Jayaditya Sethi, BS 24 (double major in business and computer science), along with Sahil Mehta, BS 23, (Business & Electrical Engineering/Computer Science) and Ethan Jagoda, BS 24, (computer science), founded Scribble AI, an AI startup that placed third in the recent UC Berkeley LAUNCH accelerator pitch day. The startup is also part of the Batch 16 startup cohort at the UC Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator. We recently asked Sethi, who will be a software engineering intern at PayPal this summer, five questions about Scribble AI. (Download the app here.)
Tell us what ScribbleAI is and how people use it?
Scribble AI is a simple mobile interface people can download that uses AI to effortlessly create customized written content live on iOS and Android phones. It can be used to generate emails, poems, tweets and everything in between across 12 different languages and 20+ style customizations.
What is your favorite way to use ChatGPT (an artificial intelligence chatbot developed by OpenAI)?
Our favorite use for ChatGPT is for debugging code as this was crucial for us to launch the app within two weeks without any prior mobile development experience.
How did you meet your co-founders Ethan and Sahil?
We have been close friends since starting at UC Berkeley. Sahil and Ethan met through the startup accelerator and consulting club [email protected] Ethan and I met through a class and are now roommates. We have all collaborated on previous projects, such as being part of [email protected] leadership and co-founding a music club together.
What is the most important takeaway from participating in LAUNCH?
Our biggest takeaway from LAUNCH was to constantly challenge our assumptions about our business. During each workshop, the mentors at LAUNCH questioned our hypotheses about our product and its use cases, helping us find a scalable business model. For example, we learned to find the root causes of a customer’s problem, rather than simply take what a user says at face value. These are lessons we will carry for years as we continue our startup journey!
What are your plans for Scribble AI now?
We plan to scale up traction in international markets, particularly among social media creators who need a tool to write content 10 times faster. We are also developing the premium version of our app, which will be tailored to each user’s specific needs
A student team that imagined a plan for Hyundai Cradle to build an electric-powered mobile medical fleet and market it in North America won the 2023 Haas Purpose-Built Vehicles (PBV) Challenge.
Hyundai Cradle, Hyundai Motor Group’s Mountain View, Calif.-based open innovation and investment arm, sponsored the challenge, which was held April 23 at Berkeley Haas.
Cradle challenged students to develop novel business models for the company’s future PBV market launch in North America. Hyundai Motor Group is in the final stages of building a flexible automobile base, called a skateboard, that can be used to produce many kinds of PVBs—vehicles ranging from ambulances to passenger shuttles to delivery fleets for small businesses.
The first-place team took home $15,000 for its pitch. Winning team members included Srivatsa Chakravarthy, EWMBA 25; Oleksandr Krotenko, EMBA 23; Victoria Marcus, EWMBA 25; and Simeon Ryan, EWMBA 25.
The competing teams, composed of graduate students from across all three Haas MBA programs and the UC Berkeley School of Information, participated in a semester-long series of training sessions, focused on the Lean Startup method and customer discovery training. The top three finalist teams were then tasked with finding and validating novel business models for PBVs that they pitched to judges at the end of the program.
“This was a fantastic way to showcase students from across all three of our MBA programs,” said Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP). “The program also provided a perfect opportunity for our MBA students to work with top graduate students from across the campus.”
Solving real problems
The winning group pitched a fix for emergency medical services that they described as “antiquated, expensive, and ripe for technological disruption.” The team suggested that Cradle partner with industry leader AMR (American Medical Response) to capitalize on the company’s market share and need to contract with an outsourced fleet.
Marcus, who works in corporate finance, said she was excited to work on solving a real problem experienced by a company outside of her industry.
“Going through the pitching process with judges was the pinnacle business school experience I’ve always wanted to try since I started my EWMBA,” she said. During Lean Launch, she said her group conducted more than 30 interviews with potential clients. “We had to pivot a couple times from our original idea to make sure we were solving problems for them,” she said. “Ultimately this led us to think hard and adapt so we could develop a detailed business plan that would benefit potential clients.”
During the pitch day, Kia’s vice president of new business planning, Ju yup Kang, a judge for the competition, outlined how KIA is transforming from a car company to a “full mobility solution provider.” Henry Chung, senior vice president and head of Hyundai Cradle, said the students had clearly put in a lot of effort to develop creative solutions to difficult problems.
Chung; Kang; Changwoo Kim, a chief coordinator at Cradle; Tafflyn Toy, an open innovation project manager at Hyundai Cradle; and Nick Triantos, chief architect, automotive system software at Nvidia, served as the final challenge judges.
Team Ingenium took second place ($10,000) with a pitch for all-in-one fleet management. Members included Reggie Draper, EMBA 23; Michael LaFramboise, MBA/MEng 24; Matthew McGoffin, MBA/MEng 23; and Michael Yang, MIMS (master of information management and systems) 23.
Team Mobility Moguls took third place ($5,000) for a strategy that addressed a mobile future for police & security. Team members included Anmol Aggarwal, EWMBA 24; Suveda Dhoot, MBA 24; Hrishikesh Nagaraju, MIMS 24; Nithin Ravindra, EWMBA 23, MIMS 24; and Lutong Yang.
When Jin Kim and Tarek Mohammad, both MFE 23, met at orientation for the Berkeley Haas Master of Financial Engineering program last year, they instantly connected over a shared passion for blockchain, crypto, financial systems, and entrepreneurship.
Intense discussions, many times lasting until 4 a.m., led Kim and Mohammad to launch hyphen labs, a platform for industry decentralized finance (DeFi) trading. DeFi is a broad term for applications and projects in public blockchain geared toward disrupting traditional finance.
While at Haas, hyphen labs was accepted to the UC Berkeley SkyDeck accelerator cohort, and was the first MFE-founded startup to make it into the Techstars accelerator program. Kim and Mohammad, who launched hyphen in November 2022, are now heading to Miami and Boston to raise a seed round.
In this interview, they discuss what led them to Haas, the experience of launching a fintech startup, and the challenges ahead.
Haas News: Tell us a bit about your background and what led you to Haas?
Tarek Mohammad: I have a unique story because I come from a unique place. I studied economics and actuarial science as an undergraduate in Lebanon. However, starting in 2019, Lebanon experienced huge economic turmoil. The government defaulted on its government bonds, and then the banking system defaulted. I lost all my personal savings. By that time, I was working for KPMG as a consultant. Then Covid hit. During that period, the ammonium nitrate explosion hit the Port of Beirut in August 2020. The KPMG office was five minutes walking distance away from the explosion and one of my managers died.
With all of this change and turmoil, I decided to create a fintech startup. I quit KPMG. By then, I’d decided that the banking system needed to be fixed, and the only way to do it was through blockchain because with blockchain, there are no intermediaries. Then I applied to the Master of Financial Engineering program at Berkeley Haas and arrived in the states in March 2022. During my studies, I won the Franklin Templeton Blockchain contest in Palo Alto. After this, Jin and I decided to partner on a venture together and never looked back.
I’d decided that the banking system needed to be fixed, and the only way to do it was through blockchain. — Tarek Mohammad.
Jin Kim: I am from South Korea and worked in AI research as a machine learning researcher. That got me interested in trading with AI algorithms and a professor at my school. I started and ran a small hedge fund focusing on U.S. equity and crypto investments using AI. Though trading was still my thing, crypto trade got me more into the blockchain itself. So, I went to work as an investment analyst intern at the VC arm of Dunamu, the biggest crypto exchange in Korea. Since I liked finance trading, algorithms, and crypto, I thought I should attend a master in financial engineering program. The best program out there happened to be Berkeley, which is also near Silicon Valley. It fit both of my goals: to get a bit more academic and hands-on experience in the field and exposure to people who like to take risks and try new things.
What does the company do?
Mohammad: What we’re trying to do is build an infrastructure for institutions to be able to get crypto exposure, specifically on DeFi. So, if say, BlackRock wants to access the DeFi infrastructure or trade on crypto on DeFi, they can use us because we provide a solution. We hold custody of their assets and provide them with a DeFi interface and infrastructure that provides some compliance and comfort.
When did you realize that your idea was unique and could work?
Kim: It wasn’t a simple “aha” moment. We interviewed our potential clients every day to hear what they needed and found that every client is different, so their respective needs are also different. It helped us greatly to pause every now and then to review what we learned. With these quick pauses and iterations, we saw a pattern emerging with many people dealing with a problem that was worth looking at. Then we had a feeling about what would work.
We saw a pattern emerging with many people dealing with a problem that was worth looking at. — Jin Kim
What are some of the challenges that you all are facing while building a startup?
Mohammad: It’s a perfect time to be a builder, but it’s a challenging time for fundraising, especially over the last few weeks with the banking meltdown. On the personal side, we also have unique challenges. As international students, it isn’t easy with our visas. Many international classmates immediately go to work after graduating for visa reasons instead of going into entrepreneurship directly. But running a startup, we needed to consider our visas while we figured out the payroll, hiring, and acquiring talent. Moreover, we also needed to figure out the product itself. I’m talking to customers every single day.
What did it mean to get accepted to Techstars, and how has the experience been?
Mohammad: It’s really a great community. It’s a hub for entrepreneurship, one of the biggest hubs in the world, and one of the biggest funds. Of course, the process was challenging, with a low acceptance rate. But it’s an ecosystem. You’re surrounded by people you can relate to, people who are builders and ex-founders. So, it’s more of an ecosystem for us. It’s a lifetime membership.
What are some ways in which the Berkeley Haas community has helped you throughout this process?
Mohammad: We worked within the MFE network and the broader Haas alumni network. We get a lot of answers regarding our product and our company’s direction from talking to these people. So mostly, we think about this from the networking side and how existing students and MBAs with industry experience can help us shape our direction.
What was something that really attracted you to Berkeley Haas and how has being in Berkeley helped you in your pursuits?
Mohammad: Maybe it’s a cliche, but some of the greatest startup companies come from Berkeley—firms like Intel, Tesla, and SanDisk. These companies are considered the north stars in their respective industries. Being in the Berkeley ecosystem pushes you every day to create and innovate. Beside Techstars, we got into SkyDeck, the incubator batch. This allowed us to connect to founders on campus. School for us was not just a place to study, but also a workspace to meet fellow founders and innovators. Finally, the campus location near Silicon Valley in the Bay Area boosted our reach outs and accelerated our product discovery. And I think that the international aspect and diversity here helps. On the mentor side, we are lucky to have Linda Kreitzman, founder of the MFE program and a current lecturer, and Professor Christine Parlour as mentors.
School for us was not just a place to study, but also a workspace to meet fellow founders and innovators.— Tarek Mohammad
Kim: Berkeley was such a great place to connect with people from faculty to alumni. So many people helped us out or referred us to people who could be of help. It was a humbling experience. We often ask whether we deserved all this help. We hope to do the same for other Berkeley founders, peers, or alumni to pay it forward.
Takedra Mawakana, co-CEO of autonomous driving technology company Waymo, urged Dean’s Speaker’s Series attendees to embrace the ambiguity required to bring true innovation to the mobility industry.
“One of the reasons this industry is so exciting to me is nothing is set,” said Mawakana, who joined Mountain View-based Waymo in 2017, and was named co-CEO in 2021. “Everything is up in the air. The regulatory environment isn’t set, the customer adoption plan isn’t set, and the technology isn’t done. I thought my relationship with ambiguity was quite advanced … but ambiguity at every level means never walking on solid ground.“
Some things are going to go wrong, she added, and that’s OK. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” Waymo operates in San Francisco and metropolitan Phoenix, with plans to expand to Los Angeles. Its taxi service, called Waymo One, does not require a human driver.
Watch the DSS talk here. Prior to joining Waymo, Mawakana led global teams at eBay, Yahoo, AOL and Startec. She said she joined Waymo because the company reflects her values, with its mission is to make it safe and easy for people and things to get where they’re going. Research has shown that Waymo technology can prevent 75 percent of vehicle collisions, while reducing serious injury risk by 93 percent.
Mawakana said that two of her uncles were killed in “completely avoidable” traffic accidents, which has committed her to making driving safer. “I’m just deeply tied to the mission,” she said. “What I can’t say is that the journey is always going to be easy, but I can say it feels worth it when it’s deeply tied to what you believe in, which is very different than chasing the next software release.” Mawakana’s talk was sponsored by the Black Business Student Association and the Haas Transportation & Mobility Club.
Jensen Huang, co-founder and CEO of Nvidia, solved the 3D graphic challenge for the personal computer in 1999 with the company’s release of the first-ever graphics processing unit (GPU).
Nvidia’s vision for the chips that fueled new video games existed before they had a name for it, Huang said during last week’s Dean’s Speaker Series at Haas.
“It’s OK that you don’t’ have the words to describe it, but you need to know what the company does and for what reason,” said Huang, whose company was named to Time Magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential companies of 2022.
Nvidia set new standards in visual computing with interactive graphics on tablets, portable media players, and workstations. Its technology has been used in movies like Harry Potter, Iron Man and Avatar and is at the center of the most cutting-edge trends in technology: virtual reality, artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.
Now, Nvidia and other chip-makers’ stock shares are rising over their potential to power OpenAI’s language tool, ChatGPT, a “chatbot” that interacts in a conversational way with users.
(Watch the DSS talk here.)
Huang calls ChatGPT “the iPhone moment of artificial intelligence.”
“When was the last time that we saw a piece of technology that is so versatile that it can solve problems and surprise people in so many ways?” he said. “It can write a poem, fill out a spreadsheet, do a sequel theory, and write Python code. We’ve been waiting for this moment.”
Nvidia is constantly reinventing itself, which is the key for every entrepreneur, he said.
“Creating something out of nothing is a skill that I think every company or startup needs to have,” he said. “The energy of looking for something new – a new way of doing something – is always there.”
Leadership requires both dedication and empathy, he added.
“Being a CEO, being a leader, it’s a craft. You have to dedicate yourself to the craft. I don’t think there’s any easy answer aside from that. You have to have curiosity, you have to have deep empathy for other people’s work.”
“I was getting up at 4 a.m. and checking listings,” said Kroetsch, EMBA 23. “I found houses that came on the market before my agent even told me.”
Kroetsch started questioning the value of her real estate agent. Meanwhile, her challenges confirmed for Parker, a veteran Seattle real estate broker, that she probably didn’t need one.
So Parker decided to solve the problem by partnering with EMBA classmates to create startup Alokee. The company, which functions as a virtual real estate agent, empowers California home buyers to bid directly on properties.
The site is designed for people who grew up banking, paying bills, and shopping for most everything online without an intermediary, Parker said.
“Increasingly, Gen Z and other digital natives are baffled by why they have to talk to a real estate broker when they find all of the listings and tour the properties themselves and want to just make an offer,” Parker said.
“Increasingly, Gen Z and other digital natives are baffled by why they have to talk to a real estate broker.” —Matt Parker
Ease of use, money back
Launched nine months ago, the Alokee website is live in California, featuring photos of homes that have sold in San Jose and San Diego. The company plans to expand soon, and has a waiting list to beta test the site with customers in Washington, Oregon, Arizona, and Nevada.
Alokee’s selling point is its ease of use: Create an account, provide proof of funds for a down payment, and then “make 12-to-15 decisions” on offer price, a closing date, loan payment schedule and amount, and other sales decisions. A buyer could potentially be in contract to buy a house in a matter of minutes, Parker said.
A second benefit is that the buyer receives a chunk of the agent’s fee in cash back after a sale. In San Francisco, for example, where the agent commission on a home sale averages $40,000, Alokee takes a set fee of $9,000 and returns $31,000 to the buyer. “We don’t want to chase down the big commissions,” Parker said. He added that the check comes at a perfect time, as buyers typically invest the most in their houses—additions like solar panels, window replacements, energy-efficient appliances, and insulation—at the time of purchase.
An EMBA team
Parker started Alokee with classmate Hamed Adibnatanzi, a legal affairs veteran. Adibnatanzi used his law expertise to make sure that the mass of paperwork required for any real estate deal on the site was simplified for a direct buyer and met federal, state, and local requirements.
Meanwhile, the team is still sorting out the website’s technical complexities. Noman Shaukat manages the code behind the offers that flow through the site. “It’s a technical challenge, not a legal one for us,” Parker said.
Parker also asked Marcus Rossi, a former commanding officer with the U.S. Marines, to be Alokee’s COO and invited Kroetsch, a chemical engineer by trade, to join as CMO. “I told him I’d love to help,” said Kroetsch, who worked with a branding agency to come up with the name Alokee, which combines the words Aloha and key (meaning the key to a house).
“We are working through the marketing plan right now, and I am happy to be a part of this team,” she said.
Learning to scale
This is Parker’s second startup. He came to Haas after starting national home improvement repair and renovation service ZingFix. At ZingFix, he realized that there are different skills required to manage a company as it scales across state lines. “A quickly-growing startup was a new business challenge for me,” he said. “The more people that joined, the more I realized that I would need an MBA to take care of our stakeholders.”
Deciding on Haas, he said the program has provided priceless support for what he’s trying to achieve, from mentorship to participating in the UC LAUNCH accelerator program and competition, in which Alokee was a finalist. “Once you get to the finals of LAUNCH you get introduced to top-tier mentors and a storytelling coach. These people understand what you are doing, and they pick apart your business model,” he said. Senior Lecturer Homa Bahrami spent time coaching the team, helping them to develop a hiring framework. “Everything she told us was correct,” Parker said. “She’s probably in the top 10 smartest people I’ve met in my life.”
He added that Distinguished Teaching Fellow Maura O’Neill’s New Venture Finance course also helped them navigate as the company works to land a seed round of funding.
While saving homebuyers money is a goal, Parker said the company will build more gender and racial equity into the home buying process by giving buyers direct bidding power. “Homes are how people stay in power and get in power,” he said. “We want to give all people the power to win in the real estate game.”
As a strategy manager at self-driving car startup Zoox last summer, Yiannos Vakis, MBA 23, spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges of rolling out robotaxi fleets in cities.
“Watching self-driving cars navigate the complex streets of San Francisco is pure magic,” Vakis said. “But to commercialize at scale, the industry has big strategic questions to work on that no one has fully solved so far.”
Vakis, co-president of the Berkeley Haas Transportation and Mobility Club, is among a growing number of students drawn to the rapidly-changing and fast-growing transportation/mobility industry. At Berkeley Haas, interest in the sector reflects that growth, with eight students in the Class of 2022 taking full-time jobs in the industry, (up from previous years), and 15 students in the 2023 class accepting internships. One lure, aside from the fun of being immersed in new technology, is the impressive pay. Mean base salaries for the 2022 FTMBA grads reached the higher end of the school’s employment report, coming in at $152,000 with a mean $23,000 bonus.
Doug Massa, a relationship manager in the transportation and mobility sector for the Berkeley Haas Career Management Group, said the rise in interest comes at a time when companies that spent years on the technical aspects of building their products and services are looking to scale.
“That’s why these companies are recruiting strong MBA talent,” Massa said. “MBA roles like corporate strategy, product management, and operations are what get our students excited and these are the types of roles that they’re landing.”
Many current students are meeting and networking through the Haas Mobility Club, which is hosting its annual Haas Mobility Summit 2022 Saturday, Nov. 5, at Chou Hall’s Spieker Forum. The summit, UC Berkeley’s largest transportation-focused conference, focuses this year on “reimagining sustainable and accessible mobility,” with senior executives from Zoox, Rivian, General Motors, Spin, Autotech Ventures, and others joining. The student-run Haas Mobility Club, now more than 175 members strong, welcomes graduate students from beyond Haas—in the Engineering, Data Science, and Urban Planning programs.
As the market has heated up, Massa said he’s fielding about 20 calls a week from first and second-year students who want to talk about job opportunities in transportation. In addition to Uber and Lyft, Massa helps students recruit for roles at upstarts as well as big automakers like GM and Ford, electric auto leaders like Tesla and electric adventure vehicle maker Rivian, and autonomous vehicles like Cruise.
Haas Mobility Club member Minjee Kang, MBA 23, landed an internship in strategic operations at Rivian. Kang, who worked in operations at Air Korea before coming to Haas, said her goal and her reason for getting an MBA is to be part of sweeping industry-wide change.
“I believe the airline industry is going to be disrupted soon, just like Uber and ride sharing disrupted the traditional auto industry,” she said. “I think the transportation and mobility industry is facing a variety of opportunities as a whole, and I want to be a part of it.”
Sarah Thorson, MBA/MEng 23, who studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, landed an internship in product management at Nvidia, where she worked on autonomous vehicle development tools.
Thorson said she’s always been pulled to the technical side of the auto industry and knew she could study both business and engineering in her dual degree program. “I wanted to come to Haas to explore a product role in tech and to learn about the impact of technology innovations on transportation and mobility,” said Thorson, co-president of the Haas Mobility Club.
Investment opportunities in transportation also lures MBA students. Logan Szidik, MBA 23, pivoted toward early stage venture capital investment at Haas, working as an intern at Menlo Park-based Autotech Ventures.
“With companies staying private longer than ever before, private capital has an outsized impact on the future of the automotive industry,” he said. “As someone with a deep interest in technologies addressing the climate crisis, I wanted to better understand how investors approach start-ups focused on emerging spaces like vehicle-to-grid and fleet electrification.”
As more Haas grads move into transportation, the alumni community has expanded, with about 180 members of the Haas Mobility Network’s WhatsApp group.
That community includes transportation industry entrepreneurs like Ludwig Schoenack, MBA 19, co-founder of Kyte, a cars-on-demand service, and Arcady Sosinov, MBA 15, CEO of FreeWire, which makes fast electric vehicle chargers and battery generators. Both Bay Area companies have found success in raising $239 million and $230 million respectively, to expand their businesses.
This rich alumni network will continue to serve students well, Massa said. (Carlin Dacey, MBA 22, for example, recently joined Kyte as a market manager)
“The network has led to internships and full-time jobs,” he said. “It’s become a really nice ecosystem.”
The meeting was fortuitous. Weber came to Haas with a mission to work on developing a product or drug that could improve global health and to create a new model for access to medicine. Rees and Abergel told her that they’d been working on a drug to address lead poisoning and radiological hazards and were ready to find a partner to help raise funds and bring the drug to market. The meeting led Weber to join their team as vice president of strategy and business development.
HOPO Therapeutics’ first product— HOPO-101—is a novel oral treatment that works by selectively binding to toxic metals so they can be removed from the body, a leap forward from older-generation treatments that also remove essential minerals in the process, Weber said.
The company expects the Phase 1 clinical trial to begin later this year, testing for the treatment’s safety in humans. “This innovative product has a broad application for hundreds of millions of people around the world suffering from heavy metal poisoning, and needs to be launched in a way that maximizes its application for public health,” said Weber.
“This innovative product has a broad application for hundreds of millions of people around the world suffering from heavy metal poisoning.”
HOPO-101 has received government funding to date, but one of Weber’s first goals for the company is to secure venture backing, starting with the company’s first seed round. Over the next five years, the company plans to develop relationships with physicians, governments, impact investors, and global health nonprofits to establish distribution channels.
“This is a lesson in sticking true to our values and finding partners that share our global health mission, and are eager to help us make it happen,” she said.
Weber pointed out that the pandemic has increased awareness of the importance of private and public partnerships in global health—her original mission for coming to Berkeley Haas.
“It’s made us all aware of the need for quick development and quick distribution of affordable life-saving drugs,” she said. “It’s also made the world appreciate the importance of public and private partnerships and the importance of collaboration across the table.”
Working on the company while at Haas also has its benefits, she said. “There are so many classes that allow you to explore your own venture within the classroom,” Weber said, noting that Health Management professional faculty members Kim MacPherson and Jeffrey Ford have been particularly helpful mentors. Weber has also found many opportunities to tap into the Bay Area startup ecosystem to advance the company, participating in the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program for entrepreneurs, as well as the San Francisco B-School Disrupt showcase.
A passion for improving access
Weber, whose father was a physician, has been around healthcare her entire life and said she’s always had a passion for treating patients who had little access to care. Though she entered the undergraduate program at Georgetown University on a pre-med track, she quickly pivoted to global health and, more specifically, sought to focus her career on addressing how the pharmaceutical sector could be a partner in improved access.
An internship in Tanzania during college working on introducing digital innovations into government hospitals also led her to consider the impact a private company could have on global health. That led her to L.E.K. Consulting after graduating, where she worked in the Life Sciences Practice for nearly four years. Learning about strategy and market access from the point of view of pharmaceutical companies, made her look forward to being involved in making some of those company-forming decisions.
“I was excited at the prospect of working with a team developing novel medicines and asking big questions about how we could get them to people that needed them most,” Weber said. “I was looking to get involved with a small company launching a new technology, one that had that mission in mind.”
That mission led her to pursue an MBA/MPH at Haas, and has been the foundation for growing HOPO Therapeutics.
“I had a strong conviction that it was possible to do well and to do good. Business school has been an eye-opening chance to see how it’s possible,” she said. “Luckily, I’ve found a community at Haas and at HOPO that really resonates with that idea.”
Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.
Joe Obeto, MBA 21, co-founded startup Bird to help solve a vexing roadblock he and other African immigrants face when they arrive in the U.S.: trying to open a bank account. We recently interviewed Obeto about what led him to become an entrepreneur and his big plans for Bird.
Describe your startup in 30 words or less.
We’re building a platform to enable non-US residents to open a bank account, a checking account, and do easy and frictionless cross-border transfers.
What was your background before coming to Haas?
My undergrad degree was in computer information science. When I graduated, I had several options: to pursue the traditional technology route as a software developer or maybe go into finance. What really shifted for me was during a summer that I went to Wall Street to intern for Credit Suisse. My experience that year was very incredible, and that really pushed me toward finance. I came to realize that not only do I like finance, I really wanted to become an entrepreneur.
What was the problem that you are solving with Bird?
When I first came to the U.S., I learned that I had to be a resident of the country for about six months minimum before I could open a bank account. With most major banks, this is the policy. In addition, sending money back to Nigeria is very expensive or it takes several days for the money to get to the final destination because there are so many intermediaries. It also costs 10 times more to send $100 to Nigeria than what it would cost you to send to a place like the U.K. or Poland because they have stable currencies.
So you decided to address these challenges as an entrepreneur?
I thought we could build a solution to solve this. So we decided to build a platform to do two things: enable non-U.S. residents to open a checking account and also enable a frictionless, low-cost way for you to be able to transfer money cross-border. There are some regulatory processes that we need to complete before we can actually go live with the banking solution, but the cross-border solution is going to be ready soon.
How does a Bird service work?
We don’t have a banking charter, so we cannot actually hold your funds. What we’ll do is partner with a local bank so when you open an account on the Bird platform and deposit money, it will be held at the bank, so it’s FDIC insured, meaning your money is going to be safe. You can do a wire transfer and have a debit card from the Visa network or the Mastercard network. You can use the card globally, anywhere that Visa or Mastercard is accepted. In addition to that, you can also transfer money.
How will transferring money work?
Right now, we’re establishing a payment corridor between Nigeria and the U.S. We want to test this corridor out. Eventually, we’re going to expand to other corridors in Africa. We’re looking into Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya, as well as Rwanda.
Right now, we’re establishing a payment corridor between Nigeria and the U.S. We want to test this corridor out.
Will transferring money using Bird be cheaper than other methods?
Yes, it is cheaper because rather than having multiple intermediaries moving money from one end to the other, we will use a stablecoin on the blockchain to move money cross-border. Essentially, we convert dollars to USDC stablecoins (a cryptocurrency). When it gets to Nigeria, that USDC stablecoin is on-ramped to Nigerian currency. The same thing will happen when somebody’s trying to send money to the US. We’re able to cut out a lot of middlemen and drastically reduce the cost of sending money internationally, especially to Africa.
Have any Haas courses helped you build the company?
New Venture Finance with Professor Maura O’Neill. She’s incredible. I learned a lot from that course, and even today when I’m talking to investors or negotiating a term sheet, the learnings from that course have been helpful; the entrepreneurship course taught by Kurt Beyer was helpful as well, and an operations course taught by Professor Terry Taylor showed me how to run operations of any firm. We went through lots of cases, analyzing different companies and what led to their successes, what led to their failures. As somebody building a company, you need to be able to learn from failures so you don’t repeat the same mistakes.
You also placed second last spring at UC Berkeley LAUNCH after going through the accelerator program. How did that help?
LAUNCH gives you a framework for you to validate your idea. It uses the lean startup methodology to develop a very strong value proposition. You go out to talk to customers to challenge your initial hypothesis, test it, validate it. Ultimately, when you come out of LAUNCH, you realize that you have a stronger position for your customers and that you are building something that people actually want and need.
Did you always plan to get an MBA?
That has always been part of my strategy. An MBA is not going to necessarily make you a successful person or a successful entrepreneur. But it does reduce your chance of failure and increases the odds of your success. Building on that knowledge of having a structured approach to entrepreneurship, to starting a business, is what the MBA equips you with. Besides that, I think the network that I’ve been able to build here in the Bay Area has afforded me the opportunity to build something that I think will be a success.
Kashish Juneja, BS 22, is learning about running a business in real-time as she prepares to open startup Aura Tea’s first shop in downtown San Francisco on March 27. In between juggling a mid-term and going to class she’s taking calls from her contractor and interviewing for counter help at the shop that will serve boba tea with a twist: It’s sugar free, made with plant-based milks, and under 100 calories.
“It’s insane from the operational side,” said Juneja, whose first shop is strategically located on Spear Street across from Google and Databricks offices, where employees are starting to trickle back. “We need to make sure there’s a demand and that we’re making sure the product is good enough so that people will continue showing up.”
In many ways, Aura Tea has been a team effort from the start. Juneja recruited 22 interns from the UC Berkeley community who help with marketing, TikTok, and Instagram, where she’s drawn support from NFL players to local musicians. Students and Cal athlete ambassadors helped her host on-campus events that offer “boba for de-stressing”—and she recently held a pop-up on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, giving away Cal-themed boba tea drinks.
Kaitlin Dang, BS 24, an intern who serves as business growth lead at Aura Tea, said her favorite Aura flavor is mango pineapple.
“Before I started working here I was an avid milk tea connoisseur, trying new places,” said Dang, who is in her second year of the Berkeley Haas Global Management Program. “My taste has changed from sweeter teas and now I drink a lot of fruit teas. Most fruit teas are very sweet and not refreshing. Aura tea has a refreshing taste.”
Solving her own problem
Juneja, who grew up in Cupertino, has always loved boba. “Our high school was boba central, with a boba shop across the street that was open during lunch every day,” she said. “I played tennis every day so it balanced out.”
Her boba addiction continued at Berkeley, but drinking those 500 extra boba calories without her usual tennis playing led to an unwanted 30-pound weight gain. Aura Tea, she said, was founded in part to solve her own problem.
The idea to start making healthier boba tea emerged during a Plant Futures course that she took with Will Rosenzweig, the faculty chair of the Center for Responsible Business at Haas who co-founded the Republic of Tea.
She’d already taken an entrepreneurship bootcamp and was interested in starting a company. Plant Futures, a collaboration between Berkeley Haas, Public Health, Engineering, Public Policy, and the Berkeley Food Institute, pushed her idea forward.
Throughout the pandemic, Juneja could be found crafting tea in her apartment, testing different oat, almond, and pea milks, which make her tea drinks vegan, and sweeteners, using fresh loose leaf green and black teas from the grocery store. (Boba pearls are naturally vegan, as they’re made of tapioca starch, which comes from cassava root.)
Juneja tested her teas on friends and classmates. In the early recipe days, she conducted a blind taste test: her milk tea against the Boba Guys’ tea and others. (Boba Guys was co-founded by Andrew Chau, MBA 11.) “We didn’t win but it was a good start,” she said. “Our taste was nowhere that it is now.”
It took time to get Berkeley-based impact investor David Jiang to take a chance on her venture, she said. Jiang’s wife’s father was a tea farmer in China, and they all shared an interest in tea. “There was a lot of making it and taking it back to them,” Juneja said. “I was taking what I learned in class and bringing them my tea and my pitch deck.”
I was taking what I learned in class and bringing them my tea and my pitch deck.
Valuable startup experience
The shop, which will take to-go orders online, will offer a combination of grab-and-go and fresh-brewed drinks with boba tea in flavors including strawberry, matcha, pineapple, and mango. Aura will offer coffee drinks, too, and a masala chai with infused with spices and CBD for relaxation. (Aura’s boba pearls are made by US Boba Company in nearby Hayward, Calif. Her tea is sweetened with Purecane, which she says she chose for its lack of an aftertaste.)
Dang said she’s getting valuable experience working for Aura. “There’s a lot of creativity involved,” she said. “I have the space to try the things I want to try. We’re appealing to a certain wide demographic: corporate employees, health influencers, healthcare professionals, and foodies. I like to try things I’ve seen work in other industries, casting a wide net.”
Juneja, who will work in the shop part-time until graduation, said she’s grateful to her entire community of classmates, professors, and advisors for all of their help with Aura’s creation.
“When I wrote my essay to get into Haas I said I wanted to solve a problem,” she said. “My dream came true.”
The shock and disbelief that rippled through the Haas community after Russia attacked Ukraine last week is turning into unity and action by the many students, faculty, staff, and alumni with deep connections to the region.
Today, the student-led European Business Club held a “Haas for Ukraine” forum for Ukrainian and Russian students to share their perspectives on the conflict. Others are launching fundraisers, and a faculty member has begun organizing a collective of fellow Ukrainian economists to brainstorm how to help the country both short- and long-term.
“We hope we can be of help, because the feeling of helplessness watching the situation unfold from afar has been among the worst parts of the emotional rollercoaster,” said Assistant Professor Anastassia Fedyk, who was born in the Ukraine and immigrated at age 10 when her mother Tatiana Fedyk, PhD 08, began her doctoral studies accounting at Berkeley Haas.
The violence is taking a huge emotional toll. Like many Ukrainians, Fedyk’s family has been preoccupied with checking in on their close family back home, some of whom are now leaving for Romania. Dima Okrimchuk, MBA 17, calls his parents in Kyiv every few hours to make sure they are okay, anxiously waiting to hear their voices.
“Watching live reports of my country torn apart by the Russians is just devastating,” he said in an interview from Lisbon. “This is something I will never forget.”
“We hope we can be of help, because the feeling of helplessness watching the situation unfold from afar has been among the worst parts of the emotional rollercoaster.” -Anastassia Fedyk, assistant professor of finance
A startup disrupted
Okrimchuk said he feels some guilt for leaving family and friends in Kyiv two weeks ago, relocating to Lisbon with his wife. But he said he’s now focused on raising funds for the Ukrainian army and spreading awareness of the conflict, while he continues work on his online game startup Organization.GG. He started the company while at Haas before moving back to Kyiv, where he recently received seed funding.
Rhonda Shrader, executive director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, worked with Okrimchuk when his company placed third in the fall 2020 LAUNCH accelerator competition at Haas. Last year, Okrimchuk served as a mentor in a class that Shrader taught online for Ukranian entrepreneurs as part of GIST Innovates Ukraine, a U.S. State Department-sponsored program. Shrader taught students the Lean Startup methodology.
Having developed relationships with so many of the country’s entrepreneurs, Shrader says she is devastated by the Russian invasion. “I loved working with these students,” she said. “I’m in tears.”
Before deciding to leave Ukraine, Okrimchuk asked his Organization.GG team whether they planned to leave Kyiv as well. “Everyone else had their own plan on what to do,” he said. “Out of the five of us, one remained in Kyiv, and four headed for different parts of Ukraine. They took their cars or found cars and left. A lot of people were running out of gas and there were huge traffic jams.”
Okrimchuk said he’s unsure when or if he will be able to return. “I can only hope that this won’t last long and we find a diplomatic solution,” he said. “There can’t be winners in the war. At the end of the day Ukraine is not only fighting for its own independence, but for peace and stability globally. I urge everyone to put pressure on their governments to help Ukraine with financial, military and political support before it is not too late. We are fighting for you, too.”
“There can’t be winners in the war.” -Dima Okrimchuk, MBA 17
Lives left behind
Fiodor Otero joined a rally for Ukraine in San Francisco’s City Hall Plaza Thursday, which left his throat sore from shouting. A Russian classmate who supports Ukraine came along with him, moved to tears by the speeches.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Otero, MBA 23, whose mother is Ukrainian. He has an aunt and cousin living in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine, where conflict between Russian separatists and Ukrainian government has continued since 2014. His voice cracks as he discusses the past week of worrying about his family as the Russian forces advance.
“For them, war has been a normal part of life for eight years,” he said. But now, on her way to the market, she’s noticing the bombing is getting closer and louder. At 68, she is now considering leaving the same apartment complex where she’s lived her entire life.
“I was talking to my cousin last night, asking what it was like for them,” said Otero, who grew up in his father’s native Panama. His aunt and 33-year-old cousin are now talking about fleeing to Panama, where his mother is living. “It’s just so hard. My aunt is saying she will be a refugee for the rest of her life. She’s going to leave their entire life behind.”
She now talks about giving away her things before she leaves, including her fine china and her nice glasses.“My cousin said something that struck my heart: ‘We’ve been saving these nice glasses and china to celebrate the good things in life, but those good things will never come,’ he said. ‘It’s time to start drinking from these every day before we leave.’ It’s so hard for me to emotionally process that.”
Dmitry Livdan, a Berkeley Haas associate professor of finance, grew up in Kharkiv in Eastern Ukraine before immigrating to the U.S. at age 24. He lost his mother to COVID last year, and wasn’t able to return to say goodbye. She was the last of his close family there.
He takes a dim view of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s prospects for success and hopes he will fail quickly. “I hope this is just for show, and he gets slapped in the face in two weeks,” he said of Putin.
With Russia’s wealthy elite losing billions already, he believes any support for Putin will erode quickly as the economic sanctions hit hard. Livdan says his big worry is that Putin’s invasion will embolden China to make a similar move. “I worry most about what this means for Taiwan,” he said.
‘The unimaginable’ has happened
Fedyk, a Berkeley Haas assistant professor of finance whose research focuses on behavioral biases and in individual and group decision-making,said her reaction on Wednesday night and Thursday morning was anger, panic, and “the understanding that the unimaginable had happened, and that things will never be quite the same again. I taught on autopilot while inwardly feeling like my world was coming apart and could not say a word about the situation in class lest I start crying.”
By the end of the week, Fedyk said, her emotions shifted to a mix of “pain, hope, determination, and of course pride in my compatriots. Like the entire world, I am inspired by the resistance of the Ukrainian people—but I am worried whether the newly mobilized global support will be enough.”
The stakes are high, she says, eight years into the conflict that has been simmering since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. If Ukraine falls, “Putin would very likely not stop there, and there is a security risk to other parts of Europe; by contrast, if Ukraine succeeds in pushing off the aggression, it might have positive spillovers in Belarus and perhaps even in Russia.”
As an economist, she believes that “letting Putin win would effectively plunge Ukraine into the economic dark ages together with Russia. And if we succeed in fighting off the invasion, there will still be much work to do on reconstruction, but at least there will be something to reconstruct, and we will have global support.”
That’s why she is organizing with other Ukrainian economists at U.S. schools to brainstorm solutions both for the immediate term and in the months and years to come. At the same time, she is glued to the news alongside her parents and her grandmother, who has been visiting from Ukraine since September. She is also trying to parent her three-year-old son, who refers to Putin as “the bad guy,” and talks about throwing him into a prickly cactus bush.
“We have been trying to teach him to use his words rather than fighting, but it’s very hard when we are watching this unfold,” she said.
On a recent rainy night, more than 100 Berkeley Haas and Stanford GSB students convened in Chou Hall’s Spieker Forum for a first-of-its-kind Founder-Investor Mixer.
Haas MBA students Atusa Sadeghi and Alejandra (Ale) Vergara, along with Dogakan Toka, EWMBA 22 and co-president of the Berkeley Entrepreneurship Association (BEA), were behind the event. As co-presidents of the Haas Venture Capital Club, they decided it was time for students from the two programs to get to know each other in the tight-knit industry, where they’d inevitably run into each other post-graduation.
“I think collaboration is the key word here,” said Sadeghi, EWMBA 22, a former mechanical engineer who transitioned into venture capital over the last two years. “If we’re going to be in the same industry, let’s be united.”
A new fund
That shared vision for unity among investors and entrepreneurs is something Sadeghi and Vergara, full-time MBA 22, have emphasized since taking on their roles amid the Covid pandemic. Under their watch, they organized the event with Stanford, landing the support of sponsor First Republic Bank and Andrew Liou, a senior relationship manager at the bank, who “didn’t think twice before supporting the collaborative effort,” Vergara said.
Membership in the student-run VC club, founded in 2018 by evening & weekend MBA students Chris Truglia and Scott Graham, has increased from about 100 to more than 500 students, split 50-50 between the evening & weekend and full-time MBA programs. Since its founding, collaboration and networking among students from both the programs has been critical to the club’s success, Truglia said.
The club hosts popular pitch nights, often partnering with other UC Berkeley clubs, and has built a database with answers to the most common questions students ask about the venture capital industry. This past fall, venture capital club leadership also helped spearhead the creation of Courtyard Ventures, a new venture fund led by Haas MBA students that provides an opportunity for Cal students and alumni to invest in early-stage Cal startups. The fund has recently begun deploying capital, after exceeding funding goals and closing its first two investments in early January, Sadeghi said.
While entrepreneurship is a well-established career path at Haas, Gupta said he’s seen a shift in student interest and effort in venture capital over the past three years, as the number of Bay Area VC funds has proliferated. “Now, these funds are coming to Haas to recruit for associate and principal roles,” said Gupta, who is also managing partner of his own pre-seed fund Blue Bear Ventures started at UC Berkeley. By next year, Gupta predicts Haas could double its number of full-time offers.
That growth would be significant. For each of the past two summers, about 15 to 20 full-time MBA students interned at venture capital firms, up from just a few in 2015, said William Rindfuss, executive director of strategic programs in the Haas Finance Group. While there’s a longer track record of students studying finance going into investment banking, a total of around 10 grads took full-time jobs in venture capital over the past two years. “We’ve had more students doing VC internships, and that will likely lead to more full-time VC job offers,” Rindfuss said.
The passion for investing
But increased hiring comes down to overcoming challenges endemic to the venture capital industry. VC funds can be insular, they don’t hire on a predictable schedule, and entry-level pay can be low compared to other finance jobs—with a big payoff delayed until you make partner, Gupta said.
“Venture is so ‘just in time’ and when people hire you you start immediately. It’s not like consulting where you get your offer and start next July,” said Jeff Diamond, MBA 22, a VC Club officer and a general partner at Courtyard Ventures. But Diamond, who came to Haas to switch from a career in the entertainment industry to early-stage investing, said he’s committed to a VC career. “It’s a lot of work but it’s rewarding,” he said. “It’s what I liked about working with artists, writers, and directors. You want to be the person who works with them. The idea of being with these companies for the long haul is what interests me.”
“The idea of being with these companies for the long haul is what interests me.” — Jeff Diamond, MBA 22
There’s clearly passion for investing in the Haas alumni network, which is expanding to include graduates like Sydney Thomas, MBA 16, a principal at seed-stage fund Precursor Ventures; Matthew Divack, MBA 19, an investor at Moment Ventures, and Champ Suthipongchai, MBA 15, who co-founded Creative Ventures, a tech VC firm investing in startups that address the impact of increasing labor shortages, rising healthcare costs, and the climate crisis.
Making alumni connections
An earlier success story in venture capital, Michael Berolzheimer, MBA 07, founded Bee Partners in 2008. An internship at pre-seed fund Bee Partners piqued Vergara’s interest last year, but she worried she lacked a technical background. Then Vergara met Kira Noodleman, MBA 17, a partner at Bee, through the Berkeley Female Founder and Funder’s summit last year. “Kira encouraged me to apply,” said Vergara, who landed the internship. That led to a full-time job offer with the fund when she graduates in May.
Looking for more investment experience, Sadeghi found her internship as a senior venture associate at Blue Bear Capital (separate from Gupta’s fund, Blue Bear Ventures). She first met Carolin Funk, a Blue Bear partner invited by the 2020 Haas Venture Capital Club to speak at the school. Interviews at Blue Bear led to an offer. She then learned that recent alum André Chabaneix, MBA 21, already worked at Blue Bear as a senior associate.
“André is just amazing,” Sadeghi said. “We have a lot in common in terms of our background and industry interest so we bonded pretty quickly. In our overlapping year at Haas we participated in the 2021 Venture Capital Investment Competition (VCIC) where we ended up representing Berkeley at the global finals together—and now we’re great friends and colleagues.”
While students continue their internship and career recruitment this spring, the VC Club already has many events planned, including club-sponsored workshops, student-alumni mixer events and more collaboration with peer MBA programs. Vergara and Sadhegi encouraged students “who are just interested in learning more about VC or are fully committed to this career path,” to check out the club.
“It’s been such a pleasure running the 2021 VC club year with Ale, and we can’t wait to welcome the 2022 leadership team to carry us forward,” Sadhegi said.
Yannell Selman, MBA 21, arrived at Berkeley Haas suffering from what she called “late-stage clinical burnout” from work.
Within months, Selman was working to solve the root causes of her own problem.
That work turned into a startup, Cultiveit, which is building an online wellness platform that human resources departments use to recommend “high-quality time-off” experiences to treat worker burnout.
“Our goal is to shift workplace culture so people have boundaries between working and not working,” said Selman, who co-founded the company with classmate Dunja Panic, MBA 21. The pair met during the UC Berkeley Student Entrepreneurship Program (StEP), which helps students find other entrepreneurs and explore the viability of their startup ideas.
First, Selman and Panic considered a startup focused on kids, screen time, and parental burnout. Then they pivoted to exploring burnout as an adult issue. Last fall, while conducting research, they noticed a pandemic “paradigm shift” as the lack of separation between home and work increasingly impacted workers.
While working on the startup at UC Berkeley’s SkyDeck incubator, they began viewing burnout as not an individual’s problem, but as a systematic issue, connected to how work is structured.
They began viewing burnout as not an individual’s problem, but as a systematic issue, connected to how work is structured.
It starts with “a grind of nonstop work that blends from day to night,” progressing to cynicism that leads to negative attitudes toward clients and your team, Selman said. Finally, there’s helplessness. “You lose hope that anything will change,” Selman said. “You try to make a change but realize nothing works so you quit or get a new job. You take two weeks off, but then the cycle starts again.”
Selman’s leadership on the issue has attracted attention. TaskRabbit CEO Ania Smith wrote a recent Forbes article that cited the benefit of “what burnout consultant Yannell Selman calls “high-quality time off” (HQTO).”
“To qualify as HQTO, employees should engage in activities that are active and support cognitive distance (like rock climbing versus a massage), intrinsically satisfying and reconnect employees to their non-work identities (salsa dancing versus laundry), disconnected (hiking versus watching TV), sensory-stimulating (surfing versus video games) and encourage meaningful growth (woodworking versus social media),” Smith wrote.
Kelli Schultz, a senior people development specialist at TaskRabbit, recently worked with Cultiveit to help employees figure out what HQTO means to them—and urged them to make the most of a paid week off after a busy seasonal period.
After the vacation week, TaskRabbit employees shared photos, emphasizing how they’d challenged themselves. Schultz said she headed to Tennessee where she went went ziplining, left her computer at home, and hit the hot tub when she thought about checking emails.
Results of the company’s twice-annual engagement survey showed the program’s success: a jump of 12 points in employee satisfaction, which Schultz called “amazing, especially during Covid.”
Selman also worked with leaders at content management company Box last July. She held a one-hour info session about burnout, attended by 60 people; 24 people signed up to try a new HQTO experience, said Andrew Chang, corporate finance and strategy manager at Box.
Each participating employee received $50 to spend on experiences ranging from cheesemaking to a botanical garden trip. The feedback from participants was enthusiastic, and planted a seed that company leaders are responding to, Chang said. “Anyone can talk about burnout and what they think it is,” he said. “Yannell tells it to people in a way that’s meaningful. That was the “wow” moment for me.”
Selman is now planning to expand Cultiveit, working on a seed funding round and continuing work with their corporate partners. The company makes money by receiving a percentage of the cost of classes or experiences it promotes to its clients.
“The main thing is that we want to engage with the community,” she said. “We want to meet with more managers and HR leaders who see this as critical and want to participate. Nutrition and meditation aren’t enough to cure burnout. You have to change your work habits.”
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.”
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.
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.
Startup Spotlight profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.
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.
“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.
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.
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 [email protected], 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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 profiles startups founded by current Berkeley Haas students or recent alumni.
Lastbit Co-founders: Bernardo Magnani, MBA 20, and Prashanth Balasubramanian
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?
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?
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.