Startup Ashita brings NYC flair to jewelry line

Ashita Dhadda
Ashita Dhadda started fine jewelry company Ashita last year and hired 14 interns to help her expand.

When Ashita Dhadda was in eighth grade, she designed her first piece of jewelry, a decorative arm cuff. Her parents, who owned a jewelry business, helped her manufacture the cuff in India, and she quickly sold most of them to her Fort Lee, New Jersey, neighbors. 

“I wanted to get started on something, mainly for young girls to wear to festivals or dinners,” said Dhadda, BS 23. “I sold 80 of them in the building just for fun and gave the profit to charity.” 

Dhadda’s early success planted an entrepreneurial seed. Last year, the Haas junior launched online fine jewelry startup Ashita, an e-commerce business that offers  unique, high-quality, 14 karat gold jewelry that she designs.

Pops of color

Pops of color are Ashita’s staple—gold necklaces flecked with turquoise and orange stones; drop earrings with baby pink stones, and aqua enamel bands studded with a tiny diamond. Dhadda manufactures all of her jewelry in New York City, where she works on Fifth Avenue in the summer. She names her pieces of jewelry after New York locations like Brooklyn and the Hamptons.

“A lot of the inspiration comes from what’s around me,” said Dhadda, a double major in business and data science. “Everything around us is super colorful in New York—with SoHo and all of the shopping.”

Ashita jewelry
Pops of color are a staple of Ashita’s jewelry.

Last summer, Dhadda decided to expand, and assembled a group of 14 interns from East and West Coast colleges to help her with business development and marketing Her crew includes Paloma Aguilar, BS 21 (Media Studies, Political Economy), who models the jewelry and serves as an Ashita Instagram influencer. With the interns’ help, Ashita has hit some milestones, including passing the 300 customer order mark and reaching $50,000 in revenue.

More good news arrived when Ashita was approved to sell one of its trademark Manhattan rings on Amazon’s website. Dhadda just ordered 500 bands to fulfill orders. 

Launching a new line 

Juggling a growing business with her heavy course load is tricky, Dhadda said.  She logs many work hours between study sessions, answering customer emails, doing outreach with influencers and brand ambassadors, and crunching the data required to figure out what’s selling on her site and how her customers are finding her.

Paloma Aguilar wearing Ashita necklace
Paloma Aguilar, BS 21, (Media Studies and Political Economy), models Ashita jewelry as an Instagram influencer for the startup.

This fall, her interns, who assist with everything from Midtown photo shoots to visits to small Soho boutiques, will help Dhadda plan the launch of the spring line. The line includes 40 new pieces of jewelry she designed. 

Analyzing sales data is helping Dhadda to figure out her company’s niche. “I’ve realized that most of what we sell is in the $200 to $300 price point so we are focusing on that,” she said. 

This semester, she said she’s planning to join a Data Science Club at Haas. She’s also a member of Berkeley Women in Business, which connected her to her mentor Tanvi Lal, MBA 20. 

Lal introduced her to other MBA students who have advised her on everything from accounting to marketing her startup.

“I talked to her every week last semester and that was very helpful,” Dhadda said. “She’s had a huge influence on shaping my business.”

Dhadda added that she tries to take on projects in her courses that will help her improve different aspects of her business. She also continues to network.

“Now that I’m taking Haas classes I am looking to grow and network with students and alumni,” she said. “Learning from other people’s stories and experiences has had a huge impact.” 

London Swift, MBA 22, on helping creative freelancers find gigs and demand fair pay

Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.

London Swift photo
London Swift, MBA 22, co-founder of startup Et al, a community for women and gender-diverse creative freelancers.

Before London Swift arrived at Haas, she raised $15,000 on Kickstarter to build a test website called Et al., a hub for women and gender-diverse creative freelancers.

Swift hoped the beta site would bring “creatives”—digital designers, podcast creators, photographers, artists, and writers—together to find gigs.

“We got a tremendous response,” said Swift, MBA 22, who is working with her partner and co-founder Sophia Wirth, a digital brand strategy consultant. “We had 100 people reach out but only had room for 25 people on the site.”

At Haas, Swift is building Et al. from a test site into a business—a place for many more freelancers to showcase their portfolios, and network about everything from collaborative opportunities to fair pay rates to administrative challenges. Employers will use the site’s bulletin board to post job jobs and view users’ creative profiles.

Female “creatives”often face a persistent pay gap in the freelance market, a problem Swift is working to solve with the startup.

“We wanted to build a community where women could better understand the pay issues and work together to close the gender wage gap in the gig economy,” said Swift, a ceramics artist who once considered a career in the arts, but, wary of the low pay, worked as a consultant at Deloitte after her undergraduate program.

“We wanted to build a community where women could better understand the pay issues and work together to close the gender wage gap in the gig economy,” —London Swift, MBA 22.

Part of Et al.’s strategy will be to keep customers’ costs low, by offering flexible monthly user subscriptions.  Platform users will be segmented into professional communities, where they will have access to an exclusive Slack workspace.

Swift said she was inspired when one of their first test users, a new freelancer who had never written for a magazine, built her first creative portfolio and landed her first assignment with Elle UK, an article about how 1990s television sitcoms revolutionized Black beauty. “She is now working full-time as a freelance writer and we could not be happier for her,” Swift said.

Help along the way

Many groups have supported Swift’s startup journey since she arrived at Haas.

First, she was accepted into the Berkeley Student Entrepreneurship Program (StEP), a 10-week campus-wide incubator. Then she raised $35,000 last spring to build a new version of Et al.

Et al founders Sophia Wirth and London Swift
Et al. co-founders London Swift, MBA 22, (right) and her partner & CEO Sophia Wirth, a digital brand strategy consultant, whom she met during her undergraduate program at American University.

She was also the recent recipient of the Hansoo Lee Fellowship, created to honor the memory of Hansoo Lee, MBA 10, and is among the startup founders joining the Blackstone LaunchPad Techstars summer fellowship program for entrepreneurs. There, she’ll work with a mentor and bounce new ideas off other founders.

Last spring, El al. also participated in the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership’s Investing in Inclusion pitch competition, coming in second. “It’s so unique to have a startup space that’s focused on social impact and profitability,” she said. “It felt really special for us.”

Swift is also working with Berkeley Female Founders and Funders to find a few undergraduates who might be able to work with the team this summer. “We have an incredible network of entrepreneurs here,” she said.

London Swift
London Swift, co-founder of Et al., considered a career as an artist.

Outside of the startup world at Haas, Swift is a member of the Consortium, an organization that recruits qualified students who can demonstrate a commitment to its mission of enhancing diversity in business education and leadership, and Q@Haas, the LGBTQ+ MBA community at Haas—and the vice president of academic affairs for her MBA class. She said she’s looking forward to returning to campus this fall. “I’m definitely an extrovert and love being with people,” she said.

Meantime, Swift will focus on her company—and a new ceramics wheel she just bought, getting back into pottery and her creative side.

“Having the opportunity to study at Haas, support women in the arts, and address pay inequity is such a privilege and I cannot wait to see what the next few years bring,” she said.

Haas startups receive top honors at LAUNCH Demo Day

MINWO Founder Melanie Akwule, EWMBA 19, took third place at LAUNCH Demo Day.

Three Berkeley Haas startups netted top honors at LAUNCH Demo Day, UC’s accelerator and competition for early-stage startups. The event was held online May 2. 

MINWO, an online hub connecting Black entrepreneurs with angel investors and resources tied for third place; Clever.FM, a podcast app that allows users to discover and listen to podcasts and make in-app purchases, won Best Pitch; and EdVisorly, a program that helps community college students transfer to four-year universities, won Audience Choice.

MINWO and EdVisorly netted $5,000 each and Clever.FM landed $2,500 in prize money. 

MINWO was founded by Melanie Akwule, EWMBA 19, EdVisorly was co-founded by Manny Smith, MBA 21, and Alyson Isaacs, BS 21, and Clever.FM was founded by Sean Li, EWMBA 20.

Portrait of Sean Li
Sean Li, EWMBA 20, founded podcast app, Clever.FM. He’s also the creator and co-producer of the OneHaas podcast.

Myntor, a test prep software that provides tutoring help and answers using conversational artificial intelligence, placed first and self-biodegradable plastic startup, Intropic Materials, took second, netting a total of $50,000. The winning team included Founder and CEO Nathan Poon, PhD 21 (mechanical engineering), and Product Director Michael Fogarasi, MBA 22.

“Working with Nate and Myntor has been an absolute highlight of my MBA experience,” said Fogarasi. “I came to Haas specifically to help build the next generation of educational technology products and I am so excited that these plans are becoming a reality.” 

Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP) said this spring’s LAUNCH cohort was the most diverse since the accelerator’s inception, with eight of 10 UCs represented and 13 founders from underrepresented communities, five of whom identify as Black. The cohort also included seven women founders and two startups led by military veterans.

Portrait: Rhonda Shrader“All 21 teams that finished the program learned the necessary skills to take their ventures forward and will be supported by the strong bonds they formed with each other over the past three months,” Shrader said.

Ten UC teams pitched to VCs and angel investors on Demo Day, out of a crop of 21 teams that finished the three-month-long accelerator program that aims to transform promising startups into fundable companies. 

Startup teams that participate in LAUNCH go through a rigorous curriculum designed to help entrepreneurs refine and test their business model. During the program, teams get to test their product with customers, connect with industry experts, receive guidance from Haas mentors, and pitch to investors on Demo Day. 

LAUNCH, which is part of BHEP, has proven to be a boon for early-stage startups in the UC system. More than 150 LAUNCH alumni companies have raised over $200 million in funding. 

The competition featured talks from Ryan McDonough, co-founder of Accompany,  software that collects and develops profiles about C-suite executives, and Haas alums Richard Din, co-founder of food delivery service Caviar, and Brad Bao, founder of e-bike and scooter rental company, Lime. All three spoke about their entrepreneurial successes and challenges.

Launch Demo Day can be viewed on YouTube.

Berkeley Haas startup founders raise record funding

A sustainable, space-saving vertical strawberry farm that produces ultra-sweet berries without pesticides and an online bank for “free thinkers, rebels, and entrepreneurs” were among the new companies that propelled Berkeley Haas to No. 4 for fundraising on the Poets & Quants Top 100 MBA startups list this year.

Annually, Poets & Quants ranks b-school startups with at least $5.5 million or more in funding. To be considered, founders must have launched their startups within the five prior years (2015-2020) and have at least one founder enrolled in an MBA program within that time frame.

Hiroki Koga, MBA 17
Hiroki Koga, MBA 17, developed his idea for more sustainable farming with Oishii at Haas.

This year, five Haas companies founded in that period raised a record total of $125 million. Two Haas startups made it into the Top 20, including Oishii, founded by Hiroki Koga, MBA 17, ($50 million) and Oxygen, founded by Hussein Ahmed, EMBA 18, ($33 million).

Also on the list were Kyte, a car-sharing startup co-founded by Ludwig Schoenack, MBA 19, ($18 million); Time by Ping, a timekeeping automation company co-founded by Kourosh Zamanizadeh, EWMBA 18, ($17.3 million); and healthcare startup Twentyeight Health, cofounded by Amy Fan, MBA/MPH 19, ($6.08 million). Twentyeight Health also made Poets & Quants’ 2020 “Most Disruptive Startups” list.

Amy Fan
Amy Fan, MBA/MPH 19, co-founder of Twentyeight Health

Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia Business School had seven startups on the 2021 list, while Haas, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, and France’s INSEAD all had five.

“We’re so proud of what these startup founders have accomplished,” said Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, noting that founders from four MBA degree programs–full-time MBA,  evening & weekend MBA, MBA/MPH, and executive MBA—are represented on the P&Q list. “Their ongoing success is proof of the depth and breadth of our entrepreneurship programs across campus, and a testament to the drive that so many of our students have to build world-changing startups.”

More proof of that drive came this week as Ryan McQuaid, MBA 08, announced that he’d sold his startup, virtual primary care platform Plushcare, to Accolade for $450 million. McQuaid, who started Plushcare at Haas, made previous Poets & Quants Top MBA startup lists.

Entrepreneurship is one of Dean Ann Harrison’s top three priorities for the school, and Haas continues to invest in new resources, recently announcing three new professors in its Entrepreneurship & Innovation group and a plan to build a new entrepreneurship hub on campus. “It’s gratifying to see so many Haas founders on this list who are solving important problems that impact everything from the environment to healthcare,” Harrison said.

Validating the business model

Oishii strawberries
Oishii’s sustainable strawberries have two to three times the sweetness of a conventional strawberry. Photo: Oishii

Jersey City-based Oishii, ranked No. 14 on the list, runs a vertical farming operation, raising top-quality strawberries that are tested to ensure two to three times the sweetness of conventional berries.

Founder Koga arrived at Haas in 2015 after working as a consultant in the vertical farm industry in Japan. Realizing that agriculture was no longer sustainable, he decided to tackle the problem by growing crops indoors, which allowed him to use 90% less land and water, eliminate the use of pesticides, and cut down on food transportation distances.

The MBA program provided two years to assess his hypothesis and validate the business model in the U.S., something he said he could never have done from Japan. During Koga’s second year, he entered the LAUNCH accelerator program—and won the competition, “which gave us more credibility and recognition as we were raising our seed round.”

Oishii’s strawberries, coveted by chefs, sold out pre-pandemic, Koga said. But as more people started cooking at home over the past year, they became increasingly aware of what they were eating and more willing to pay for higher-quality produce. As a result, many vertical farm companies have grown quickly and experienced a significant increase in revenue and funding, Koga said.

Filling in missing pieces

Startup Oxygen, No. 19 on the P&Q list, offers banking to freelancers, consumers, and small businesses, with no monthly fees, marketing itself as a new kind of bank account for “free thinkers, rebels, and entrepreneurs.”

Hussein Ahmed, EMBA 18, founded Oxygen to help people who don’t fit the “typical mold” for banking.

Ahmed said he founded Oxygen out of personal experiences with banks. “Living for a big part of my life as a “solopreneur,” consultant, and business owner, it was always a struggle to work with banks and financial institutions because I didn’t fit the typical molds they have—either a 9-to-5 full-time employee or a corporation—nothing in between,” he said.

The pandemic, while horrible, was “a blessing in disguise” for Oxygen, he said. With stay-at-home orders, digital banking suddenly became the only way to bank “without having to drive down to a branch and wait in line masked up,” he said. There was also a massive boom in new business formations in the U.S., which significantly accelerated Oxygen’s small-business banking growth.

Ahmed, who has an engineering background and started companies before he arrived at Haas, said the MBA program helped fill in missing pieces.

“With an engineering background and product focus, along with scars and wins and street smarts, I was still missing the academics and business tactics from economics, finance, and accounting,” he said. “Having those subjects, great professors, and class discussions gives a lot of perspective on how to think about all those different angles and perspectives—while being at the helm dealing with everything on a day-to-day basis.”

Startup Spotlight: Lastbit’s plan to revolutionize cross-border payments

Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.

Lastbit
Co-founders: Bernardo Magnani, MBA 20, and Prashanth Balasubramanian

lastbit logo

Economist and former McKinsey consultant Bernardo Magnani, MBA 20, spends a lot of time thinking about the meaning of money and how it regulates societies and human behavior. That fascination—and a drive to shake up the international payment industry— led him to early bitcoin user Prashanth Balasubramanian, and fintech startup Lastbit. In this interview, he discusses how he fell into entrepreneurship at Haas and wound up making it into the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator.

 

What does your startup do (in about 20 words)?

Lastbit is building a payment platform to enable cheap and instant cross-border settlements leveraging the Bitcoin Lightning Network

How did you get started in entrepreneurship at Haas? 

Bernardo magnani
Lastbit co-founder Bernardo Magnani, MBA 20, is on a mission to offer cheaper and faster cross-border payments.

When I came to Haas, I didn’t really know I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I didn’t even take a single entrepreneurship-related course during my MBA program. Nevertheless, I was very clear about the fact that I wanted to work close to financial institutions and payments.

I came to business school sponsored by McKinsey, and despite the fact that my experience with the consulting firm was very positive, I was having doubts about whether it was the right platform for me to drive change.

During my summer internship, I worked for one of the biggest financial institutions in South America, looking for an alternative path. I had a beautiful experience, leading three teams and nine people in digital transformation initiatives. But again, I didn’t feel that was my path. I wanted to do more things, faster.

Following my intuition, I came back to Haas determined to explore entrepreneurship. I reached out to Santiago Pezzoni, Santiago Freyria, and Francesco Dipierro, co-founders of StEP, who are now dear friends. I had heard amazing things about the program and felt that joining a rising project at the heart of the business school was the best way to learn. Eventually, I became part of StEP’s leadership team and fell in love with entrepreneurship.

Where did you meet your co-founder Prashanth Balasubramanian?

Prashanth Balasubramanian
Lastbit founder Prashanth Balasubramanian faced challenges moving money from India to pay his tuition in Switzerland.

After joining StEP, I knew I wanted to find an opportunity with a fintech startup. I first heard about Lastbit and Prashanth through SkyDeck. I read everything I could find online about Prashanth and his project. I immediately felt connected to his story, values, mission, and even his love for heavy metal music. I had to meet him.

Intending to meet him, I went to my first and last networking event of my MBA. He was not there. I was bummed. Eventually, I found him and we started working together almost immediately. I never looked back after that.

Today, I’m very proud of our partnership and feel that we complement each other perfectly. On paper, we have pretty much no overlap and very different backgrounds, but our drive, vision, and values are pretty much the same.

Where did the idea for Lastbit come from? 

Prashanth decided to start Lastbit when he was studying for his Master’s in Computer Science at ETH Zurich. While in Switzerland, he faced a lot of challenges moving money from India to pay his tuition and eventually decided to use Bitcoin.

Despite its potential, Prashanth realized that Bitcoin was still very far from delivering on its promise of being a new viable monetary system. Transactions were too slow and expensive, and using Bitcoin for real-world transactions was close to impossible. He decided to leave his Master’s program to start Lastbit with the mission to take Bitcoin mainstream, leveraging the Lightning Network, a technology that makes sending as little as a dollar instantly across the globe economically viable.

Why did the idea appeal to you personally?

Growing up in Mexico I saw how broken financial services are and I’ve been trying to find a way to solve this. When I met Prashanth, I immediately understood what cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin could mean for financial services. I’ve worked close to banks for around seven years and had never seen something nearly as exciting. I believe cryptocurrencies are the only credible promise to drive a paradigm shift in financial services.

What’s the Lightning Network and why is it so important?

The Lightning Network is a communication protocol built on top of Bitcoin that allows money to be sent between two parties instantly for very low fees without requiring a middleman to settle the transaction. The Lightning Network as a technology is meaningful for financial services because it’s arguably the fastest and most cost-effective way to settle transactions in the history of digital payments.

The Lightning Network as a technology is meaningful for financial services because it’s arguably the fastest and most cost-effective way to settle transactions in the history of digital payments.

Disrupting cross-border payment settlements with the Lightning Network could mean that sending and receiving money across the globe to anyone, anywhere, could be as simple and fast as paying your friends for lunch using Venmo or CashApp.

International payment settlements have seen no meaningful disruption in almost 50 years. Today, most global payments are still settled using the guidelines set by SWIFT, a protocol developed in the 1970s that isn’t up to par with the requirements of an economy that’s become more digital and global. SWIFT transactions can take five days or more and can cost $50 or more to settle, whereas Lightning transactions are instant and cost less than a penny each.

Getting into Y Combinator is exciting for any startup. What was the virtual experience like?

Quite frankly, one of the best experiences of my life. Honestly, I was a little skeptical about this batch being remote and I questioned how much value it would have for us. But for me, as a first-time founder, it was very transformative. It provided both unparalleled knowledge and access to one of the deepest networks in Silicon Valley.

Y Combinator marked a before and after for us. We just had our demo day (an event held twice a year when startups present to investors) and it’s been crazy. The interest we got is overwhelming. It feels like a dream come true.

What’s been the biggest challenge for Lastbit so far? 

The biggest challenge has to be regulation. Cryptocurrencies have operated outside of the scope of traditional financial regulation for most of their history. Nevertheless, regulation has started to emerge globally.

We take regulation very seriously and are always looking to be one step ahead of what’s strictly required from us. Nevertheless, there is no real guarantee that regulation in the future will be favorable for businesses like ours. For example, some countries, including India, are attempting to ban cryptocurrencies.

All taken into consideration, I believe that regulation is a good thing and for us and being proactive about it can be a competitive advantage as it was for Coinbase.

What are your goals for the next six months? 

Right now we are super focused on Europe, working on enabling cheaper and faster euro-to-euro merchant payments and remittances between Europe and Africa. Our goal for the next 12 to 18 months is to grow the business enough to raise a Series A round, which may require expanding our focus to other geographies, such as the USA.

The long term vision is to build a platform that connects all the major international payment corridors so that businesses across the globe can build payment solutions using our infrastructure. Think about Stripe, but for cross-border payments.

 

Student-led StEP fills critical gap for campus startups

The co-founders of StEP
L-R: StEP program co-founders Santiago Freyria, Francesco Dipierro, and Santiago Pezzoni.

When Santiago Pezzoni isn’t in his Berkeley Haas MBA classes, he’s running his fintech startup, Digiventures

And when he’s not running Digiventures, he’s helping other UC Berkeley students start their own companies as co-founder and program manager of StEP (Student Entrepreneurship Program), a 10-week campus-wide incubator that has so far assisted 120 startups. 

 “There are so many people on campus—PhDs, postdocs, engineers—who have fantastic ideas and technologies, but you ask them ‘how will you make that a business?’ and they say, ‘I’m not sure,’” said Pezzoni, MBA 21, who co-founded StEP with Santiago Freyria and Francesco Dipierro, both MBA 20. “We’re figuring out how to get them involved and help them take their fantastic ideas into the world.”

Launched in 2019, StEP is a cross-collaboration among Berkeley student clubs, faculty, entrepreneurship organizations, and VCs. It aims to fill a gap the founders discovered in the campus startup ecosystem.  

“Our research found that while more than 80% of Haas students we interviewed took entrepreneurship classes or had startup ideas, less than 5% were able to access accelerators or pre-seed funding,” Pezzoni said.

“Our research found that while more than 80% of Haas students we interviewed took entrepreneurship classes or had startup ideas, less than 5% were able to access accelerators or pre-seed funding.” — Santiago Pezzoni.

Berkeley students, faculty or alumni can apply to StEP as teams or individuals, and opt to be matched with others. All of the teams meet on Zoom weekly, using skills they learn in StEP to take their ideas forward. They also meet separately each week with mentors to review goals and achievements. At the end of the program, teams pitch their startup plans to investors.

StEP applicants choose one of two paths, depending on whether they are looking for help with an idea or want to be matched with others who already have an idea. The program’s founders reach across programs and schools to find people with the right skill sets needed by the new teams. Later, the founders work to connect the teams with investors who can provide early-stage capital.

“You only do it if you really love this”

So far, 120 startups have completed the StEP program, and 30% of them still exist. About a quarter of participants are from Haas, including Dispatch Goods, founded by Lindsey Hoell, who was last year’s StEP showcase winner and is now growing her company at UC Berkeley SkyDeck, a partnership among Haas, Berkeley Engineering, and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.  

Pezzoni, who won the LAUNCH program last year with Digiventures, said StEP helps students to clarify whether the startup life is for them. “Being an entrepreneur is not a sexy life,” he said. “It’s tough, and you only do it if you really love this. You have to decide why you want to be a founder.”

“Being an entrepreneur is not a sexy life,” he said. “It’s tough, and you only do it if you really love this. You have to decide why you want to be a founder.”

StEP’s founders say they work about 20 hours a week apiece on the program, chatting often with startup stakeholders across campus including Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP), Caroline Winnett, executive director of Berkeley SkyDeck, and former Haas Dean Rich Lyons, now UC Berkeley’s Chief Innovation and Entrepreneurship Officer, who supported StEP from its inception.

Moving through the startup ecosystem

The typical trajectory for new startup teams is to start with a program like StEP and continue with a Berkeley program like NSF I-Corps , CITRIS Foundry, Form+Fund, and then, with that experience under their belts, apply to the LAUNCH incubator program. María del Mar Londoño, MBA 21, founder of SuperPetfoods, won the StEP finals two years ago and continued on to the LAUNCH finals. StEP co-founder Freyria also went through LAUNCH as a co-founder of Callisto Spirits, a botanical rum maker that raised $650,000.

Bernardo Magnani, MBA 21, who is part of the StEP leadership team, left a consulting career to co-found Lastbit, and was accepted to the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator program. Magnani just raised $2 million for the company, which allows customers to make instant low-cost global Bitcoin payments. 

“I’m such a fan of StEP,” Shrader said. “Sometimes the hardest part of entrepreneurship is just finding a teammate or asking a bunch of questions with people who are all learning together. StEP is just a beautiful resource for the campus—designed and delivered by students.”

The passion to keep building the program unites the StEP team, Dipierro said. 

“We’re working to build something that will continue, that can be sustainable at UC Berkeley for the next 10 years,” he said. 

Can plant-based seafood replace the real thing? Startup Impact Food thinks so 

sushi
Plant-based “tuna” is used to make Impact Food’s sushi. Photo: Impact Food.

Recreating the deliciousness of sushi using plants is no easy task. But Impact Food’s founders think they’ve found a way to do it.

Co-founded by Kelly Pan, BS 22, Adrian Miranda, BA 21 (molecular cell biology), and double-bear Stephanie Claudino Daffara, BA 18, (computer science), MS 20, (electrical engineering & computer science) Impact Food aims to make plant-based seafood. Pan leads the team’s strategy and business development, Daffara handles market research and design, and Miranda manages product research and development. Haas News recently interviewed the team, who met last spring in a course taught by Ricardo San Martin, director of The Sutardja Center’s Alt: Meat Lab at UC Berkeley.

What does your startup do (in 20 words or less)? 

We reimagine sustainable food systems through delicious and nutritious plant-based seafood.

Where did the idea for Impact Food come from?

Pan: Our current animal-based food system is not sustainable for the environment, animals, or humans. There’s a lot of contamination in our industrial systems—heavy metals found in wild-caught fish and farm-raised fish often contain antibiotics and contaminants. Approximately 90% of fish are also at risk of becoming extinct and less than 3% of the Bluefin tuna population are left in our oceans. We realized that we had to take action to make a positive impact on our food systems. 

My team and I researched alternative meats and found a few plant-based alternatives like the Impossible Burger, Beyond Meat, and Just Egg, but there weren’t many options in the seafood space. So we focused our efforts on seafood. We’re currently working on our first product, a plant-based raw tuna.

We developed our first edible prototype at the end of 2020. I can’t share our secret sauce, but we’re using plant-based ingredients to create our raw tuna. Eventually, we want to develop other products like scallops and calamari.

Portraits of two women and one man.
Impact food was co-founded by Kelly Pan, BS 22 (left); Stephanie Claudino Daffara, BA 18, EECS 20 (top right); and Adrian Miranda, BA 21.

How did you know which plants worked best to replicate raw tuna?

Miranda: We’ve discovered that certain plant starches and proteins have the ability to form stable gels that can mimic the jelly-like texture of raw seafood products. 

How does Impact Food solve the problem in a new or different way?

Pan: Our team has created a new technology to make plant-based seafood, using existing food science principles in novel, innovative ways. After thoroughly studying tuna, we carefully selected plant-based ingredients to replicate the subtle ocean flavor, nutrient-rich protein, and melt-in-your-mouth sensation of fleshy tuna meat. Our technology can also be adapted to other seafood products.

What have been the biggest challenges for you so far? 

Miranda: The biggest challenge for us has been perfecting our product. Replicating the flaky and delicate texture of raw tuna as well as its aroma using plant-derived ingredients is something that has never been done before. It’s been a lot of trial and error. 

Daffara: Convincing and educating people about the health dangers of eating animal-based diets is difficult. While I don’t think everyone has to become vegan, I do believe animal consumption should be less frequent and less excessive to allow oceans to recover, forests to strengthen, and animal species to replenish.

Pan: We’re all in different geographic locations, which makes it difficult to test the product. Adrian and I are currently in southern California, while Stephanie is in San Francisco. Adrian has set up a home lab to make our plant-based tuna, but he’s the only one who’s testing the tuna. Another hurdle for us will be getting our product out to restaurants under COVID restrictions.

Miranda set up a lab in his home to create plant-based tuna.

Who’s sampled your tuna and what’s been the feedback so far?

Miranda: We’ve done pilot taste tests with friends, family, and one sushi restaurant. Many admire the appearance and mouthfeel that our tuna product has as well as its nutritional benefits like omega-3 fats and protein. Our feedback has been positive among sushi chefs and close friends, but we strive to improve our product until it’s an exact match or tastes better than animal-based tuna.

Has Haas helped with resources for your startup?

Pan:
The Haas network has been incredible. We learned about the Berkeley Haas Startup Seed Funding and competitions like the Hult Prize through the Haas network. Rhonda Shrader, who heads up Berkeley Haas’ Entrepreneurship Program, recommended that we look into Venture Well, a STEM grant program. I think just having the Berkeley email address opens doors for us because there have been so many people wanting to help us. 

Kurt Beyer’s Entrepreneurship class taught me how to run a business and Prof. Ricardo San Martin’s Alternative Meat Challenge Lab inspired all of us to create this startup. So far we’ve won the Sebastiani Food Venture award and we were granted $5,000 in seed funding from the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program; we won the People’s Choice Award at the bi-annual Collider Cup and we won UC Berkeley’s Hult Prize competition. We’ll be participating in the regional Hult Prize competition in April.

Startup Spotlight: EdVisorly eases transfer process for community college students

Alyson Isaacs and Manny Smith
Alyson Isaacs, BS 21, and Manny Smith, MBA 21

Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.

EdVisorly was co-founded by Manny Smith, MBA 21, a former product manager with the U.S. Air Force and a first-generation college student, and Alyson Isaacs, BS 21, who is tapping her experience as a former community college student to help fix the transfer process for the next generation. Smith is CEO and Isaacs serves as COO.

We recently interviewed Smith and Isaacs.

What does your startup do (in 20 words or less)? We help California community college students transfer to their target universities.

How did you meet?

Alyson Isaacs: Manny and I met by chance while waiting on line for coffee at Cafe Think during orientation week my first year at Haas. Manny had started the ideation process for the company and we talked about it. We’ve committed to this mission ever since. Manny has always been inspired by community college students and their grit. Being a first-gen student, he empathizes with what community college stands for, so our mission for this company is aligned.

Where did the idea come from?

Alyson Isaacs: I attended three community colleges before deciding on business at Haas—Chabot, Santa Barbara City College and Las Positas. There’s a discouraging problem that there are few reliable resources for community college students to help them transfer and few students who know how to access and use the resources. The academic counselors are overburdened and the COVID-19 remote learning environment has exacerbated these issues. Students get misinformation. Also, the four-year universities each have their own unique admission requirements, from courses to the process of applying. We are aggregating all of the information and insights a student would need to transfer to a four-year university and improving the student experience.

How does EdVisorly solve the problem in a new or different way?

Manny Smith: Of the 13.1 million community college students, who represent a third of all undergraduate students across the U.S., about 40% drop out per year. After interviewing more than 200 community college students, we uncovered big resource problems that are causing students to drop out. That’s what we aim to solve with EdVisorly. With our student-centric approach, we aim to positively disrupt higher education by providing a more clear path to university acceptance from community college. I compare our approach to the way GPS works— you tell us where you are, and we tell you what path or set of paths to take to reach your destination.

After interviewing more than 200 community college students, we uncovered big resource problems that are causing students to drop out. — Manny Smith

What’s been the biggest challenge for you so far? 

Alyson Isaacs: The data side of things. We have millions of combinations of what classes meet the requirements for which majors and there are a lot of different subsets of that information. We are generating more accurate data every day to improve the quality of our student data experience.

Manny Smith: We are running a concierge service where we use the software to work directly with students while planning their academic journey. This is helping us learn more about the student’s wants, needs, and fears to ensure we have a product that both helps students and garners high adoption rates. We are in the process of hiring additional software engineers to augment the team and help us refactor our product.

What are your goals for the next six months?

Manny Smith: Over the next six months, we plan to help 250 students plan their journey from community college to four-year universities. By exercising an action-oriented, go-to-market strategy, we’ll be able to better understand unique student experiences, refine our marketing channels, validate our pricing model, and deliver a better product by summer 2021.

Has Haas helped with resources for your startup?

Manny Smith: The Haas Entrepreneurship ecosystem has truly been a game changer. The expert professors, mentors, incubator and accelerator programs are second to none. I would like to call special attention to the Hansoo Lee Fellowship (named after the late Hansoo Lee, MBA 10, and co-founder of Magoosh) which provided mentors and resources to allow me to pursue EdVisorly for my summer internship. Mentors such as Steven Horowitz from the Big Ideas Contest, helped us develop frameworks to think critically about the problem we aim to solve. Kurt Beyer, Rhonda Shrader, and Phillip Denny have been phenomenal in helping us navigate the right incubator and accelerator programs based on our startup progress.

Startup Spotlight: GivingFund offers millennials a unique way to give

Kim Long (left) and Samantha Penabad founded GivingFund
GivingFund founders Kim Long (left) and Samantha Penabad, both MBA 18

Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.

For Kim Long and Samantha Penabad, both MBA 18, launching a startup in a pandemic during the holiday season made perfect sense.

“We felt that this was something that people need right now,” Penabad said of their company GivingFund,  which targets millennials who are new to philanthropy. “We’re focused on helping young professionals who want to give more strategically, especially during the pandemic, when there are outsized needs.” 

“We felt that this was something that people need right now…especially during the pandemic, when there are outsized needs.” —Samantha Penabad

GivingFund allows those who are interested in giving back to deposit a percentage of their income that they can then donate to nonprofits based on their preferences. Because GivingFund users are typically new to philanthropy, there’s no minimum deposit amount required to start. 

Doubling your impact

The signup process starts with a quiz, with questions designed for users to reflect on their preferences and goals in order to develop what Penabad describes as a “giving style.” After depositing funds, users can set up monthly or one-off donations  to nonprofits, which are vetted by GivingFund to ensure that they are legitimate or 501(c)(3)s. Users can login to track donations, check their balances, and monitor their giving strategy.

GivingFund invests part of the money that customers hold in their accounts in local businesses and economic development projects. The interest paid from those investments helps support the company’s business model, and allows Penabad and Long to keep the services free to users. 

Future versions of the platform will give users options to invest more money through CNote, their current investment provider, or directly in options like green bonds, Long said, “Ultimately, we want everyone to feel like they’re able to double their impact—first when their GivingFund is invested, and second when they donate to their nonprofit of choice.”

An interesting team

Penabad, who is a head of strategy and operations at Google, and Long, who works in data strategy at Boston-based Foundation Medicine, are an interesting team. A New Jersey native, Penabad has always been interested in philanthropy, starting her career as a nonprofit consultant and as a volunteer for Goodwill of Greater Washington. In that capacity, she built a board of 15 young professionals, who gathered to host events such as fashion shows aimed at recruiting more people to work for Goodwill.

Long grew up in France, where she wasn’t exposed to philanthropy. “The government takes care of people,” she said. “That was my experience. We don’t need to donate because someone is going to take care of us.”  What drew her to the project was the technology. “This is a fintech project,” she said. “We’re really building a product that has impact.”

This is a fintech project. We’re really building a product that has impact. —Kim Long

While at Haas, the pair received grants from the Dean’s Startup Seed Fund and by winning their category at the annual UC-wide Big Ideas competition. In classes like Lean Launchpad, the founders interviewed scores of fellow millennials to try to figure out why they don’t donate more to causes they care about.

Long said her interviews with fellow millennials made her realize that she, too, was trying to figure out how to best donate money to worthy causes beyond the typical “GoFundMe one-off.” After graduating, the pair kept the idea for GivingFund alive, even while working full-time. They have tested the platform for the past year, asking classmates and friends to try it, and hosting online events in New York and San Francisco to answer questions and build the donor community.

An accountability tool

One early champion of GivingFund is Om Chitale, Penabad’s classmate who is now director of diversity admissions at Berkeley Haas. He said he plans to use the platform because it “meets us where we are.” 

“GivingFund allows us to have a positive impact in a way that feels familiar: engaging with a central tool and system that helps us understand our goals, allocating our giving based on the different types of impact we want to have, and tracking it like we would other investments and budgets,” he said. “Plus, it’s an accountability tool to directly track if we’re putting our money where our mouths—and hearts—are.”

 

MBA startup simplifies applying to b-school for Chinese students

Portrait: Danqing Zhou. EWMBA 23
Photo: Danqing Zhou, EWMBA 23, founded startup Beecoming, which aggregates business school information for students applying from China.

Applying to graduate schools in the U.S. from her home in Shanghai, China, was a challenging process for Evening & Weekend MBA student Danqing Zhou. 

From taking specialized tests to translating academic transcripts into English to getting access to certain MBA websites behind China’s firewall, Zhou, EWMBA 23, found the entire admissions process confusing and overwhelming.

While Zhou overcame the challenges and got into Haas, her experience led her to create Beecoming, an online tool that aggregates admissions information from the top 16 U.S. business schools for Chinese students.

Chinese students are the largest segment of international students studying in the U.S., with 369,548 Chinese students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in the 2018-19 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education.

List of MBA schools
The online tool collects data from the top business schools in the U.S.

Beecoming’s tool collects data from official university websites and includes application deadlines, average GMAT scores, contact information for school ambassadors, class profiles, links to sample essays, and course offerings.

Zhou, who works as a solutions architect at software company SAP, said she hopes to create transparency around the admissions process and empower more students to study in the U.S.

“Studying abroad changed my life,” said Zhou, who studied in Australia during the summer before her high school senior year and as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. “I was exposed to different cultures, opinions, and critical thinking courses—something that I had never experienced before in China.”

The tool is “a lifesaver”

Though Beecoming is in its early stages, Zhou says there are hundreds of students among her WeChat network who are eager to use it. For now, 30 people are testing the tool and she plans to officially launch Beecoming in spring 2021.

Jimmy Lin, a prospective MBA student and beta user for Beecoming, called the tool “a lifesaver” that’s helped him stay on top of deadlines and application requirements for six MBA programs. 

“I don’t need to check each school’s website anymore,” said Lin. “Beecoming’s dashboard has everything listed in one place.”

“I don’t need to check each school’s website anymore,” said Lin. “Beecoming’s dashboard has everything listed in one place.”

Since enrolling at Haas, Zhou has wasted no time tapping the school’s resources. She’s taking advantage of mentoring hours offered by the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program and applying lessons learned from her Leading People class taught by Rebecca Portnoy, a professional faculty member. She’s also registered for Berkeley Law’s FORM+FUND, a series of law workshops for entrepreneurs.

In July Zhou was accepted to Amazon’s AWS EdStart Accelerator for Members, which will provide the opportunity to network with other edtech entrepreneurs.

In the upcoming months, Zhou said she plans to look for seed funding and build relationships with universities that will pay to be featured on her platform. 

In the meantime, she’ll continue to self-fund the tool that’s already helping students among her network.

“I’m putting all my money into this,” said Zhou, who’s invested about $10,000 so far in the project. “Helping people get into their dream school is way more important than money.”

Startup Roundup: Better beards, smarter healthcare, virtual water cooler chats

The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.

Newmen founders
John Melizanis, BS 20, founded men’s grooming product company Newmen with Joseph Lorenzo, a University of Tampa graduate, and Jake Lourenco, BA 20 (political science).

Newmen

Founders: John Melizanis, BS 20, Joseph Lorenzo, a University of Tampa graduate, and Jake Lourenco, BA 20 (political science)

What does Newmen do (in 20 words or less)?

We’re a men’s grooming brand that helps hard-working men look good, feel good, and smell good.

How did you come up with the idea?

Joseph, my co-founder and best friend since fourth grade, had the biggest beard and didn’t like the grooming options that were out there. With that in mind, we both said, ‘Let’s make something happen.’ It’s the second company we’ve started together.

Joseph Lorenzo grooms his beard.
Newmen co-founder Joseph Lorenzo straightens his beard with a Newman beard brush.

What problem does Newmen solve?

There’s an under-served demographic when it comes to men’s grooming needs. The men who come to our site are often buying products for the first time. We’re building a community around this group, offering products like scented beard oils, a beard straightener, and a protective heat spray for beards.

You participated in the UC LAUNCH accelerator with a different startup. What did you learn that you apply now?

LAUNCH taught us how to test products quickly. We did a lot of research on our Newmen oils, which are made by a small mom and pop shop in Detroit. We wanted to figure out what scents men liked and what’s good for the skin, so we looked at what a lot of women’s skin-care companies were selling.

We tested our products on hundreds of men super quickly, asking them how their faces felt after using our products for a week. We’re super close to our customers and we have early evangelists, people whom we text and email all the time. These people aren’t necessarily spending the most time on our website, but have been crucial in the development of Newmen. They might spend $40, but they’re giving us feedback all the time, telling their friends what they just bought and why.

Has anyone from Haas helped you with your startup?

Of course! Assoc. Prof. Panos Patatoukas has been super helpful. I met Panos before I came to Cal and he was extremely supportive throughout my undergraduate years. I’d be working on something and I’d ask him, ‘What do you think?’ He was a great sounding board and a supportive mentor. Additionally, Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, has been the best, along with Aaron McDaniel, a professional faculty member at Haas, and Darren Cooke, a LAUNCH advisor.

I met Panos before I came to Cal and he was extremely supportive throughout my undergraduate years. I’d be working on something and I’d ask him, ‘What do you think?’ He was a great sounding board and a supportive mentor.

Newmen beard oils
Newmen beard oils come in different scents that the company tested with customers.

What are your goals for the next six to 12 months?

We’re selling only on our website right now. We’ve been making a profit so we haven’t thought about raising money yet. I don’t think much about the competition, I focus on what we’re selling. We’re thinking about new products and planning to sell a line of skincare, body wash, and shampoo in the future. As we continue to grow, we’re looking to sell into different channels, including regional and national retailers and barbershops around the country. We’re constantly focused on building relationships that can help us put our products in our customers’ hands wherever they might be in their grooming journey.

A lot of guys are telling us that they’re so proud of their beards now. They’re talking about their morning routines. It’s crazy to think we’re helping people with that!

Aila Health

Founder: Rory Stanton, EWMBA 20

Rory Stanton
Rory Stanton

What does your startup do (in 20 words or less)?  

Aila Health is a data-driven, remote-care platform for patients with chronic illness.

How did you come up with the idea?

My cousin has what you would call an invisible illness, meaning she looks healthy on the outside, but is actually managing multiple chronic conditions. After watching her bounce between specialists for years before getting a diagnosis and seeing the lack of communication between her different doctors, I thought there had to be a better way for doctors to deliver personalized care to patients with chronic illness.

What problem does Aila solve?

There are nearly 50 million Americans living with chronic autoimmune conditions today. That’s more than diabetes and cancer combined. Despite the fact that these conditions cost the health system billions each year, they are not well understood or managed. We aim to change that.

There are nearly 50 million Americans living with chronic autoimmune conditions today. That’s more than diabetes and cancer combined.

Aila Health's remote app
Aila’s app lets a patient’s care team track symptoms in real-time to help deliver the right care.

How doe Aila work and how do teams use it?

Aila Health is a chronic care management platform that offers personalized remote care at scale. It enables  patients with chronic illness to sync all of their health information in one place and quantify disease progression over time. It similarly gives their healthcare providers a holistic view of a patient’s health so they can track symptoms in real-time and deliver the right care with the right provider at the right time.

What’s been the biggest challenge for you as a founder so far?

There are so many inefficiencies in the U.S. healthcare system that Aila’s solution can help with. One of the biggest challenges for us was determining which problem to solve first. During our customer interviews, we learned that the COVID-19 pandemic had drastically shifted priorities for healthcare organizations. There is a need for new technical infrastructure to deliver value-based care and personalized remote care at scale.

Has anyone from Haas helped you on your startup journey?

Haas gave me a great community of classmates and mentors who have helped us along our journey. Rhonda Shrader (executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program), in particular, has been an amazing mentor and advocate for me. From cheerleading during some difficult transition periods to supporting our team’s application for the National Science Foundation’s I-CORPS Program, I really appreciate having her in my corner. Dan Cloutier, EWMBA 21, was also a wonderful health industry mentor for our I-CORPS team.

What are your goals for the next six months?

We are kicking off our first couple of pilots now. We want to execute these really well and validate our solution with an improved provider experience and patient outcome. In the next six months, we aim to bring more health systems onto the platform and raise an initial round of financing.

Seren 

Founder: Olayinka Omolere, MBA 21

Seren founder Olayinka Omolere
Seren founder Olayinka Omolere

What does your startup do (in 20 words or less)?

Seren creates serendipity online by nudging people into instant and personalized water cooler calls—using AI to preserve relationships and collaboration.

How did you come up with the idea?

When COVID hit in March, I started looking for opportunities in the chaos. I looked for areas undergoing massive change and picked remote work because I had experienced it and understood its shortcomings.

As I spoke to my classmates about our challenges with remote schooling, I noticed a pattern. Without chance meetings in the Haas courtyard or around campus, my peers were finding it harder to stay connected. We were being told to “be intentional” but it felt like a ton of work, and our social interactions and circles were shrinking. I came to Haas for the culture, and I loved interacting with my friends and classmates, but I was beginning to feel isolated. Then I interned as a product manager at Cisco, where I saw first-hand how the problem of not having informal interactions could affect business. When informal connections are disrupted, employees find it harder to maintain a sense of belonging, and scientific research suggested this could impact culture and innovation.

What problem does Seren solve?

Seren solves the problem of staying in touch online by helping people to “bump into” other virtually, so that brief and informal conversations can happen.

Seren app screen shot.
Seren instantly matches people with teammates in Slack, based on availability and interests.

We are making water cooler chats better in some ways than in-person, even though we can’t quite replace face-to-face conversations…yet. With this technology, we can customize water cooler chats for individual preferences around how people like to engage, who they want to talk to, how long they want to talk, and what they want to talk about. We want to help people have better informal conversations over audio/video with colleagues, on any platform, whether that’s Slack, Teams, Zoom or the web.

With this technology, we can customize water cooler chats for individual preferences around how people like to engage, who they want to talk to, how long they want to talk, and what they want to talk about.

What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

My biggest challenge has been finding software engineering and machine learning talent to join our team. We have used BearX, Handshake, and LinkedIn and are really keen to find more people who are excited about impactful startups.

So far, I have been working with an amazing team of Berkeley undergrads and alumni—Leonor Alcaraz-Guzman, Helen Xu, and Patrick Zhu. In my Product Management class, I am on a diverse team with grad students from the School of Information, Fung Institute, and Haas, and we are learning so much.

Has anyone from Haas helped you with your startup?

I’ve had lots of help from faculty and staff. Early on, I took the NSF Bay Area I-CORPS course, which helped me learn how to do customer discovery. Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, has been consistent in pointing us towards potential partners, competitions, mentors, and opportunities.

Vince Law, a professional faculty member, has reviewed more than one version of our early prototypes, and given critical feedback. In Jeff Eyet’s class on design thinking, he shared great advice on trying to understand users’ emotions and motivations for using our solution. Greg La Blanc, another professional faculty member, helped me think strategically about whether to even pursue this idea or space of remote work.

What are your goals for the next six months?

Our top goal is to get a strong sense of whether our product is exceptional at solving the challenge of creating serendipity for our users or not. We will need to launch and get lots of user feedback to answer that question. When you think about it, these are unique times with millions of people stuck at home, so if they want this, we should be able to quickly determine whether we can satisfy that need, and build a business out of it.

Another key goal is to clearly show a path to defeating our competition. I joke with my teammates that every week someone else has launched a new product to solve the same problem. Currently, we segment our competition in these categories: bots offering instant water cooler calls, standalone virtual office applications, and platforms that match people for conversations based on interests. We understand the competition and have a distinct path toward differentiating ourselves.

 

 

Haas partners on new initiative to increase Black investors in venture capital

A program aimed at doubling the number of Black investors in venture capital over the next three years has been launched by BLCK VC, Operator Collective, Salesforce Ventures and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

The new Black Venture Institute will provide intensive education and networking opportunities for Black leaders who plan to work in venture capital and entrepreneurship. The goal is to graduate 300 fellows by 2023.

Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Prof. Toby Stuart will serve as faculty director for the  institute’s first cohort of 50 students, teaching the online course through Berkeley Executive Education.

Prof. Toby Stuart
Prof. Toby Stuart is faculty director for the first Black Venture Institute cohort.

The program, which kicks off Nov. 2, will teach the foundations of venture investing, including how to evaluate companies, how to structure, negotiate and value financing rounds, and the roles of general partners and limited partners. Dropbox co-founder and CEO Drew Houston, and ExecOnline founder and CEO Stephen Bailey, are both scheduled to teach sessions with Stuart during the first session.

Venture capital has extremely low representation of Black professionals in technical, leadership, and investing roles. Just 1% of venture-backed startups have a Black founder and fewer than 3% of venture capital investors are Black, according to a RateMyInvestor diversity report.

But venture investing is something that’s tough to just pick up, said Leyla Seka, a former executive at Salesforce who co-founded Operator Collective, a venture capital fund focused on women-owned ventures.

“Even if we could break down the barriers and throw open the doors, there’s still a huge learning curve,” Seka wrote in a blog post announcing the new institute. “It takes time to learn the terms, understand the process, and make the connections. Some people grew up in that world, absorbing this knowledge through osmosis, but others need a leg up.”

Seka discussed the subject of increasing the number of Black professionals in venture capital with Kristina Susac, former vice president of Berkeley Executive Education. Susac recommended Stuart to lead the new program. “He’s Haas’ most sought-after faculty member in the areas of strategy, VC, entrepreneurship, and innovation,” she said. “He advises world leaders, global CEOs, and new entrepreneurs, and the students love him.”

Susac said the strength of the Salesforce Ventures, Operator Collective and BLCK VC partnership, anchored by Stuart’s instructional expertise, makes the goal of doubling the number of Black investors in VC attainable.

Black Venture Institute fellows will also be supported by the broader venture capital community and will be given ongoing access and mentorship from leading VCs in the ecosystem. Lo Toney, MBA 97, of Plexo Capital, Bill Gurley of Benchmark, Ron Conway of SV Angel, April Underwood, MBA 07, of #Angels, Monique Woodard of Cake Ventures, Scott Kupor of Andreessen Horowitz, Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures, and many more have already committed to participate in the program.

Startup Diaries: SuperPetFoods places second at LAUNCH, BumpR retools

Note: Berkeley Haas News followed two of this year’s 25 teams participating in LAUNCH, an accelerator for UC startup founders that has helped create more than 200 companies since 2015. At last Friday’s Demo Day finals, 10 UC teams remotely pitched VCs and angel investors, competing for $70,000 in funding. Startup SuperPetFoods made the finals; BumpR did not.

Superpetfoods team slide
Mar introducing her team members at Demo Day.

María (Mar) del Mar Londoño, MBA 21 and CEO of SuperPetFoods, headed into last week’s LAUNCH Demo Day finals determined. After failing to place in the top three at last month’s Hult Prize Global Regional Competition in Bogotá and the 2020 Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize finals, she’d buffed up the startup’s presentation, polished answers to potential questions, and emerged ready to win.

Her team’s efforts paid off, as SuperPetFoods took second place (and was voted audience choice) at LAUNCH Demo Day May 1, netting $20,000 to move into the summer phase of developing her eco-friendly dehydrated pet food, made from black soldier fly larvae. Digiventures, a Berkeley Haas MBA led team that built a platform enabling Latin American customers to be evaluated for credit, took the top prize.

Missing from Demo Day, however, was BumpR, an undergraduate team aiming to produce an inexpensive Internet of Things (IoT) device that drivers mount on their cars to easily collect data over geographic areas. The startup, founded by Armaan Goel, Aishwarya (Ash) Mahesh, Shreya Shekhar, all M.E.T. 23 students, and Justin Quan, BS 23 (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science), didn’t make it to the finals, mainly because the team pivoted right before the semifinals and ran out of time to do the necessary customer interviews to vet their new idea.

BumpR will continue to work on the idea at UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck this fall, as a SkyDeck Hot Desk team. Rhonda Shrader, the executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP), which sponsors LAUNCH, also helped the team apply for a $25,000 VentureWell grant to prototype and test their product. “The lessons we learned along the way under the guidance of all the LAUNCH faculty will stick with us whether it’s with this product idea or another,” Ash said.

“The lessons we learned along the way under the guidance of all the LAUNCH faculty will stick with us whether it’s with this product idea or another.”

Mar presenting at LAUNCH Demo Day
Mar makes the case that dogs love SuperPetFoods’ product at LAUNCH Demo Day.

We spoke to Mar, who founded the company with Thais Esteves, MBA 21, and Gina Myers, MS 20 (bioengineering), about LAUNCH and what’s next for SuperPetFoods.

What was the biggest challenge participating in LAUNCH during the coronavirus crisis?

There were many challenges. The first was managing the emotional stress that coronavirus brought to this— worrying about your family and evaluating your priorities. As a team leader my biggest challenge was being able to give my team the space they needed while seeing this project as something that could make them feel excited about the future. That’s a difficult balance. You want to give them their space but you also want people to be engaged.

Another challenge was the operational part. Literally, we had to start cooking the food in Washington state, where Gina is staying in her family’s cabin. All the people we contacted to do pet food trials are in Berkeley or the Bay Area.

So Gina is cooking the food you plan to send out for trials this summer?

Gina preparing the food
Gina preparing the food that’s made with the high-protein black soldier fly. Her dog Qora is chief taster.

Yes. Dogs are lucky to have a trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America cooking for them. At this point, Gina has everything she needs to start cooking: a recipe that offers complete nutrition that was formulated with a board-certified pet nutritionist, and the required machinery: a dehydrator and a bag sealer. Our target for the summer is to give 100 free samples to friends, family, and people who have shown interest through Facebook ads.

Depending on feedback we get from people, we’ll be able to go on to a bigger scale and go to local pet food stores. We are at a stage where we are literally testing how people feel about a pet food that is highly disruptive. It’s not only that it’s made of insects. It’s also dehydrated, so people need to add water, stir and serve. This format is more nutritious and tasty for dogs, so we have the hypothesis that pet parents will like it and prefer it to kibble. But that’s for us to test.

You plan is to eventually produce the food in your native Colombia. What’s the timeline this summer?

Producing in Colombia will give us a cost advantage and that is a crucial element of our operational model. However, we are focusing our efforts on two fronts this summer: testing product market fit and building the brand identity.  First, we need to collect feedback on our product. All of our work so far was gathering consumer insights and understanding their sentiment around feeding their pets insects. Now we will get their feedback with an actual product. Second, we need to develop the brand identity and translate that into a website, package, and logo. We already conducted an A/B test that proved that  the sustainability angle has more appeal than the nutritional one. Next step is to define which tone to convey around sustainability. We need to identify which is more effective: the loving, caring, tree-hugger kind of tone, or the more vigorous approach targeting changemakers who are empowered to make a change in the world.

What was most valuable about the LAUNCH experience?

Belonging to a cohort of collaborative teams. The collective brainstorming when you present progress and roadblocks, and having the other teams there. They help you think  and you can identify elements from listening to them that might be useful for you—like what platform you’re using to set up your website. It’s a good place to get help. The second thing is you see how the teams are progressing and that allows you to have accountability for what you are doing.

 

B-BAY alumnae win top honors at COVID-19 competition in Jamaica

Two alumnae of the Berkeley Business Academy for Youth (B-BAY) took a top honor at a competition held this month in Jamaica that challenged students to come up with innovative ways to deal with the COVID-19 crisis there.

Aaliyah McKenzie (left) and Akielia Willburgh posted to Instagram about their DIA success.
Aaliyah McKenzie (left) and Akielia Willburgh posted to Instagram about their DIA Ideathon success in Jamaica.

More than 100 students participated in the DIA Ideathon, including two teams of former B-BAY students. The competition, organized by DIA Jamaica, is an initiative created by The Trust for the Americas, an affiliate of the Organization of American States.  DIA Jamaica’s goal is to empower a new generation of Jamaican entrepreneurs and innovators.

Akielia Willburgh and Aaliyah McKenzie, who are both from Jamaica, are recent alumnae of B-BAY, a college preparatory business program at Berkeley Haas for middle and high school students. The pair won first place in the “education and access to information” category, pitching Borderles$, an educational website that will connect Jamaican teachers to jobs teaching non-English-speaking students worldwide.

Willburgh said she hopes that Borderles$ will be used to help English teachers who have been laid off by the Ministry of Education to stay  employed; to assist struggling citizens in meeting their utility bills, and to serve as an advertising tool for Jamaica as the island’s largest revenue source, tourism, has declined.

A second team that competed in the competition also included B-BAY alumnae Safia Mendez and Kashana Davis.

B-BAY Director Olive Davis assisted both teams. Davis said Mendez had told her about the competition earlier this year—and she was inspired to text her former students from Jamaica to gauge their interest in forming teams.

After she heard back from four interested former students, she invited them to meet on WhatsApp to discuss the competition topics: education and access to information, healtheconomic relief and crime and security.

“I worked with them throughout the process as a facilitator, keeping them on task, ” Davis said.

Willburgh said she tapped what she learned in her B-BAY program to form the team’s pitch, skills including “critical thinking, aspects of entrepreneurship, Design Thinking, and presentation skills/elevator pitch.”

The winners in each category were announced April 5.

Startup Roundup: Paz and Thrive Education

The startup roundup series spotlights students and recent alumni who are starting a new business or enterprise.

Two people sit at table with computers.
Paz co-founders Dennis Hauser (left) and Neal Sarin (right) recruit volunteers at UC Berkeley to scientifically test if their music reduces stress levels. Photo: Neal Sarin.

Paz
Co-founders: Dennis Hauser, MBA 20, Neal Sarin, University of Miami, BA 12
UC Berkeley undergraduate interns: Shomil Jain, full stack developer; Melanie Cooray, project manager; Sonal Kapoor, UX/UI Designer; Ryan Kwon, A&R/marketing intern

Long before the coronavirus outbreak, Neal Sarin and Dennis Hauser, MBA 20, saw a need to bring restorative music that helps people relax and rejuvenate to the masses.

Before coming to Haas, Hauser was an investment banker who moved from New York to California to pursue his passion for music and entrepreneurship. Sarin, a University of Miami graduate, is a music executive and record producer who noticed the lack of industry interest in restorative music. 

The two friends, who met in high school, decided to work on their own solution, which led to the launch of Paz, a restorative music app aimed to relieve stress and provide meditative benefits for listeners.

Users can now download Paz on the Apple App Store and listen to an hour of mantra-inspired music for free, no sign-in necessary. Once the free-trial ends, users can sign up for a free or a $2.99 monthly subscription. 

“When we first started Paz, we thought college students would be our primary audience,” Hauser siad. “But I think in today’s current situation, it’s something that everyone could benefit from to take their mind off the challenges that we’re facing at the moment.”

I think in today’s current situation, it’s something that everyone could benefit from to take their mind off the challenges that we’re facing at the moment.

Portrait: Neal Sarin
Neal Sarin co-founded Paz, a restorative music app. Photo courtesy: Neal Sarin.

As the A&R director for JioSaavn, a South-Asian music streaming service, Sarin said he noticed that music executives weren’t investing as much energy and capital into the restorative music compared to mainstream markets like pop or hip-hop.

“We’ve been conditioned to view music as a means of entertainment, but music is also really healing and can provide a lot of comfort to people,” he said.

Scientifically proven benefits

What distinguishes the music on Paz from other ambient or restorative music is that it’s scientifically tested to have meditative benefits, Sarin said. 

Paz co-founders worked with Robert Knight, a UC Berkeley psychology and neuroscience professor, and commissioned a study with Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience to scientifically test their music’s ability to reduce stress. The study found that research participants experienced a significant decrease in reported stress levels, an increase in memory activation, and a decrease in attention processing after listening to 10 minutes of Paz music.

“A lot of apps and people can claim that their music is restorative or it has meditative benefits, but it was really important for us to ensure that our music really does,” Sarin said.

While Sarin oversees the music production and curation for the app, Hauser handles the finances. They are working with Grammy-award winning mixing engineers and independent composers to produce the music and a team of UC Berkeley undergrads to build and design the app.

Portrait of Dennis Hauser, MBA 20.
Dennis Hauser, MBA 20, co-founded Paz, a restorative music app. Photo courtesy: Dennis Hauser.

“Berkeley was a key resource in bringing [Paz] to life,” Hauser said. “It’s one of the few places in the world where you have support to build and create a business and find like-minded people who want to contribute and bring a vision to life.”

Sarin and Hauser have self-funded and will soon begin to raise funds to grow the business.

“We’re at a nascent stage in terms of the restorative music market,” said Sarin. “We want to grow Paz and be a dominant force as a restorative app.” 

 

 

Thrive Education co-founders.
(From left to right) Meryll Dindin, Jack Rolo, and Josh Curry co-founded Thrive Education, a telehealth startup that uses technology to improve evaluations for learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. Photo: Jack Rolo.

Thrive Education
Co-founders: Jack Rolo, CEO; Joshua Curry, COO;  Meryll Dindin, CTO

Growing up, Jack Rolo, MBA 20, excelled at some things, like math and chess. He later went on to study physics in college. However, other things came less naturally, particularly reading and spelling.

After graduating from college, he was properly assessed and diagnosed with dyslexia.

“In hindsight, it was pretty obvious,” said Rolo. “However, at the time, the diagnosis was a ‘light-bulb’ moment. It made me look back on my life through a completely different lens.”

Once at Haas, Rolo teamed up with his roommate Joshua Curry, MBA 20, and Meryll Dindin, MEng 19, and co-founded Thrive Education, a telehealth startup that uses technology to improve evaluations for learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism. Rolo said Thrive Education is his attempt to create the product he wishes he had as a child. 

Increasing access to evaluations

In-person evaluations with psychologists are expensive and Thrive aims to cut costs, which run run as high as $10,000 with six-month waiting lists.  Thrive Education partners with licensed psychologists and offers remote evaluations at a fraction of the price and wait time.

Early diagnosis is the key to enabling people with learning differences to fulfill their potential.

“Early diagnosis is the key to enabling people with learning differences to fulfill their potential,” said Rolo. “We’re increasing access to evaluations for those who have been ignored by the school system or priced out by independent psychologists.”

Thrive Education determines whether a student has a learning difference in three steps: a two-hour online assessment with a licensed psychologist, an interview with a psychologist and feedback on next steps and learning strategies, and an official diagnosis. That diagnosis can be used to request an Individualized Education Program (IEP), 504 Plan, or other reasonable accommodations in school or the workplace.

Technology is also a key element to Thrive Education’s business. 

“We’re doing some really exciting stuff with data,” Curry said. “From increasing the accuracy and precision of diagnostics to better understanding learning interventions, our ambition is to revolutionize the scientific understanding of learning differences.”

So far, the team has secured venture pre-seed funding, in addition to grants from the Rudd Family Foundation Big Idea contest and EGAL’s Equity and Inclusion competition.

Rolo and Curry credit entrepreneurship lecturers Kurt Beyer and Steve Blank for Thrive’s early success. Beyer’s Entrepreneurship class and Blank’s Lean LaunchPad class helped build their business model, they said. 

“These courses enabled us to make crucial pivots early on, almost acting as a simulation before we settled on our product and business model,” Curry said.

Deepak Gupta, a managing partner at Blue Bear Ventures and a Haas career advisor, also provided advice throughout their journey, they said.

Though their startup is in its infancy, the team aims to change the education industry forever. Thrive Education plans to formally launch this summer. 

 

A cardiac surgeon asked for help during the COVID-19 crisis. His classmates stepped up.

As the coronavirus spread in California last month, Kapil Sharma, EMBA 20 and director of cardiac surgery at Mercy General Hospital in Sacramento, worried that keeping critical medical supplies in stock would be nearly impossible.

“Last week, it was blood shortages, which seems to have stabilized now that elective surgeries have stopped,” Sharma, EMBA 20, wrote on March 22 on the his Executive MBA class Slack channel. “If your company has access to any sort of protection like masks or hazmat suits, many facilities are at critical lows.”

EMBA student Kapil Sharma in the operating room
Cardiac surgeon Kapil Sharma (right) performing heart surgery at Mercy General in Sacramento.

What would be ideal, he wrote, would be a website where companies could post what they’re able to donate, and hospitals could list their needs. What happened next surprised everyone.

Within two days, 20 of the 67 executive MBA students in the 2020 class came together to try to hammer out a solution to connect donors with people and organizations in need. Those discussions, over several weeks, led to the founding of nonprofit startup One Link.

‘That need (to solve a problem) helped us to put something together and form the team,” said Naresh Vemparala, a program director at Partnership HealthPlan of California, who is now leading the project management team for nonprofit One Link. “We said: why don’t we do it? Why don’t we bring these two sides together?

That need (to solve a problem) helped us to put something together and form the team. We said: why don’t we do it? Why don’t we bring these two sides together? —Naresh Vemparala

Naresh Vemparala, EMBA 20
Naresh Vemparala leads the One Link team.

The EMBA startup has three short-term goals: to build a marketplace platform for desktop and mobile devices that connects donors and recipients—and scales beyond the current crisis; to connect to corporate responsibility units within companies; and to build effective social media campaigns to create awareness of supply and demand problems in real time.

“The glue that brings us together”

One Link’s founding came at a difficult time for this EMBA 20 class. The students had been looking forward to their third term, which included an immersion week, a program staple that was postponed after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“It was a shock to the system for our class,” said Margaret Park, a senior art director at Sephora, who is leading marketing and branding for One Link. “Suddenly we couldn’t leave the house, suddenly we had a forced break from school. Juggling everything before was such an incredible struggle, but then we had an unexpected seven-week hiatus.”

Photo of Margaret Park, EMBA 20
Margaret Park, EMBA 20, is handling marketing for One Link.

During that break, it was inspiring how quickly everyone came together, said Marisa Hewitt, director of business operations at BioMarin, who is charged with business development for the startup.

“In how many organizations can you go from an idea to a team with so many different skills in just a few days?” she said. “Our classmates are all people who care about what we’re learning in business school and want to do something with it. That’s the glue that brings us together.”

A simple design

The 10-person leadership team for the startup now meets on Zoom every Monday night to discuss its progress. Members spend hours every week working on One Link for free—in addition to their jobs and school work.

The project quickly became a second full-time job for Sumit Patankar, director of supply chain strategy at Applied Materials, who is leading the One Link development team with his wife, software engineer Shalaka Borker, head of data engineering at Roofstock.

Patankar hired a team of developers in India, who have asked that the platform be released in India to help during crisis times. The marketplace design will be simple, he said. Initially, it will provide ways to donate 10 to 15 types of items, providing the option to match people and organizations that are geographically close to each other so drop offs are simple.

To simplify logistics, One Link is working on partnerships and possible discounts with Amazon, FedEx, the U.S. Postal Service, and UPS.

Photo of Sumit Patankar
Sumit Patankar, EMBA 20, leads development for One Link, working with an offshore team.

They are also building a way to gauge the level of need posted by an organization so donors can prioritize. That need level—critical, moderate, or low—will be based on information an organization provides. They plan to offer donors the option of giving only to a nonprofit organization, or to an organization that’s within 10 miles of their location.

Team member Jessica Patterson, CFO of the Girl Scouts of Southern Nevada, is finalizing the process of incorporating One Link as a nonprofit, hopefully by early May. The company plans to launch soon after clearing the legal hurdles.

Keeping One Link going after the pandemic

The goal is to keep One Link going long after the COVID-19 crisis is under control, and to make the platform available internationally to help during hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, or future disease outbreaks. The group plans to raise money to expand the startup’s platform.

“We want it to be an EMBA 20 legacy—to feel that we’ve done something of value to society,” Vemparala said.  “We will be impacted one way or another due to COVID-19 and if we look back, the one thing that will be in mind is what have we done and how did we react to it?”

Emma Hayes Daftary, executive director of the EMBA program, said the 2020 class is living out the Haas Defining Leadership Principles: Question the Status Quo, Confidence Without Attitude, Students Always, and Beyond Yourself in real time.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they’ve found a way to go beyond themselves in this challenging time,” she said. “They have rallied in a way that will make a real difference.”

Read the latest campus information on coronavirus (COVID-19) here →