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Startup KwikKart nabs first prize at LAUNCH Demo Day

Two white male students with crossed arms. t-shirts rad Kwik Kart
KwikKart, co-founded by Aaron Gyure, BS 20, and Sean Houlihan, BA 20, won first place at LAUNCH Demo Day.

Three Berkeley Haas startups nabbed top honors at Demo Day for LAUNCH, the University of California’s accelerator for early stage startups.

The event, organized by Haas and UC Berkeley students and sponsored by the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program (BHEP), was held online on Friday, Jan. 14.

KwikKart, a smart cart that allows customers to scan and purchase items from a smartphone while shopping, took first place; The Blue Box, an at-home urine test that can detect breast cancer, placed second; and PWR WMN, a women’s blazer company, nabbed third. Cleo, a THC and CBD gummy startup, won Audience Choice. 

Eight out of the 14 teams that completed the three month accelerator program made it to the finals, where they pitched to VCs and angel investors. LAUNCH, now its 7th year as an accelerator, aims to transform early-stage startups into fundable companies.

Rhonda Shrader, executive director of BHEP, which oversees LAUNCH, said this fall’s cohort was exceptionally diverse, with eight underrepresented founders and 11 women founders. “Every year our cohorts get more diverse and reflect more diverse thinking around solving the world’s biggest challenges,” she said.

KwikKart, co-founded by Aaron Gyure, BS 20, and Sean Houlihan, BS 20 (electrical engineering and computer science), netted $25,000 in prize money; PWR WMN, led by two Texas A&M University grads and Ana Martinez, EWMBA 23, won $10,000; and Cleo, co-founded by Haas students Andrea Berrios and Spencer Perron, both MBA 22, landed $5,000 in prize money. The Blue Box, led by UC Irvine grad Judit Giro, won $15,000.

Each year, more than 200 startup teams, which must include one UC-affiliated member, apply for a coveted spot in the accelerator. During the program, teams get to test their products with customers, connect with industry experts, receive guidance from Haas mentors, and get the chance to pitch to investors on Demo Day. 

LAUNCH has helped build more than 150 companies, including Haas’ first unicorn, Xendit, co-founded by Moses Lo, MBA 15. Lo, who joined Demo Day for a Q&A, spoke about his entrepreneurial successes and challenges.

LAUNCH Demo Day is now available to stream via YouTube.

“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 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.”

VC Club mixer with Stanford and Haas MBA students
Stanford and Berkeley 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,(Berkeley Haas) Alon Dror (GSB), C.C. Gong (Stanford GSB), Dogakan Toka (Berkeley Haas), Atusa Sadeghi (Berkeley Haas), Paola Retes (Stanford 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.”