“Collaboration is the key word:” Venture capital’s rise at Haas

Stanford and Haas students came together at Haas in November for a first of a kind founder-investor mixer.  Left to right: Atusa Sadhegi,  EWMBA 22 (Berkeley Haas), C.C. Gong (Stanford GSB), Alon Dror (Stanford GSB), Alejandra Vergara, MBA 22 (Berkeley Haas), and Dogakan Toka, EWMBA 22 (Berkeley Haas). Photo: Jim Block

On a recent rainy night, more than 100 Berkeley Haas and Stanford MBA 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.”

VC Club mixer with Stanford and Haas MBA students
Stanford and Haas MBA students getting to know each other at the founder-investor mixer in Spieker Forum. Photo: Jim Block

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.

Alejandra Vergara (left) and Atusa Sadhegi are co-presidents of the Haas VC Club. Photo: Jim Block

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.

“These women are amazing—they’ve done an incredible job,” said Deepak Gupta, an investor and venture capital industry advisor with the Berkeley Haas Career Management Group.

Deepak Gupta
Deepak Gupta, venture capital industry advisor with the Haas Career Management Group.

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.”

Left to right: Alejandra Vergara,(Haas) Alon Dror (GSB), C.C. Gong (GSB), Dogakan Toka (Haas), Atusa Sadeghi (Haas), Paola Retes (GSB).

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. 

‘Driven by our own mission’: Blackbook University builds community and belonging

Blackbook’s co-founders and supporters attend a pre-launch presentation. From L-R: Maya Hammond, former BSU president; Farhiya Ali; Imran Sekalala; Ibrahim Baldé; Nahom Solomon; Hana Baba, NPR; Joy Dixon, Salesforce; Marco Lindsey, associate director of DEI at Haas; Nicholas Brathwaite; and Chase Ali-Watkins. Photo courtesy: Ibrahim Baldé.

As an undergraduate, Ibrahim Baldé, BS 20, said he faced many challenges on top of managing a rigorous course load. They included battling imposter syndrome, experiencing microaggressions from peers, and feeling pressured in class to be the spokesperson for his race as he was often the lone Black student.

After speaking with friends and classmates who also identified as Black, Baldé learned that they faced the same hurdles. A 2019 campus-climate report published by UC Berkeley’s Division of Equity, and Inclusion also confirmed Baldé’s experience, which found that many Black students experienced exclusionary behaviors from peers, including being stared at or singled out to represent their race.

Wanting to improve the Black student experience at Berkeley, Baldé co-founded Blackbook University, a website and mobile app that provides educational and professional resources to help Black undergraduate and graduate students navigate their journey at Berkeley. Blackbook’s other co-founders include Nicholas Brathwaite, Chase Ali-Watkins, both BA 20, Nahom Solomon, BA 21, Farhiya Ali and Imran Sekalala, both BA 23.

The app, which launched Nov. 18 and is a revival of a Black student handbook published in the 1980s and 1990s, includes a calendar with extracurricular and career-related events, a student-alumni-faculty directory, a live chat feed for users to interact, and a scholarship and internship database. The website features student profiles and an internship program for students interested in entrepreneurship and tech. 

Brathwaite manages product development, Ali and Sekalala handle data analysis and design, Solomon serves as the director of operations, Ali-Watkins is the chief marketing officer, and Baldé is CEO.

Student Profile – Adaeze Noble from Made By Chase on Vimeo.

The journey

The son of an imam, Baldé was instilled with a “beyond yourself” mindset at an early age. Growing up in Alameda, Calif., Baldé knew that he wanted to combine his three passions: social impact work, business, and tech. Once at Haas, Baldé took Haas Lecturer Alex Budak’s leadership class called Becoming a Changemaker

“That class allowed me to think about my mission and purpose and to understand that leadership isn’t a defined trait,” Baldé said. 

Following that class, Baldé began to lay the groundwork for Blackbook University. He teamed up with his co-founders and formed an advisory board of faculty and staff across campus, including Budak, Marco Lindsey, associate director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Haas; Miya Hayes, BA 92, associate director of Campus Partnerships & Engagement; and staff from the African American Student Development Office. 

Baldé surveyed about 150 Black Berkeley and Haas students to assess if he had a winning idea. The answer was a resounding yes. 

While Slack and GroupMe are useful networking tools, 90% of surveyors reported that it was important to have a tool that was designed for them.

“Students can’t take ownership of Slack and GroupMe, but they can take ownership of Blackbook,” Baldé said.  

A copy of the original UC Berkeley African American Student Handbook published in 1996.

Successes and challenges

Baldé and his team have had some successes. They participated in UC Berkeley’s Free Ventures pre-seed accelerator, allowing them to test and tweak their business model. They also were one of the Big Ideas Contest grand prize winners, earning $10,000 in prize money. 

But they’ve also had some setbacks, including finding the best developer who could deliver the app they envisioned. Another setback was validating their business model to potential investors. Currently, Blackbook is free to download. 

“We just tune out the noise,” Baldé says. “We’re driven by our own mission and that is to build community and to make our resources and networks available to Black student communities.”

Despite the hurdles, the team continues to press on. Their goal is to make customized versions of the app for Black student communities at colleges and universities nationwide. 

Faculty and staff advisors praise Baldé and his team for creating a sense of belonging on campus.

“I’m inspired by how Ibrahim can readily imagine a better future and then rally the people and resources needed to turn these ideas into reality,” said Budak. “We talked about how one of the greatest acts of changemaking is creating the opportunities for others that we wish we had for ourselves and Ibrahim is doing just that.”

Hayes agreed. “I’m in awe of their innovation–taking both the best and most challenging aspects of their time at Berkeley to create something that sustains and nourishes our sense of belonging,” she said. “They’re giants in their own right.”

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.” 

Poshmark

How one Haas alum is making the fashion industry more sustainableEleven items of clothing, including dresses, shirts, and a coat, hanging on hangers.

Clothing is a fundamental need, right up there with food and shelter. But for many, it’s more: self-expression of the highest order. But there’s a price to looking good. According to a 2019 United Nations report, fashion is the second most-polluting industry globally. The culprit? Fast fashion, the dominant business model of mass-producing catwalk trends cheaply, encouraging customers to buy and discard clothes regularly. Since 2011, Manish Chandra, MBA 95, the founder and CEO of Poshmark, has been working to upend that model and promote sustainable consumption.

Poshmark is a leading social marketplace for new and secondhand styles for men, women, kids, pets, home, and more. Sellers use photos and videos to create listings for their merchandise—think Instagram meets eBay—bringing human connection to ecommerce. Poshmark holds no inventory and takes a 20% cut on sales of $15 or more. With over 4.5 million active sellers and over 80 million total users across the U.S., Canada, and Australia, Poshmark has not only recycled clothing worldwide, it’s also created cash flow for families and small businesses.

Milestones from 10 years of Poshmark

2011

Poshmark launches for iPhone only, complete with style-focused Posh Parties, virtual events for sellers to showcase their merchandise. About 100 loyal users spend ~20 minutes daily selling (and buying) clothes.

2012

Poshmark launches Showrooms, collections of curated items from the entire community. Poshmark grows (largely via referrals) to ~1,000 highly active users.

2013

To drive revenue, Poshmark focuses on monetization. Users increase tenfold, but technical infrastructure issues almost topple the company. In response, Chandra slashes his marketing budget by 80% and returns to growing via community.

2014

To simplify shipping, Chandra buys thousands of prepaid labels from the USPS for sellers, figuring differences in package weights would even out. The USPS demands millions in shipping costs—and threatens to arrest Chandra. Instead, he negotiates a discounted shipping label.

2015

Wholesale launches. The most active sellers can now acquire retail merchandise directly from Poshmark boutiques and grow their own businesses.

2016

Poshmark expands into two new categories: kids and men’s.   

2017

The company raises another $87.5 million, bringing total funding to $160 million. It focuses on expanding into new categories and building immersive, data-driven shopping experiences.

2018

A valuation of $625 million and Poshmark’s anticipated 70% revenue growth earn it a spot on Forbes’ Next Billion-Dollar Startups list. Its community of sellers earn more than $1 billion for the first time, including the first seller to earn $1 million.

2019

Poshmark launches in Canada, growing to over 2.5 million Canadians to date. It also expands to include home decor.

2020

Poshmark introduces Posh Stories, which allow users to share short, shoppable videos and photos to bring their listings to life.

2021

Now with ~500 employees, Poshmark goes public in January valued at over $3 billion. Sellers have generated over $4 billion in sales; one sale is made every second in the U.S. The company expands into Australia and offers a pets category.

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.

Caviar

How Berkeley alumni changed the food-delivery game

Caviar food delivery service

Food-delivery apps weren’t new when Jason Wang, BS 09, and four co-founders launched Caviar, so differentiating themselves from the likes of Seamless and Grubhub was crucial. Their solution? Offer a curated assortment of restaurants with loyal customer bases (many exclusive to Caviar), invest in professional photography for every dish, and prioritize restaurant partners, for whom there were no commitments, no monthly fee, and no delivery infrastructure needed. The formula worked. Caviar became profitable in the first six months and earned a seven-figure annual revenue the first year. Just two years after launching, it was acquired by Square. Here, how Wang and his co-founders—Richard Din, BS/BA 08 (electrical engineering & computer science/economics); Shawn Tsao, BA 11 (architecture); Andy Zhang (former Berkeley student); and Abel Lin—quickly turned Caviar into a sensation.

Caviar's four Berkeley co-founders
Caviar’s four Berkeley co-founders: (left to right): Andy Zhang (former student); Jason Wang, BS 09; Richard Din, BS/BA 08 (electrical engineering & computer science/economics); and Shawn Tsao, BA 11 (architecture).

July 2012

Caviar launches in San Francisco, offering weekday lunch to companies. The co-founders start with just a few restaurants (like Ike’s Place, HRD, and Nick’s Cripsy Tacos) and do deliveries themselves for a few months, then hire couriers from Craigslist. Food messengers keep the $10 delivery fee and part of the gratuity, with the balance (and food surcharges) going to Caviar. Eventually, Caviar expands to 30 restaurants in SF. In year one, they focus on improving just two metrics: orders per week and revenue.

March 2013

Service opens to the general public (it had been invite-only for individuals).

November 2013

Caviar launches in New York City and Seattle with 15–20 restaurants in each locale.

January 2014

Caviar has 10 full-time employees. About 40% of customers are corporate, accounting for 65% of revenue.

July 2014

Now with $15 million in venture capital and 40 employees, Caviar launches in Los Angeles, bringing its total penetration to seven cities (also including Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.). The company’s order volume has grown more than 500% year over year.

August 2014

Square acquires Caviar for $90 million in stock. Wang stays on as CEO until August 2016.

January 2015

Wang makes the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the food & drink category.

February 2015

Six months after acquisition, Caviar triples orders, expands to 15 cities nationwide, and more than doubles employees, to 100+.

August 2019

DoorDash acquires Caviar from Square for $410 million.

Sept 2020

Wang is again honored by Forbes, this time as one of 10 game-changers who have appeared in 10 years of the Forbes 30 Under 30 list.

Sean Li, MBA 20
Founder, Haas Podcasts & Alumni.FM

Sean Li, MBA 20

“The biggest ROI from an MBA is the network,” says Sean Li. And one of the best ways to connect? Ask to hear someone’s story. “It builds a strong bond,” Li says, “because we feel like we’re giving a piece of ourselves.”

As an evening and weekend MBA student, Li sought to maximize his limited time on campus by interviewing fellow students and sharing the personal narratives via a podcast, Here@Haas. Since February 2018, he’s published scores of interviews with one goal: to uncover passions. His formula has sparked connections among interviewees and other Haasies and prompted incoming students to attend Haas.

Just before Li’s graduation, the Haas Alumni Relations team hired him to create an alumni podcast, called OneHaas, and he accepted, thinking it would be a fun side gig. A year later, that project has spawned a full-fledged startup for clients beyond Haas.

Alumni interviews each require research and some ten hours of post-production, so Li passed off the Haas student interviews to volunteers. “I had to build a system so other students could take over,” says Li. “I thought, if I can do this at Haas, why can’t I do this at every school?”

In 2020, Li launched Alumni.FM, a podcast service providing research, post-production, and distribution support for higher education. He now has clients at the University of Utah and a partnership with the team at Harvard Business School. “I want to become the Netflix of alumni content,” he says.

For Li, the podcasting experience has been serendipitous. “I love talking to people, but I never imagined coming into the MBA program to start podcasting,” he says with a smile. Listen in: haaspodcasts.org.   

linkedin.com/in/reachsean

Training Innovators

New initiative will make Haas a campus gateway for entrepreneurial thinking

Rendering of Haas’ new Entrepreneurship Hub, slated for renovation later this year
Rendering of Haas’ new Entrepreneurship Hub, slated for renovation later this year.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that entrepreneurial thinkers are desperately needed to help society solve its greatest challenges. Haas students created a zero-waste startup to fill recycled plastic bottles with hand sanitizer they distributed for free to low-income communities. Alumni spearheaded ambitious efforts to deliver medical goods worldwide. They’ve succeeded because Haas taught them how to bring game-changing ideas to life, whether as entrepreneurs via startups or as intrapreneurs in their companies.

Showing students how to apply classroom lessons to entrepreneurial endeavors is the work of Rhonda Shrader, MBA 96, who’s directed the Entrepreneurship Program since 2016. Shrader coordinated 80 campus programs and clubs to help students acquire practical skills. “The big thing was about building a strategic pipeline of programs,” she says.

Now, a new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Initiative seeks to enhance Haas’ efforts on three fronts: creating a centralized hub for all of campus, expanding programming, and endowing faculty thought leadership. Haas has raised nearly $30 million for this initiative, but more support is needed to ensure Haas is a leading destination for entrepreneurial thinkers and leaders worldwide.

Renovation will start later this year on an Entrepreneurship Hub (shown left), located in a historic Julia Morgan building adjacent to Haas. The three-floor Hub, for which Haas is still seeking a $10 million naming donation, will feature spaces to gather, work, and learn while celebrating the entrepreneurial achievements (and Beyond Yourself attitude) of the Haas community. A generous donation from Brett Wilson, MBA 07, for example, named the Hub’s TubeMogul kitchen, after the business he launched as a student and later sold to Adobe.

The largest room will be called the Castaneda Innovation Forum in honor of the parents of Elena Gomez, BS 91, who pledged $2 million to the building. Gomez, the CFO of Zendesk, wanted to celebrate their hard work as immigrants from El Salvador and their dedication leading to her being a first-generation college student and talented business executive. “My parents didn’t have a lot of money or education, but they believed you have to give your kids the best education possible,” Gomez says. “My success and my ability to give this gift are directly due to their support.”   

To understand how best to expand learning opportunities, Shrader and a colleague interviewed students and stakeholders to identify their greatest needs. Haas is now seeking $17 million in endowed funds to support programming that will include, among other offerings, summer stipends so students can focus on startups.

On the faculty front, the new virtual Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group will enhance cross-disciplinary thought leadership by uniting Haas faculty from different groups who conduct research in innovation and entrepreneurship. The group is led by Prof. Toby Stuart, the Leo Helzel Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“Having Toby is an asset,” says Rene Kern, BS 86, a Haas donor and member of the UC Berkeley Foundation. “He can bring entrepreneurship to life by bringing in practitioners who have successful track records at company building.” Kern has pledged $3 million to endow one of four new faculty chairs in entrepreneurship. The other three chairs have been endowed by Michael Grimes, BS 87 (electrical engineering and computer science); Mark Robinson, BA 88 (history and political science); and DK Kim, Parent 94, 98, and Dick Blum, BS 57, MBA 59.

“Berkeley offers a unique ecosystem by virtue of its rich tradition in research and sciences and its presence in Silicon Valley,” Kern says. “These incredible assets will allow Haas to establish a preeminent position in entrepreneurship.”

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: 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.”

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