Nineteen MBA students and a couple of business school professors are packed into what could be confused for an airport shuttle or a spring break party bus bound for the ski slopes of Tahoe. But instead of ski gear, they’re wearing dark-colored sports coats, v-neck sweaters, carefully combed hair and earnest expressions. These students are on a mission – they came all the way from Spain to soak up Silicon Valley in seven days – an admirable feat and one that Jeroen Kemperman, a second-year business student from Holland at IESE, has accomplished once before and is eager to tackle again.
The group of MBAs from IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain, arrived in the Valley on March 24 for a week-long, immersive tour of the heartland of entrepreneurship. IESE Meets the Valley, planned and led by students, combines visits to startups, incubators, venture capital funds and established companies with networking events. The themed itinerary mirrors the process of launching and growing a company. Day one is dedicated to founding a startup and packs in visits with such hot companies as Waze, a social GPS navigation app, and Lemon, a virtual wallet. The week’s schedule progresses through the startup milestones of getting funded, scaling and remaining entrepreneurial. Along the way, students will ostensibly deepen their understanding of entrepreneurship and connect with some of Silicon Valley’s tech stars, including Cisco, VMware, Eventbrite and WhatsApp.
THE DISNEYLAND FOR ‘ENTREPRENEURS’
The spirit of the Valley is infectious, according to Kemperman, who coordinated the first trip last year. He also organized this year’s trek with the help of eight other students. The 32-year-old father could easily pass for a budding businessman in his 20s, but his resume boasts the bullet points of someone a decade older, including founding two NGOs and a web startup. He’d heard of treks to the Valley before but pins this trip on an innate drive to meet legendary technology companies and players. While he maintains that the startup scene is growing in Barcelona, California’s Bay Area has something special. “Silicon Valley is still the Disneyland for entrepreneurs,” he says. “I just wanted to really smell the air out here – to see what it’s really like sitting in the square in Palo Alto like we are now.”
The crew from IESE is not the first and certainly won’t be the last to make the pilgrimage to the Mecca of innovation and entrepreneurship. Top business schools worldwide are increasingly sending their students to Silicon Valley to glean insights, establish connections and perhaps catch the startup bug. Both Harvard Business School and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business have student-led treks to the Valley. Harvard also offers a week-long Silicon Valley Immersion Program for course credit. Oxford University’s Saïd Business School will be making its fifth annual trip to Silicon Valley this month.
For students like Sarah Knudson, an IESE MBA from Oklahoma, the decision to come on the trip was an easy one. “It was a no brainer,” she says. “These guys have worked really hard to get the right connections in the right places. You’re learning more in one day from people who are actually doing it, than you can get in a classroom,” she says. For Knudson, the opportunity to get advice and feedback from key Silicon Valley players is invaluable. “For us to be able to pick their brains is like getting insider information that you could not pay for,” she says.
And advice is part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, according to Christine Tsai, a partner at 500 Startups who speaks to the group in the afternoon. “Here in Silicon Valley we have a pay-it-forward culture,” she says. Tsai describes a case where businessmen visiting from Asia were astounded that top entrepreneurs would volunteer their time to coach fledgling companies through startup hurdles. But as Tsai explains it, there’s a belief that the payoff comes later – when those startups advise the next generation and so on down the line.
The first stop for the IESE students is a warehouse in San Francisco’s Dog Patch neighborhood, an area known more for its working class roots and mixed-use industrial spaces than it’s IT savvy. Students meander into the refurbished concrete building, complete with exposed air ducts, low-hanging lights and the tell-tell signs of a technology company—whiteboards, modular furniture, energy bars and quality coffee. Inside a tall, slim figure with an elegant Spanish accent points out the familiar icons of Facebook, Google, Apple and Twitter on a projection-screen map of Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Sergi Herrero, the CEO of L’Atelier BNP Paribas, which studies innovative technology trends, is a self-described “adopted son of Silicon Valley” and an enthusiastic tour guide.
He walks students through the lay of the land – both geographically and conceptually and leaves them with a word of advice. “Networking is key,” he says. You work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but the good events are always after hours – it’s when business gets done, he adds. Heads nod in unison, pens scratch away on pads and smartphone cameras flash. It’s the students’ first taste of Silicon Valley.
‘NO SHAME IN FAILURE HERE’
The MBAs are an eclectic mix. From Knudson, the Oklahoma business analyst and Cuban dance instructor, to Fumihiko Imamura, a Japanese IT manager with a flair for rugby and cooking, they embody diversity. Among them, they represent 16 countries. When Tsai of 500 Startups asked where they were from, Knudson quipped, “This could take awhile.” But if there’s one thing they all share, it’s a passion for entrepreneurship.