, generic drug makers called off a planned $5 million marketing campaign after a randomized trial showed it would have no effect on its target audience: physicians prescribing brand-name drugs.

“Randomized trials are as much about finding what doesn’t work—the counterfactual—as it is about finding what does,” Gertler told the class. “That’s the dirty little secret about data analysis.”

How to 2nd-guess an AI

For Kolstad, who taught the machine learning portion of the class, a key theme was the “black box.” As artificial intelligence has grown, so, too, have instances where an algorithm makes accurate predictions yet nobody really understands why. For example, a program could know that a certain consumer will click on an ad, but the “black box” means it can’t tell whether that’s because the online user was young and female or liked Metallica and hamburgers.

“Analytics consultants often come to the C-suite and say, ‘We have these fancy models that predict really well,'” said Kolstad, who also co-directs the health initiative at the UC Berkeley Opportunity Lab and is co-founder of Philadelphia startup Picwell, which provides personalized insurance recommendations.

“Now that you understand what’s really behind these models, you know the right questions to ask,” Kolstad tells students. “You can say, ‘I don’t care just about predictive performance. I want to know my customers better.’ And you can ask, ‘How did you avoid ‘overfitting’ the data? Did you leave data out? Can I provide data of my own for you to test?’”

Students like KC Loder, MBA/MPH 18, signed up for the class because they, too, recognize that advanced data analytics is a must-have skill for today’s business leaders. Before coming to Haas, he worked in health care and saw firsthand how hospitals and other providers leverage data to keep costs down and improve patient care.

“Whether you’re working in health care or education or big tech, if you are the strategic thinker and you can’t understand what good data science is and what the data scientists on your team are doing, then you’re going to be obsolete,” says Loder.

Prof. Paul Gertler speaks with a student after class. | Noah Berger, 2018

Classified: Organizational Moonshots course challenges students to think big and bold

Students in Henry Chesbrough's Organizational Moonshots course.
Students in Henry Chesbrough’s Organizational Moonshots course.

Classified articles spotlight some of the more powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas.

When Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon in 1969, it was the culmination of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs that President Kennedy had laid out in a speech eight years earlier.

“NASA ultimately achieved the mission,” said Adj. Prof. Henry Chesbrough, who directs the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation and is known as the father of “Open Innovation.” “This became the first instance of a real moonshot.”

Chesbrough used the example to kick of his new spring course called “Organizational Moonshots”— named in honor of the projects that address huge problems, propose radical solutions, and use breakthrough technologies. (Examples of moonshots at Google include Google Glass and the driverless car.)

Adj. Prof. Henry Chesbrough teaches the Organizational Moonshots course to MBA students (and a few law school students as well).
Adj. Prof. Henry Chesbrough teaches the Organizational Moonshots course to MBA students (and a few law school students as well). (Photos: Jim Block)

Betting on big, bold ideas

The course evolved out of a conversation between Chesbrough and Thomas Kalil, former deputy director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the former special assistant to UC Berkeley’s Chancellor on Science & Technology. The two agreed that the U.S., overall, isn’t betting big on bold ideas any more.

 Selena Robinson, MBA 18, at a recent Organizational Moonshots class.
Selena Robinson, MBA 18, at a recent Organizational Moonshots class.

“I wanted students to be aware that there are alternatives to the highly-incremental, very short-term approach to innovation that I’ve observed in corporate America,” says Chesbrough. “Moonshots can be done in many different ways and they don’t always require a huge bureaucratic organization behind you”

Signing up for the class was a no-brainer for Billy Phillips, MBA 19. “If you’re interested in innovation, (Chesbrough) is probably the guy you want to be learning from,” he says.

To bring these ideas to life, Chesbrough invited innovation leaders who inspire him, including Kalil, who lectured students on the National Institute of Health’s BRAIN Initiative, which relies on public and private resources to advance understanding of the human brain; Arati Prabhakar, a former head of DARPA—an arm of the U.S. Department of Defense that used an agile, rotating workforce to develop breakthroughs such as the Internet; and Sylvia Smullin, a physicist who works on early pipeline projects, and Hans Peter Brondmo, general manager of robots, both of GoogleX: The Moonshot Factory.

A polio moonshot

At one recent class the guest was Sara Boettiger, who oversaw investments in polio eradication as former deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She outlined the stages of battling polio from around 1921, when her grandfather Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted it, until 1979, when the disease was officially declared eradicated in the U.S.

Today, she said, there remain areas of Africa, Pakistan, and Afghanistan that have resisted vaccinations for cultural, religious and political reasons. “Behavioral change is really hard. It’s really hard to get people to change their belief systems, how they react to new technology, and to trust. There are all these fuzzy pieces.”

Boettiger described various ways the Gates Foundation tried to overcome these challenges and dispel fears of Western interference, by using a novel financing incentive called a loan conversion program. The program loaned money to Japan, which in turn loaned money to Pakistan and Nigeria as formal development assistance.

One of Boettiger’s core messages was that technology alone can’t sustain a moonshot. Sometimes, she added, the hardest part is the tail end, when the momentum that galvanized key players at the start begins to wane yet before the problem is not completely solved.

“There were 22 reported cases of wild polio in the entire world last year,” said Boettiger, who holds a PhD in agricultural and resources economics from Berkeley. “That’s not a high public priority.”

Chandana Haque, EWMBA 18, said Boettiger’s talk about the tail end of the moonshot really brought the message home for her.

“No one talks about that part,” she said. “You always talk about what it takes to do something big, but finishing something big is just as hard. I’ve definitely experienced that in my own work life. You take on a product initiative or the company wants to do something big and change, but completing the last steps is hard, and it takes a lot of conviction.”

Approaching ideas more boldly

Students say they’ve been impressed by Chesbrough’s ability to link the common themes presented by each of the guest speakers.

“He starts with this very ethereal idea and then brings in speakers that make these ideas seem very possible,” Haque said. “You come out of the lecture thinking, ‘Wow, this is totally feasible. Why isn’t everyone thinking this way?'”

Abhi Ramaswamy, MBA 18
Abhi Ramaswamy, MBA 18

As a final project, small teams of students are working with representatives from IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Renault, and Walmart, among others, to design moonshot strategies tailored to their companies.

One project with JLabs (part of Johnson & Johnson) aims to help communities that have endured natural disasters get reconnected to the global economy. Another project would help with Amazon, now the country’s second largest employer, recruit and scale programs that provide work opportunities for the differently abled. A third project, with Gap Inc., would establish a recruiting program to provide more employment opportunities to more low-income people.

Chesbrough said that the course isn’t intended to provide students with a magic ‘toolbox,’ but he hopes that there are aspects of what they learn that will inspire them to approach ideas more boldly throughout their careers.

New case study examines how Haas can sustain its culture

During a busy last year as dean, Rich Lyons continues to question the status quo, co-authoring a new case study that takes a candid look at his culture initiative and whether the School’s Defining Leadership Principles will endure.

The study, “The Berkeley Haas School of Business: Codifying, Embedding, and Sustaining Culture,” co-authored with Prof. Jenny Chatman, offers a detailed history of the dean’s initiative, its successes, and the gaps that remain. As all effective cases do, it also asks provocative questions about what will happen when Haas’ chief purpose officer passes the leadership mantle in June 2018.

“The acid test of effective leadership is how well an organization does when a leader is gone,” says Chatman, the Paul J. Cortese Distinguished Professor of Management. “There is some risk that once the champion of the Defining Principles leaves that the principles themselves will evaporate in some way, or at least become less forceful.”

Chatman, an expert on organizational culture, was an early champion of the Defining Principles—now referred to as the Defining Leadership Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself.

Dean Rich Lyons codified the Defining Leadership Principles
Dean Rich Lyons (Photo: Noah Berger)

“The rudder of the ship”

Keeping the principles going for generations has been top-of-mind for Lyons, who made sure that they were prominent in the job announcement for his replacement.

The Haas School Board, whose input will be important for the selection of the new dean, is one crucial link to future support for the principles. Haas board member Michael Gallagher said that the hiring process will be critical to the dean’s legacy.

“The dean is the rudder of the ship, and if that person comes in and wants to redefine the culture, it would be a grave mistake,” he said. “The dean should be selected on his or her ability to understand, to support, and to have a passion for advancing these Defining Leadership Principles. If that happens, they will be sustainable for a long, long time.”

Prof. Jennifer Chatman
Prof. Jennifer Chatman

The case study grew out of a 2016 lunch meeting between Lyons and Chatman. In addition to being Chatman’s longtime friend and teaching colleague, Lyons had read some of Chatman’s research on culture and developed a deep appreciation for how powerful a tool it can be for organizations.

He was further convinced of culture’s significance after a 20-month stint as the Chief Learning Officer at Goldman Sachs, a position that he left to rejoin Haas as dean in 2008. In recent years, Lyons has been a regular guest speaker on the topic of culture in one of Chatman’s courses in the UC Berkeley Executive Leadership Program.

Chatman says she suggested they co-author the case study because the process behind implementing the culture initiative was ideal for such an analysis, and because she felt that creating an official record of the principles’ development was important to the school’s history and evolution.

The principles’ growing influence

Since 2010, when they were first codified, the Defining Leadership Principles have proven a quantifiable success. About 75 percent of students from all three MBA programs and the undergraduate program cite them as a strong reason for choosing Haas. Similarly, more than 90 percent of alumni surveyed from the past decade said they were familiar with the principles and use them when navigating both their careers and personal lives.

In the MBA programs, the principles influence everything from who is admitted to key elements of the curriculum. For staff, the Annual Outstanding Staff Awards were altered to reflect the principles, among other changes.

While students, staff, and alumni have strongly embraced the principles, faculty acceptance has varied.

“Some of the faculty have always been on board with the principles, and others— including significant skeptics—have come around,” Chatman said. “But I’m still not sure that faculty live by them day to day. Filling in those gaps is, I think, an opportunity for this dean in his final year and for the next dean.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for Lyons was how to bring the principles into the faculty’s world, where success is measured by research and teaching—and skepticism is part of the job. As Prof. Steven Tadelis put it, “soft” things like culture, especially 10 years ago, were viewed by some as “fluff and irrelevant.”

Yet Tadelis said that his work experiences with eBay and Amazon helped change his view of the principles. “Before I had that practical wisdom of working at companies, I couldn’t fully grasp the objective of the Defining Principles,” he said. “I now think these are core to being a successful team member in any organization.”

“The kind of people they want to fund”

Feedback from the Berkeley Haas community continues to encourage Lyons that the principles will live on—in part because they have been implicit in the school’s identity for decades.

Stephanie Fujii, former assistant dean of MBA admissions, said over time the fit of the students admitted to Haas increasingly aligned with the principles. Venture capitalists, Lyons said, tell him that “our principles describe the kind of people they want to fund.”

“Recruiters tell me that when they hire for senior positions, it comes down to fit over skills nearly every time,” Lyons added.

Both Lyons and Chatman view the case study as one way to ensure that needed work continues to happen this year and under a new dean. Lyons has already identified 12 “culture champions”—including faculty and staff—who meet regularly to discuss ways to continue the culture-building work.

Lyons and Chatman also plan to follow up with a second case study chronicling what was actually done in Lyons’ final year to further cement the culture.

“Cultures need to change over time; while I don’t feel the four principles should change anytime soon, the specifics of how they impact the way we do our work should change,” said Lyons. “There are a lot of institutions that maintain very strong cultures over many leader successions because organic support is so strong.”

 

Classified: The slam-dunk case for investing in women in business

“Classified” is an occasional series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons being taught in classrooms around Haas.

Kellie McElhaney teaches her course, "The Business Case of Investing in Women.
Assoc. Adj. Prof. Kellie McElhaney teaching a session of her course, “The Business Case for Investing in Women”

Class discussions about sex trafficking, crash test dummies designed to match male—but not female—physiology, and the challenges a breast pump company faced in attracting venture capital were unsettling.

But it wasn’t until the conversation turned to the relatively mundane acts of sexism women encounter daily—such as unwanted advances at business dinners—that Federico Locatelli, MBA 18, spoke up.

“I didn’t really understand before what women have to deal with,” said Locatelli, one of the ten men in Kellie McElhaney’s class “The Business Case for Investing in Women.” “It’s been completely mind-blowing.”

For McElhaney, an associate adjunct professor who created the course four years ago, Locatelli’s discomfort isn’t a reason to stop the conversation, but rather a justification to blow it wide open.

“This is about pushing people out of their comfort zones so that they can then become leaders who can handle uncomfortable discussions later on,” McElhaney said.

The business case for investing in women
A student makes a point during a class session.

Building a case

The idea for an MBA course focused on gender equity first came to McElhaney about a decade ago while she was serving as director of the Center for Responsible Business at Haas. McElhaney had uncovered a correlation between Fortune 500 companies’ performance on a closely-watched sustainability index and the presence of women directors on its board. That data point alone suggested there was a business case—not just an ethical one—for gender diversity in the workplace.

Kellie McElhaney teaching her course, "The Business Case for Investing in Women"Over the next few years, as the cultural conversation around women at work gathered momentum, companies started asking McElhaney for more proof of a bottom-line payoff to hiring women.

Students, too, wanted to see data. “In a very constructive way, students would say, ‘Show me the proof that gender equity really matters to a company’s overall success.’”

So, McElhaney gathered statistics which suggested companies with greater numbers of women in leadership have higher share prices and better returns on equity and investment than companies with fewer women. She cites companies like Patagonia, which has publicly detailed how its on-site childcare nearly pays for itself.

When McElhaney started the course in 2013, she structured it almost entirely around the data. The class proved so popular that students awarded her an Earl F. Cheit Award for Excellence in Teaching. Next month, McElhaney is also launching the Center on Gender, Equity & Leadership to take her work to the next level.

“Kellie is a firecracker—passionate, smart, challenging, and funny,” says Jennifer Hoss, MBA 18. “She takes a very pragmatic approach of ‘nobody is asking for any favors.’ At the same time, this class is a great exercise in empathy.”

Hoss said she enjoyed seeing the diversity of opinions, even among women. “You realize that each person experiences gender issues in a different way. We have 30 different women and 30 different viewpoints on how wrong or not-wrong a situation is,” she said.

A student in Kellie McElhaney's course, "The Business Case for Investing in Women"

Exploring intersectionality

The course also delves into the added challenges that minority women encounter. McElhaney shared a breakdown of data showing that white women are making most of the workplace gains while minority groups either are flat-lining or losing ground.

Victoria Whittaker, MBA 18, who is African-American and Latina, said that when it comes to gender, race, and sexuality, “we tend to separate the issues.”

Shedding light on the intersectionality of an issue like gender helps raise awareness that there can many different experiences and perceptions that influence people’s world views, she said. “As business leaders and managers, it’s imperative that we start to recognize, think about, and appreciate all the different facets people bring when they walk into the workplace,” she said.

Are diversity and inclusion valued?

Many of McElhaney’s students, including Locatelli, are intent on using their newfound awareness to advocate for women. “Students—and this is also true for the companies I talk to—understand the data,” McElhaney said. “Now they want tools to create change.”

One assignment McElhaney gives students is to write formal assessments of a company’s track record on the hiring, retention, and promotion of women. The head of global HR at Airbnb was so impressed with a student presentation—which McElhaney sent unsolicited—that she asked the students to speak to company executives about it.

Students also discuss real-life workplace issues with guest speakers.

In October, a speaker admitted how shocked he was when a valued female executive at his company disclosed in her exit interview that she didn’t feel as though diversity and inclusion were valued. Looking to uncover insights like these sooner, he instituted “stay” interviews for current employees.

A student in Kellie McElhaney's course "The Business Case for Investing in Women"

Designing a personal leadership strategy

McElhaney also challenges students to consider their own experiences with gender discrimination or harassment, including how they’ve responded to past incidents and how they could have reacted differently. For a session that delved into how men impact gender issues, students were required to bring a male friend to observe the class.

Finally, students create a detailed personal leadership strategy.

“You’re at Haas to learn about business strategy,” McElhaney tells students. “You’re also here to learn leadership skills. So, how are you going to build gender awareness into your leadership style?”

Lydia Cole, EWMBA 18, came to the class looking for facts and figures to help her self-advocate in her career. She’s learned instead that proof of women’s value in the workplace won’t be as important as her ability to lead by example.

“My attitude before was cynical,” said Cole. “Kellie’s class has taught me how to be a better employee, a better manager, a better leader, and a better person.”

Farming & Education Startups Rise to Top at Global Social Venture Competition

Sixteen teams of young entrepreneurs from around the world gathered at Berkeley-Haas Friday for the Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC)—launched by MBA students in 1999 and now one of the world’s leading contests for advances in social impact innovation.

Nearly 600 entries from 64 countries had been whittled down to the 16 finalist teams who spent two days showcasing their ideas for changing the world. Haas student Hiroki Koga, MBA 17, and his startup, an indoor vertical farming operation called Oishii Farm, was one of six that made it to the final round Friday afternoon. Other top finalists hailed from Pakistan, Italy, France and elsewhere in the United States.

Photo by Bruce Cook

In the end, Kheyti, a nonprofit that aims to lift rural farmers in India and beyond out of poverty via a low-cost “greenhouse-in-a-box” and related support services, took top honors. The team includes Kaushik K, an MBA student at Columbia Business School; Saumya, an MBA student at Kellogg School of Management; and Sathya Raghu V Mokkapati, Ayush Sharma, and Srikar Mokkapati, Sr., professionals based in Hyderabad, India.

The first runner-up was MindRight, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that leverages text messages to help at-risk youth develop coping skills following a trauma. Third place went to Atlas, an Italian company that has developed a toxin-free biocide to combat the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

Photo by Bruce Cook

This year’s competition awarded $80,000 in cash prizes. Most remarkable of all, says GSVC Program Director Jill Erbland, was the reaction from the judges—all social impact experts for at least a decade.

“They felt that every one of the top finalist teams was very strong and had the capability to succeed as a viable company,” says Erbland, of the Center for Social Sector Leadership.

Giving entrepreneurs a leg up

The contest took place concurrently with the first annual Future of Social Ventures Conference, a one-day gathering whose featured speakers included Prof. Laura Tyson, director of the Berkeley-Haas Institute for Business & Social Impact, and His Excellency Amr Al Dabbagh, chairman and CEO of the Al-Dabbagh Group and founding chairman of the Stars Foundation and Philanthropy University.

Laura Tyson interviews His Excellency Amr Al Dabbagh. Photo by Bruce Cook

The event also included a design workshop with Alisa Ahmadian and Elana Gurney of OpenIDEO, as well as a lunchtime talk by Kim Wright-Volich, managing partner at impact investing consulting firm Tideline.

“The prize money is great, but ultimately the GSVC is an opportunity for social impact entrepreneurs to hone their pitches and network with potential investors and advisers,” says Erbland, who adds that past teams have secured funding from investors who attended the competition.

Entry rules require that at least one member of each team be a student or recent graduate of either an undergraduate or graduate academic program.

Adding new meaning to farm-to-table

Among the many discoveries Koga made after moving across the Pacific: fruits and vegetables in the U.S. are tasteless compared to those in Japan. “There’s just no comparison,” says Koga (right), who described the core problem as one of distribution. Most fruit and vegetables can’t get from farms to grocery stores when they are at their peak freshness—many crops are designed specifically to be transported long distances, and this has a negative impact on taste. “The global food supply chain is a mess,” says Koga.

Indoor vertical farming solves the distribution problem by using technology to grow food year-round in stacked layers located in urban warehouses or city highrises, providing consumers with access to high quality, locally grown fresh produce. The social impact component: vertical farming uses significantly less land and water than traditional agriculture, eliminates food waste, and promises safer working conditions for laborers.

Oishii Farm is unique among indoor vertical farming operations, Koga and his co-founders told a panel of six judges during their final ten-minute pitch. Other vertical farming companies, they said, grow only leafy greens because the high risk of disease and the challenges of pollination in enclosed spaces have so far ruled out fruit crops.

The company has found a solution to the fruit cultivation problem, which requires more complex processes and technologies than leafy greens. “We are the first company to overcome the technological barriers to growing fruit at commercial scale using vertical indoor techniques,” said Koga in an interview before the GSVC’s final round. (He declined to elaborate on the company’s proprietary technology.)

Earlier this year, Oishii Farm was one of 11 Haas startups to receive $5,000 each from the Dean’s Seed Fund.

Reaching the GSVC finals, says Koga, gave Oishii Farm instant credibility. “Receiving tremendously positive feedback from judges and social entrepreneurs validated our social mission and long-term vision to revolutionize agriculture,” says Koga, who will continue to build the for-profit company after graduation.

Koga was also impressed with his competitors’ commitment to social causes. “The people I met aren’t looking to create the next unicorn and become billionaires,” he says. “They are all so passionate about solving a social issue and changing the world in some way regardless of the impact they ultimately have. I really respect that.”

Competition organizers celebrate after the final round. Photo by Bruce Cook

Cannabis at a Crossroads: Speaker Series Examines Industry’s Future

It was late afternoon and 40 or so Haas MBA students were getting a dose of reality from cannabis entrepreneurs on the challenges they face—even in a time of widespread legalization.

One surprising insight: cannabis businesses operate exclusively in cash, even to make payroll, and even in states where recreational use is legalized. That’s because banks fear putting their charters at risk if they do business with marijuana outfits, since the plant is still illegal under federal law.

“We’re navigating a space that, until now, hasn’t had a playbook or set of rules,” said Victor Pinho, marketing director at Berkeley Patients Group, the nation’s oldest medical cannabis dispensary. “My day, every day, has been making up those rules and testing and seeing what fits. It’s going down paths that no one has ever been down before.”

Sounds like the just the kind of challenge that might pique an MBA’s interest.

Pinho was one of the speakers in the final session of a 6-week series called “High Margins: The Business of Legal Cannabis.” The student-organized, one-credit course brought in a wide range of experts, offering perspectives on the most promising business models, investment strategies, future regulatory schemes, and the changing risks for a market long forced to operate underground.

The course sessions straddled the Nov. 8 vote to legalize adult use of marijuana in California beginning in 2018, which is estimated to triple the size of the legal market for cannabis in the US. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia now have laws legalizing cannabis in some form. ArcView Market Research and New Frontier Data project the legal cannabis market will grow to $22 billion by 2020, a three-fold increase from this year.

“What’s interesting is that this isn’t an industry that came about because of some invention,” says Jessica Sun, MBA 17 (right), one of the two students who organized the course. “Cannabis has been around for centuries. It’s a social movement that’s now turning into an industry.”

For students like Nick Miele, MBA 17, the experience served as a fresh reminder of why they had come to Haas.

“Berkeley is such a progressive place and, as a business school student, to be able to explore in-depth an industry that has operated for so long in the grey has been fascinating,” says Miele.

A Reality Check

The course was the brainchild of Michael Katz of the Haas Career Management Group. Katz, who was then director of full-time MBA careers, came up with the idea earlier this year after talking with a friend who had joined a cannabis startup. Expecting legalization, he saw an opportunity to put the school at the forefront, and open a new job market for students.

“Cannabis is in the very, very early stages of becoming an advanced business, but the people entering this space are botanists or chemists. They’re not experienced business people,” says Katz.

The growing industry, he says, cuts across multiple sectors, from health and food to consumer products and agri-tech. It also has important social implications. “Cannabis lives at the intersection of technology, markets, and social justice, and Berkeley belongs in any area that’s at that intersection,” says Katz, who now leads the school’s Interpersonal Development Program.

As it happened Katz wasn’t alone in his thinking. Two Haas students were working on a first-of-its kind case study on a cannabis business and the obstacles facing minorities in the industry. That study, co-authored by Jamaur Bronner and Mohsin Alvi, both MBAs 16, along with Assoc. Prof. Rui de Figueiredo, was published in October.

Katz didn’t have to look far to find students willing to run with the speaker series idea. Both Sun and Cody Little, also MBA 17 (left), had been drawn to Haas for its reputation as an incubator for business leaders committed to making a social impact. After meeting early last year, they began talking about ways they could further push the envelope on social justice issues at the school.

“We wanted to start conversations at school about fringe economies and how they generate opportunity for people but simultaneously entrap them in non-institutional ways of working in the world,” explains Little.

Cannabis was an obvious place to start, and the CEOs and other top investors, entrepreneurs and drug policy reform advocates that Sun and Little reached out to jumped at the chance to engage with an MBA talent pool.

But while momentum at the federal level appeared headed toward eventual legalization, the election of Donald Trump is causing a lot of anxiety in pro-cannabis circles. Predictions of a “green rush” may have been premature.

“We’re not there yet. We’re not mature enough as an industry,” said Christopher Esposito, who heads up human resources at Dark Heart Nursery and formerly worked at Charles Schwab. Involved in the pro-cannabis movement marijuana business for decades, he told students about the plant’s history as a source of palliative care for AIDS patients. “You go into this because you have passion for cannabis.”

In other words, says course co-organizer Sun, “the takeaway, for anyone interested in cannabis as a business, is not to expect riches and glamour.”

Top Innovation Thinkers Gather at Berkeley-Haas for ICC Conference

About 70 innovation scholars from around the world are gathering at Berkeley-Haas this week for the ICC conference, where they will ponder the forces that drive industrial and corporate change.

Prof. David Teece (pictured) is spearheading the ICC conference “Beyond Technological Innovation and Diffusion”—with his Italian colleagues, Giovanni Dosi and Franco Malerba.

ICC is an acronym for Industrial and Corporate Change, the journal which Teece co-founded in 1992 with the late Nathan Rosenberg, a longtime Stanford professor. The conference this year honors Rosenberg— “one of the world’s pioneering scholars on the economics of innovation and how it drives the prosperity of firms and nations,” says Teece, the Thomas W. Tusher Professor in Global Business.

Among the pioneers attending the three-day event are Nobel Prize laureates Oliver Williamson of Berkeley-Haas and Kenneth Arrow of Stanford. Conference topics range from why firms are funding less of their own research to how regions diversify over time to the role of patents in the financing of innovative firms.

It was 30 years ago that Rosenberg and many of the scholars meeting this week first gathered in Venice, Italy, to talk about innovation, an area rarely discussed in business. The fact that they took a multidisciplinary approach to the study of innovation was highly unusual at the time, says Teece, who also serves as faculty director of the Tusher Center for the Management of Intellectual Capital.

“This crew has been pushing innovation relentlessly for decades, long before the term became fashionable with the rest of the world,” he says.

ICC, which celebrates its 25th year as a journal next year, has proven key to helping innovation scholars to gain legitimacy in academia.

“The science of economics, as important as it is, really has had trouble grasping innovation,” says Teece. “The reason is that economists like systems to be in equilibrium and innovation throws everything into disequilibrium. Innovation is very messy.”

Since ICC launched, Teece says, experts have developed a much better understanding of the processes that drive innovation, how the spoils of innovation get divided between pioneers and their imitators, and the role that ecosystems, as opposed to industries, play in determining business opportunities.

What’s more, ICC has addressed aspects of innovation that cross into other disciplines, including public policy, social science, and physical science. Prominent contributors have included Richard Nelson of Columbia University, Sidney Winter of Wharton, and Constance Helfat of Tuck.

Because of ICC and its peer journal, Research Policy, “it’s easier today for someone with a serious interest in innovation to be taken seriously,” says Teece. “But it’s still not easy.”

Classified: Preparing Undergrads for Marketing’s New Challenges

“Classified” is part of a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

It’s an October afternoon in Lecturer Krystal Thomas’s Product Branding & Entertainment class, and the pitch sessions are heating up. The undergraduate students have just three minutes to sell their marketing campaigns.

In the first go-round, groups are making cases for a movie remake to an imaginary audience of Hollywood producers; a second round of pitches includes campaigns tied to a skin-lightening cream sold in India and a discussion of the emotive power of symbols like purple fingernails.

Thomas—who has been at the forefront of modern marketing as a consultant/producer for Disney and Showtime Networks—offers feedback that is both candid and exacting. “Your body language came across as ‘I couldn’t care less about this,’” she told one group. “The foundation of your campaign has to be emotional.”

Berkeley-Haas students come to the course seeking something different from the typical undergraduate business curriculum.

“We often have to make our case in business school through numbers rather than ideas,” says Ariana Diaz-Saavedre, BS 17. “Here, there’s a lot of opportunity to include our own voices.”

Thomas created the cross-disciplinary course six years ago to address all the ways that digital marketing, social media, video gaming, mobile devices, and other technologies have pushed marketing far beyond the 30-second TV spot.

Her course is capped at 32 slots but has a waitlist almost three times as long, and Thomas—currently an executive producer at  Irvine, Calif.-based branded entertainment, content development, and marketing consultancy Pooka Ventures—is a regular on the “Club 6” list of students’ favorite instructors.

“This is, without question, an amazing opportunity for me,” says Diaz-Saavedra, who will also earn a BA in media studies in May.

In class, students work with companies such as LinkedIn, Safeway, Glacier Water, The Cooking Channel, and Western Digital to design real-world marketing campaigns.

Thomas says her goal is to challenge students to question the status quo. “You have to ask the right questions — ones the executives haven’t thought about or can’t ask due to company politics,” Thomas tells them. She reminds them, too, that they can never know enough about what consumers want or need.

Kylan Nieh, BS 14, now a senior product manager at LinkedIn, recently shared with the class a LinkedIn app designed to help college students land their first jobs. Students will present marketing proposals on the app before the end of the class next month.

“We might hear something we haven’t thought of before,” he says.

Students praise Thomas for being a straight shooter. “There are a lot of intricacies of the entertainment business that she knows that you would never learn about unless you were in the business, or in this class,” says Michelle Rubinstein, BS 17.

Adds Diaz-Saavedra: “She’s very intimidating at first, and a little bit sassy. Everybody loves that about her.”

Students also appreciate that, despite Thomas’s hectic schedule, she also takes the time to mentor them.

Jess Mersten, BS 16, said the class paid off for her immediately. After her team pitched a campaign to Western Digital, the judges offered her an internship at the company.

After graduation, she took a position as a trainee in the retail management program at The Gap.

“I’ve been able to apply a lot of the customer-centric learning from that class to my current job,” she says.

Haas Case Study & Speaker Series Explore a High-Growth Industry: Legal Cannabis

The legal cannabis industry is smoking hot: sales are projected to reach $6.7 billion this year and to top $21 billion by 2020, according to research firm IBISWorld. Twenty-four states now allow medical use of the drug, four states permit adults to partake for fun, and eight more—including California—will vote on legalizing recreational use in November.

As entrepreneurs and investors move in on the “green rush,” Haas is set to publish one of the first business school case studies on a cannabis enterprise.

The case, “Cannabusiness in Washington D.C.,” was spearheaded by two MBA students interested in exploring not only the business opportunities presented by the budding industry, but also the public policy and social justice issues that surround a substance that is still illegal under federal law. The study will appear in the Berkeley-Haas Case Series and the California Management Review in October.

Also kicking off next month: “High Margins,” a one-credit speaker series organized by students Cody Little and Jessica Sun, both MBA 17, with the help of Michael Katz, director of full-time MBA careers. Lecturer Greg LaBlanc is the faculty sponsor. Speakers include investors focused exclusively on the cannabis industry, entrepreneurs, and drug policy reform advocates.

“With legalization there is massive growth projected for the cannabis industry in this country,” Little says.

One goal of the speaker series, Little notes, is to connect legal cannabis pioneers with the talent they will need to succeed. Another goal, Sun adds, is “to normalize cannabis as a legitimate industry and career path for MBAs.”

A Promising Future—But Only for Some

Rui de Figueiredo, an associate professor at Haas who served as lead author on the case study, says the legal cannabis business is a ripe topic for business schools. There are challenges facing the fledgling industry that, taken together, are unique. These include questions about strategy, leadership, and—given that the federal government classifies marijuana among the most dangerous drugs—public policy.

(Industry proponents prefer to use the name of the plant, cannabis, over the term marijuana, which is associated with the plant’s criminalization and the illegal drug trade.)

“Basically, the legal side of the industry is starting from scratch,” says de Figueiredo. “You don’t typically see that in traditional business school cases and discussions.”

Green Team: Case study co-authors Mohsin Alvi, MBA 16; Deena Malaeb, BS 17; and Jamaur Bronner, MBA 16

There’s another critical piece of the cannabis story that caught de Figueiredo’s attention—and that of co-authors Jamaur Bronner and Mohsin Alvi, both MBA 16, and Deena Malaeb, BS 17. To date, very few minorities have been able to break into the legal cannabis business, though they have been disproportionately affected by drug laws.

This troubled Bronner and Alvi, both management consultants who came to Haas through the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, a nonprofit that works with select business schools like Haas and Fortune 500 companies to recruit underrepresented minorities and others who promote diversity into MBA programs and the upper ranks of management. Inspired by the Consortium’s mission, Bronner and Alvi wanted to make a concrete contribution to raising awareness of social justice issues in business.

They decided to write a case study and searched for a topic that was both novel and rife with diversity challenges.

During Bronner’s first winter break while Haas, a childhood friend took him on a private tour of a cannabis grower and seller in his native Colorado, which in 2014 became the first state to allow adults to buy weed for recreational use. There, he had a chance encounter with several top-level executives running the company. They were former private equity honchos—and they were all older, white, and male.

“It was a bit ironic that the people of color who were victimized or negatively impacted by the sale and distribution of marijuana aren’t the ones getting rich in places where it’s legal,” says Bronner, who is African American and a management consultant with The Boston Consulting Group. “It didn’t sit right with me.”

Alvi felt the same way. As a high school math teacher with Teach for America after college, Alvi, who is Pakistani-American, recalls some of this brightest students dropping out to deal drugs. They could be great employees at a legal cannabis business, he says, except that state laws bar anyone with a drug conviction from working in the business. “I thought, ‘Here we go again, boxing out minorities,’” says Alvi, now an operations manager at Google.

An Uphill Climb

The case study profiles Corey Barnette, a Duke Fuqua MBA and former Bank of America investment banker who is African American. Corey owns District Growers, a cultivation center, and Metropolitan Wellness Center, a dispensary in D.C.

The study describes what Barnette calls the “three pillars” of success as a cannabis entrepreneur: a qualified and capable team, political influence, and access to capital.

“Corey has all three pillars, but the road ahead won’t be easy,” says Bronner. For Barnette, the core business challenges facing cannabis businesses are compounded by his race. “He’s got to be a special type of leader in order to be successful.”

Bronner and Alvi credit Haas, and de Figueiredo in particular, for encouraging them to pursue the case study. They also received a $2,500 grant from the Eckles Diversity and Social Impact Fund to conduct their research.

De Figueiredo, who has served as Faculty Equity Officer at Haas, adds that a new case study with an African-American protagonist is a step toward providing another much-needed form of diversity.  “Most cases are about male, white protagonists,” he says. “As a teacher you don’t always realize that.”

Destined for Leadership: From Activist to MBA

Cristy Johnston Limon, executive director of Destiny Arts (all photos by Noah Berger)

When Cristy Johnston-Limón was hired as executive director of Oakland’s Destiny Arts Center in 2011, the nonprofit was facing eviction from its shared space at a local charter school.

For more than 25 years, the respected center had offered classes—from hip hop to kung fu to karate—to thousands of kids, encouraging violence prevention through the performing arts.

But its future was in jeopardy.

The board had shied away from a plan to purchase and build out an 8,000-square-foot warehouse in North Oakland: with just enough money for a down payment on a new building, some directors and advisors were worried about crushing loan payments.

Even before her first official day on the job, Johnston-Limón began scouting sites. “After touring more than 50 potential sites, I knew this one was it and I did everything in my power to make it happen,” Johnston-Limón said.

It was a tough sell, but Johnston-Limón, EMBA 16, didn’t give up. The daughter of Guatemalan immigrants who grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, Johnston-Limón has always figured out how to navigate life’s challenges—as a teenager turning away from gangs, as a young urban neighborhood activist, as a first-generation college student at UC Berkeley, and now as a student in the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program.

Working with Destiny Arts board member David Riemer, Johnston- Limón met repeatedly with the the board, listened to what they had to say and calmly countered every argument against the building plan. “We kept laying brick after brick after brick,” until the skeptics got the reassurance they needed, says Riemer, an Executive-in-Residence at Berkeley-Haas. “Cristy is a leader with an incredible combination of confidence, ambition, passion, and vision.”


By 2013, Destiny Arts had moved into the new center, which boasts high ceilings; clean, bright studios; peace murals; a black box theater; and meeting spaces.

“A few nerves”

As an EMBA student, Johnston-Limón is working to gain the business skills required to ensure Destiny Arts Center’s future in a nonprofit environment increasingly focused on ROI.

She admits to having had a few nerves when she arrived at Berkeley-Haas last year. In particular, she worried that, for all her strengths in communication and leadership, she didn’t have the quantitative skills required to keep up. She also learned, on her first day, that she was the only Latina and the only head of a nonprofit in her cohort of 69 students.

A natural bridge-builder, she responded by becoming the first vice president of diversity for the EMBA Program, working closely with administrators and peers in the full-time MBA program on plans to foster more inclusion within the student body and faculty.

“Cristy brings an intense focus on diversity to her fellow students and the program overall,” says Jamie Breen, Assistant Dean of the EMBA program. ‘She has taken a leading role, working with other diversity leaders at Haas to ensure we provide our students with the skills required to lead diverse workforces and find and develop talent.”

Johnston-Limón, who is 39 and the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, never shies away from discussing issues of social justice. In July, while sitting at a local pub with classmates after a long day of EMBA classes, news broke of the shooting of five white police officers in Dallas, the latest shock in a summer of extraordinary race-based violence nationwide.

Johnston-Limón immediately started engaging her group in a discussion about the events, sharing her insights as a leader on the front lines.

“When I see an opportunity to help people talk about and understand the issues around diversity in a way that’s useful and productive, I grab it,” she says.

Before she graduates in December, Johnston-Limón plans to host a voluntary training on how unconscious bias deters inclusion and gets in the way of great decisions. Partly because of her efforts, the curriculum for incoming EMBA students in the fall included bias workshops.

From “super nerd” to activist

Johnston-Limón was an overachiever early in life.

As a kid growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District, she was a star student who turned to music to escape gang life, domestic troubles, and the trauma of eviction notices as rents skyrocketed. A self-described “super nerd,” she walked to the bus stop with a cello strapped to her back for the cross-city ride to a school in a better neighborhood.

The weekly staff meeting at Destiny Arts Center

As a teen, she felt pressure to join a gang, and even dropped out of high school at one point. But her cello—and her passion for learning—kept her on track.

At 19, she joined angry street protests against The Mission’s gentrification that was pushing out longtime residents.

Even then, she says she sensed that dialogue instead of violent confrontation was the answer and that desire for peaceful justice propelled her to major in political science at UC Berkeley.

A post-graduation year as a legislative aide in Sacramento led her to return to San Francisco to work on a pilot program aiming to revitalize one of the city’s struggling neighborhoods: the Excelsior District.

For her work, she received a national community leadership award for the pilot program, which has since become a citywide initiative for transforming local San Francisco neighborhoods.

Working to create opportunities

Johnston-Limón’s younger brother, Jon, hasn’t fared as well over the years.

He joined a Mission District gang and, after several drug-related infractions, is serving a 15-year prison sentence, she said. “My brother didn’t have the opportunities I did,” she says, tearfully. “Having my best friend in prison has been a motivating factor in my work with youth, advocacy work, and our programs that serve incarcerated youth, which I’ve expanded while at Destiny Arts Center.”

At Destiny, which is an acronym for “De-Escalation Skills Training Inspiring Nonviolence in Youth,” Johnston-Limón works to create new opportunities for kids in a city impacted by high drop-out rates and violence. Over the last five years, she has more than doubled the number of children served by boosting Destiny Arts’ operating budget from $800,000 to $3 million. More than 4,000 students—ranging from age three to 24—now choose from 800 classes annually.

Meantime, at Berkeley-Haas, Johnston-Limón and classmate Alejandro Maldonado are developing an app that aims to help teaching artists connect to parents looking for activities for their kids.

“One reason I love having her as a co-founder is because, even when things don’t go perfectly, she’ll manage to turn them around,” Maldonado says.

For Johnston-Limón problem-solving at work and in her community is about building upon what she’s learned throughout her life. It may sound hokey, she jokes, but she’s hoping to inspire a desire to build a better world in her classmates, too.

“I’m striving for the children we serve to ensure they have safe, inclusive spaces to thrive,” she says. “I’m striving to create the kind of world where everyone feels valued, included, and loved. Who doesn’t want that?”

 

 

Classified: When the Guy in the Back Row Turns Out to Be the Man of the Moment

Photos by Jim Block

“Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Probal Banerjee had a hunch. It was Day 3 of “The Innovative Organization,” a semiannual course for executives at Berkeley-Haas, and the participants had dived deeply into one of the most cutting-edge companies in Silicon Valley: mobile game maker Niantic, which spun out of Google last year. On that June day, the New York Times happened to have posted not one, but two, stories about Niantic and its forthcoming game, Pokémon Go.

Banerjee and other program participants had spent two intensive days studying Niantic, the internal startup’s break from Google, and its CEO, John Hanke, MBA 96. The group of about 20 execs—which included Banerjee, a business intelligence architect at Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises, and top-level managers from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, RAND Corporation, and Gilead Sciences, to a name a few—had all come to Haas to learn how to innovate.

Some had signed up for the Berkeley Center for Executive Education course—taught by Jerome Engel, who founded the school’s world-renowned Lester Center for Entrepreneurship two decades ago—looking for fresh ways to work within their companies. Others had come because they had startup dreams of their own.

Would you stay or would you go?

The question for students was whether Niantic’s spin-off from Google had been the right move for both companies, the employees behind the games, and Hanke. Students had all read a hot-off-the-press 14-page case study written by Engel—recently published as a Berkeley-Haas Case Study—and they had discussed at length the pros and cons of the move.

As he sat in the back of the Helzel Boardroom, Banerjee’s hunch was that the man seated to his left, wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and an untucked button-down, was Hanke. But Hanke wasn’t on the agenda and nobody had mentioned he might be there. The prospect was both exciting and nerve wracking, he recalls.

That’s because Hanke, MBA 96, is an A-list celebrity in Silicon Valley. A serial entrepreneur, he embodies the spirit of innovation at the heart of the region’s success. Among his many successes: co-founding Keyhole, which developed the technology that became Google Earth, Maps, and StreetView. Hanke then led Keyhole through its acquisition by Google in 2004, and guided the search giant’s 2,000-employee “geo division” through iterations of its mapping products. He founded Niantic inside Google in 2010, and built a team that’s at the forefront of the convergence of technology’s most dominant trends—mobile, maps, social media, and gaming.

Hanke was dubbed “Google’s Greatest Idea Man” by Inc. magazine in 2012. All this, years before Pokémon Go exploded on the scene.

Engel pointed out that what makes Hanke so successful is not only his ability to look at the larger trends in the economy, society, and deduce what’s really happening. Hanke also has a special quality: “People who own the opportunity have repeatedly invited this guy to be their adult supervision. He’s seen as leader who can make big decisions, and they are willing to accept him as a leader,” Engel says.

The Reveal

As it turned out, Banerjee guessed right about the inconspicuous stranger. Just as the participants were voting on whether they would have struck out on their own or kept Niantic in the fold, Engel called out to the mystery man. “Which side are you on? Should Niantic stay with Google or go?”

Hanke stood up and gestured, somewhat sheepishly, “Go.”

“Oh my god,” Carole Cuffy, vice president of communications at HM.Clause, the world’s fourth largest seed company, recalls thinking when she realized that Hanke was in attendance. “This is amazing!”

Hanke, left, gets a round of applause

What followed was a remarkably candid interaction. Hanke spoke plainly about the enormous leg-up Niantic got as part of the Google behemoth, including an instant global footprint thanks to Google’s vast resources and engineering talent. He was equally upfront about the personal, structural, and operational drawbacks he and his team experienced as part of a massive organization whose main line of business isn’t gaming.

Niantic’s multiplayer games are based on a new entertainment model that relies on augmented reality or A.R., which superimposes virtual objects onto physical ones to lure players off their couches and into the real world. Niantic’s first game, Ingress, has been downloaded more than 15 million times in more than 200 countries. Niantic went solo last summer, and—in conjunction with Nintendo—released Pokémon Go last week. In its first week, the game looks to be the most downloaded app for both Android and Apple phones ever.

The decision to spin Niantic out of Google was, Hanke explained, “incredibly challenging, [although] in retrospect it’s ridiculously obvious that that was the right thing to do.”

Front-Row Seat to What’s Next

Banerjee calls Hanke’s appearance the highlight of the five-day program—which also delved into the major trends driving 21st century innovation, the different forms innovation can take, the venture capitalists’ perspective, and companies that have successfully embedded innovation into their DNA.

Roy Brown, manager of business pursuits at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, echoes that sentiment. “I’ve reviewed hundreds of business case studies and tried to put myself in the situation, but nothing brings a case to life like having the actual entrepreneur speak about the critical decisions,” he says.

For Engel, the Niantic case and Hanke’s experience as a professional entrepreneur highlight why Silicon Valley is a cluster of innovation.

“Certainly John, and dynamic entrepreneurs like him, are the heroes of our innovation culture. But his accomplishments demonstrate something even more profound than entrepreneurial excellence: What’s extraordinary about entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley is the way large companies and young companies collaborate to accelerate innovation.”

It’s “that process of open innovation that makes Silicon Valley unique. It is absolute magic,” Engel says.

Engel, right, listens as Hanke shares insights with the class

Student Startup Roundup: Farmcation, Byte

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.

Farmcation
Co-founders: Grace Lesser and Caitlyn Toombs, MBA 16s

Grace Lesser and her husband gave “localvore” a whole new meaning when they set out a year ago to plan their wedding. They spent the summer before their August nuptials raising 65 chickens, along with beets, carrots, salad greens, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, and herbs that they served to 240 guests on their big day.

“We poured our blood, sweat and tears into turning over an acre of land,” says Lesser, who cultivated her wedding feast on the non-working farm she grew up on in western Massachusetts. “It was amazing.”

The appreciation Lesser gained for the hard work and low margins that define small farming today also planted the idea for Lesser’s new company, Farmcation.

Formed late last year with her friend and classmate Caitlyn Toombs, Farmcation helps small farmers connect with urbanites eager to experience firsthand where and how the food they put on their tables is grown.

Photo by Kim Heath

Farmcation works with small farmers to host on-site events, including guided tours and prepared meals. The company’s first event, held in April, drew 30 people to Terra Firma Farm in Winters, Ca. “We want to help bring people closer to their source of food, to be more conscious consumers, and to create a better sense of community through food,” says Toombs.

Lesser and Toombs are, in many ways, a perfect pairing. Both are self-described foodies (Toombs, a New Jersey native, keeps a detailed spreadsheet of her top Bay Area meals) who worked in international development before starting at Haas in 2014.

Lesser, who in addition to her MBA is set to earn a master’s degree in public health in December, is interning this summer at Denver-based WhiteWave Foods, which distributes Earthbound Farms, Horizon Organic, and Land O’Lakes products. She lived in Rwanda for four years before coming to Haas, where she designed public health and agriculture programs to improve population health, particularly focused on nutrition.

At Haas, Lesser and Toombs bonded over their social impact backgrounds. But it wasn’t until they took Jorge Calderon’s Impact Startup Disco, a one-unit weekend course on entrepreneurship, that they devised a business plan. Farmcation officially launched in December, after Lesser and Toombs won a $5,000 grant from the Dean’s Startup Seed Fund.

During the spring, Lesser and Toombs did extensive customer research and outreach to local farmers. Lesser relied on a UC Berkeley public health course on food entrepreneurship and innovation, “Eat. Think. Design,” and a team of interdisciplinary students, to further develop the company’s business model.

Now, Lesser and Toombs are fine-tuning Farmcation’s business model while planning a second event at a Northern California farm.

“There is so much about this business that was nurtured during our time at Haas — through courses and so many support structures,” says Toombs, who is set to join Google in August. “We think Farmcation has a lot of potential.”

 

Byte
Co-Founder: Megan Mokri
Evening & Weekend MBA, 16

The typical office vending machine is turning into a culinary adventure of a much healthier and savory sort, thanks to Megan Mokri’s company, Byte.

What Byte offers that most other vending machine suppliers don’t? Fresh salads instead of Cheez-Its. Breakfast burritos instead of Pop-Tarts. Blue Bottle coffee instead of Coca-Cola. Byte is the fresh food solution for the 99 percent of offices that have no fresh food on-site.

“It’s like having a little Whole Foods in your office,” says Mokri.

Just one year old, Byte already counts among its customers Chevron, Bain & Company, Autodesk, Virgin America, and cosmetics retailer Sephora.

 

Mokri and her husband and co-founder, Lee Mokri, got the idea for Byte while running a meal delivery service in Marin County called 180Eats, which launched a year after Mokri enrolled at Haas in 2013.  It was during their search for a way to offer around-the-clock meal deliveries that they discovered the latest in smart refrigeration technology.

They ran a pilot program using technology that relies on a modified Android computer tablet with a credit card reader. Wireless (RFID) technology detects what items are taken out of the refrigerator and then automatically charges the card that was swiped.

It didn’t take long for the duo to realize that they had a potential “billion-dollar business” in the making, says Megan Mokri. Earlier this year they sold the assets of 180Eats and closed on a non-cash deal for the smart refrigeration technology developed by a company called Pantry. Mokri’s Evening & Weekend classmate Ben Purvis joined the team as vice president of operations. Today, Byte is backed by $750,000 in angel funding and has about 20 full-time employees.

Mokri, who is also mom to two-year-old daughter Isla, says the Evening & Weekend MBA program was perfect for her. “I could have my cake and eat it, too, in terms of still being in the industry without losing two years to go to school,” she says.

During her program, Mokri was awarded two fellowships, the Hansoo Lee Fellowship and the Turner Award, which helped her juggle tuition and startup costs. She also credits an entrepreneurship class taught by Chris Puscasiu and the Food Venture Lab, a course first offered last fall that is taught by William Rosenzweig, for helping her to learn by doing.

“Having the resources of Haas when you inevitably hit hard times, not just professors but also fellow students who are starting their own businesses, was incredible,” says Mokri. “It’s an amazing program.”

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From a Master: The Art of Deal Making and Creating Value

This article is part of a series called Classified, in which we spotlight some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Peter Goodson entered Cheit 110 on a recent drizzly Wednesday morning, ready to teach students the good, the bad, and the ugly of how mergers and acquisitions really get done. More importantly, he offered lessons in creating value, instead of destroying it, as many deals do.

“Any fool with money can buy a business,” says Goodson, a mergers & acquisitions veteran and Berkeley-Haas finance lecturer for over a decade. “This course is more about enhancing strategy and executing operational improvements to create value than teaching lessons in how to squander your own capital.”

The two topics that day included “Takeover Tussle,” which involved a hypothetical hostile bid by Oracle for Salesforce, and a case on buyer due diligence, which forced students to dig behind the scenes, questioning former disgruntled employees to find the truth about a seller.

The takeover scene is a meeting of Oracle directors, with some students taking on the role of company advisers presenting their case to the board. The rest of the class acted as directors. The first student to address the fictitious board didn’t get very far into his presentation before Goodson jumped in with a critique.

“Never go into a board meeting where you don’t intelligently compliment your audience in some way at the opening,” he said. “Realize that you have already met each director and have the total vote count in your pocket. Don’t read the (PowerPoint) slides. Synthesize what is important to the decision at hand. You must kindle an interchange with the audience that forces you to think on your feet.”

One presenter after another was challenged. “You’re role-playing as the board of directors— you don’t raise your hand. It’s demeaning,” Goodson insisted when the opportunity came to ask audience questions. Get to your point faster, he urged another student. “Insightful economy of words matters in leadership.”

Goodson’s bona fides run deep. He founded the M&A group at Kidder, Peabody at age 26 and later negotiated the investment bank’s $600 million sale to General Electric. Goodson’s perspective is shaped from his experience as lead advisor to hundreds of big M&A deals, but also as an owner/acquirer of many companies.  He was an early-stage partner at the influential private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, which acquired more than 65 companies valued at a combined $100 billion over 40 years. The firm is most noted for value creation, with famous CEO partners including GE’s Jack Welch.

Goodson, now retired, teaches an elective M&A value creation course for Full-Time MBA’s and Evening & Weekend MBAs and a summer block turnaround leadership course for EWMBA and EMBA students aimed to show aspiring management consultants, investment bankers, top executive candidates, and CEOs the art of “change agency.”

He also co-teaches a course in private equity centered on investing, ownership, and value creation.

An insider’s approach

Few students show up to Goodson’s classes short on caffeine. Nor do they arrive expecting to dissect spreadsheets or textbook theories.

They come instead to get a glimpse of the real world—no matter how uncomfortable the view or how challenging the required deliverable may be. “Peter’s not one for a lot of unnecessary fluff,” says Aleksey Lakhchakov, MBA 16, and the class graduate school instructor. “He tells it like it is.”

This approach is just one reason why Goodson is so highly valued by Berkeley-Haas and its students, who have awarded him the Cheit Outstanding Teaching award multiple times. “There’s this idea that most business classes are management by spreadsheets,” says Travis Dziubla, MBA 16. “Peter’s class is a refreshing example of managing by working with people.”

William Rindfuss, executive director of strategic programs in the Haas Finance Group, calls Goodson “institutionally important” to the school. “Peter is a walking M&A history.”

Berkeley-Haas Dean Rich Lyons has introduced Goodson as “the master of tough love and real-world decision-making.” “What students soon realize is that he has a passion for their improvement. Somehow he seems to reach each student, every term, providing inspiration and an invaluable tool kit for their career advancement.”

Asking the right questions

Goodson’s tone, at times sharp, will quickly turn supportive. Highly animated, he gleefully fist-bumps students and peppers his lesson with anecdotes from his own experiences.

His lectures include references to “The Big Short” and other Hollywood movies that eviscerate Wall Street—and he pleads with students to challenge him. “He loves that level of engagement,” says Jen Fischer, MBA 16, who openly questioned a strategy Goodson suggested during the “Takeover Tussle” class.

Fischer (pictured) and another classmate, Zara Khan, MBA 16, decided at the start of the course that they would work together to challenge Goodson whenever they felt the urge. He worships push-back and often says “don’t come to class unless you have a solution or a decision viewpoint. We all read the case and don’t agree with me out of pity if I am wrong.”

Says Khan: “You don’t take Goodson’s class if you want to find answers. You take it if you want to learn how to identify and ask the right questions.”

The Oracle/Salesforce “Takeover Tussle” exercise was a case in point: on the topic of gathering information on what any other potential bidders might do and whether top Salesforce performers were likely to bolt after a takeover, Goodson was unequivocal: covert intelligence- gathering is a must, even if it means pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable by hanging out at coffee shops near Salesforce or the headquarters of other potential bidders.

And so it went for three hours. Goodson made clear his disdain for today’s acquisition prices (“We live in a bubble.”), key players (“Sellers lie. Their advisers lie.”), and the buzzwords used to justify deals (“What does ‘synergy’ mean, anyway?”). Then he urged students to find value anomalies using judgment, leadership, operating improvement understanding, and creative negotiating skills to seek out deals where “you see potential others cannot envision.”

“Doing deals is easy, but it is a fool’s game,” he said. “Your job is to get to the truth.  Discover, if you can, how to strategically and operationally make a business you acquire substantially better and more valuable before you blow a fortune buying it.  Otherwise you are the definition of the ‘winner’s curse.'”

 

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