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.

 

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