Wharton’s Karl Ulrich On Linking West Coast Innovation With East Coast Basics

Karl Ulrich, vice dean of entrepreneurship and innovation for Wharton

The East and West Coasts almost seem like different worlds. Hoodies vs. Pin Stripes. Surfing vs. Skiing. Pacific Cool vs. Atlantic Flurry. Silicon Valley Romantics vs. Wall Street Pragmatists. It is truly a culture clash between new and old, an axis slowly shifting from colonial restraint and endurance to prospector risk-taking and innovation.

It is a push-pull felt by most top MBA applicants, too. Head east and you’re perfectly positioned for traditional Ivy haunts like investment banking and consulting. Go west and you’re certain to get swept up in the frenzy of tech and entrepreneurship. Which do you choose? At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, you can enjoy the best of both worlds. Forget “Fear of Missing Out.” At Wharton, full-time students have the option to pursue “A Semester in San Francisco.” Located in Wharton’s campus in the South of Market district (a block from the Bay Bridge), the program has swelled from fewer than 50 full-time students in 2012 to 120 students today (see our video feature on the program).


It’s easy to see why, says Karl Ulrich, the vice dean of entrepreneurship and innovation at Wharton who oversees the Bay Area campus and the school’s innovation initiatives. For him, the Semester in San Francisco is a one-of-a-kind program that enables students to decide if entrepreneurship — or the tech beat in general — is right for them. Even more, over half of the program participants hold an internship during the semester. That enables MBA students to gain experience, engage with different employers, build a network, and come away with an edge over other MBA candidates —particularly since many Bay Area startups and early stage firms don’t hire using traditional recruiting channels.

“People read about Silicon Valley and San Francisco, but being there is different,” Ulrich explains in an interview with Poets&Quants. “The majority of students who participate in the semester in San Francisco have an eventual desire to either work in the Bay Area ecosystem or just somehow be connected through either venture capital or partnerships with players in Silicon Valley. For them to be on the ground there provides valuable opportunities to engage with the ecosystem before they decide where they’re going to end up on a full-time basis when they leave school.”

Even more, the school has opened the San Francisco campus up to the 7,000 Wharton alumni in the Bay Area. This creates a tighter connection between past and future alumni. This distinctive wrinkle is certain to bolster Wharton’s tech cache in the years to come. “One of the things that we’ve done is to try to minimize the distinction between current students and recent alums or even alums who’ve been out a while,” Ulrich adds. “Many of our entrepreneurial programs are open to our alumni as well. One of the things that has been so successful about our San Francisco facility is that we’ve been able to take this very active and large alumni community in the entrepreneurial ecosystem and connect it to current students though internships, workshops, and co-working on campus.”


Wharton’s San Francisco campus in the Hills Brothers Building

The Semester in San Francisco program is just another example of how Wharton is far different than its stereotype as a “finance school.”  Indeed, Wharton remains one of the most resource-rich and across-the-board excellent programs in the world, ranking in U.S. News’ top 10 in every academic specialization except fund-raising. In recent years, the program has made particular strides in entrepreneurship, featuring an array of competitions and showcases, conferences, clubs, advising resources, and networking opportunities with company leaders and financiers alike. In an era where small is associated with deeper relationships and support, Wharton proudly leverages its size and scope to increase students’ odds of developing viable businesses to run after graduation.

“We’re a really big community and that makes it very easy to find like-minded classmates who are interested in similar things,” Ulrich observes. “If you’re interested in something relatively specialized, Wharton would be a very good choice because you’re likely to find 20 other people who have similar interests.”


However, the Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship program isn’t just for wildly creative, risk junkie visionaries. Instead, it provides the complete toolkit for graduates to take startups from fledgling operations to world-changing enterprises. Ulrich dubs these students “Joiners,” but he doesn’t apply the term in a pejorative way.  In his experience, Joiners play an indispensible (though often unheralded) role in shaping the structure, strategy, and culture of startups that may have entered the Series A or Series B rounds. Ulrich cites such roles as modeling customer acquisition costs as one area where Wharton MBA graduates can hit the ground running in a relatively new firm. “We want our students to be able to step into those roles immediately upon graduation and add value in a very professional way,” he says. “That professionalism is often very lacking in the earliest stage startups. They don’t necessarily know best practices on how to grow their business.”

Being a Joiner has an added advantage for Wharton grads too, Ulrich adds. “One of the really nice things about joining a company that has raised a Series A financing round is that those companies can pay you a salary. That dramatically mitigates the risk for a student who has a lot of loans or doesn’t have wealth from their family. It opens up entrepreneurship to a lot more students if they can draw a paycheck — and very few early stage entrepreneurs can draw a paycheck.”

As a practitioner and professor, Ulrich has seen it all in the startup space. He has founded and funded several companies, along with holding nearly two dozen patents. A prolific author and researcher, not to mention an award-winning teacher, Ulrich personifies Wharton’s pioneering spirit that couples an engineer’s attention to process and design with an artist’s joy of probing, pushing, and perfecting. With instability rising, startup heroes innovating, and barriers falling, Ulrich expects entrepreneurship to continue flourishing in the coming years.  “The tools you need to build, start, and develop a company have all become inexpensive and accessible,” he concludes. “That means a new graduate is on the same playing field with big, established companies in many domains.”

P&Q recently sat down with Ulrich to discuss the state of the Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship program, along with getting his insights on the true nature of disruptive innovation and the emergence of MOOCs. Here are his thoughts.

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