It was a small event, with about 100 people gathered (safely, of course) in small, intimate groups. But it may have been the start of something big, a preview of a possible future where collaboration between two elite business schools in the heart of Silicon Valley is common, frequent, and encouraged.
Last November, student officers of the Venture Capital Club at UC-Berkeley Haas School of Business reached out to their counterparts at Stanford Graduate School of Business with a proposal: to host a founder mixer together, mingle in small groups, chat over drinks, share ideas, network. Which seems straightforward enough — the kind of thing you used to see all the time before the global pandemic — until you remember that though the two business schools face each other on opposite sides of San Francisco Bay, they also are traditional rivals.
For Berkeley and Stanford, collaboration on any level — but particularly in the VC space — occurs rarely, if ever. The question on the minds of Atusa Sadeghi and Alejandra Vergara, the two MBA co-presidents of Haas’ Venture Capital Club, was: Why?
OUT WITH THE OLD WAYS
“In terms of pushback, or students being a little skeptical — not at all,” Vergara tells Poets&Quants in a recent interview, describing initial reactions to the proposal for a Berkeley-Stanford meet-and-greet. “It was actually the complete opposite. I don’t know if it’s a shift of mindset or just a generational thing, but the moment I brought this up, everyone was like, ‘Yeah!’
“We’re already running into each other during our internships. It’s a very small world and we’re going to end up working and collaborating together. So why not get started sooner?”
Vergara, a member of the Haas Class of 2022 whose career began in finance and asset management, and Sadeghi, a student in the Haas Evening & Weekend program who spent a dozen years as a mechanical engineer, come from professional backgrounds that emphasize collaboration over competition. In this way they are representative of something of a sea change in graduate business education: Out with the tired, old way of working against each other and viewing those in other programs as rivals and enemies; in with teamwork, partnership, and working toward shared goals.
“In this new era we’re always hearing, ‘You need to be a little bit more in tune with what’s going on with the market,'” Sadeghi says. “There’s so much happening in the market and everybody keeps talking about capital structure and changes in VC, and then you also hear about how they’re being supportive of having younger, more junior, but more experienced students enter this workspace. Yet history has shown how difficult this sector is. It’s an extremely complex, complicated, competitive sector to step into. And so there have been a lot of chats, but there hasn’t been a lot of movement until the past year or so.
“So we kind of just took that by its head and were like, ‘Well, we really want to make some sort of actionable insight here. We just don’t want to talk about things. We really want to make some changes happen.'”
‘MORE IN TUNE WITH WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE MARKET’
Haas’ student-led Venture Capital Club was founded in 2018. From the beginning it was run by co-presidents from both the full-time and Evening & Weekend MBA programs — meaning collaboration is in the club’s DNA. But the club was “secluded,” Vergara says, mostly focused on engaging only those students already involved in VC. When she and Sadeghi were elected to lead the club in 2021, they quickly realized they shared a vision for change.
“One of the things that we did was engaging with the Berkeley Entrepreneurs Association and building a Pitch Night,” Vergara says, “so that was one event where we kind of stepped outside of VC and said, ‘Okay, what’s Berkeley Entrepreneurship up to? And how can we get involved and collaborate?’ Another pillar was across Berkeley — engagements with students that are part of the Master’s in Design, School of Engineering. Nothing formal there in terms of events, but we did have a few touchpoints.”
They also did marketing — of themselves, as a club. The result: VC Club membership exploded to more than 500 members.
“What Ale and I were seeing as maybe a little bit more seasoned individuals — both of us are in our early thirties — we have kind of been there,” Sadeghi says, “and we saw how much of a need there is to go outside of the walls of any MBA school to start really working together. We were just kind of tired of being prepared. We have extremely smart, driven, passionate, qualified people. They just need a platform to do something with it.”
DEEP CONNECTIONS FORMED OVER SUMMER
The obvious next step: Talk to the biggest source of VC talent in the world, which happens to be just a few miles down the road.
“I had met C.C. Gong, who is the co-president of the VC Club at the GSB, over the summer, because she hosted a bunch of VC interns that were in San Francisco and we kept in touch,” Vergara says. “That was sort of like the initial touchpoint, but then so many more people got involved from both schools.”
One of those people was Alon Dror, in the Stanford MBA Class of 2022. From his perspective — and, he says, from his classmates’ — there was no rivalry talk to overcome to make collaboration between schools easier.
“To be honest, I haven’t noticed any ‘rivalry chatter’ regarding any school since I got to the GSB,” Dror, a native of Israel, tells P&Q. “Perhaps being an international student helped with this regard. In fact, the GSB’s Entrepreneurship Club leadership team is entirely international, and the VC Club leadership team is almost entirely international. If I’m not mistaken the situation at Haas is similar.
“We got to meet some Haas students during the summer, as we were in our summer internships. Especially helpful were some social events in San Francisco that brought together students that interned in VCs in the Bay. I don’t remember how the specific conversation about a joint event started but the summer events created really deep connections between us.”
Meeting the Haas students was interesting in several ways, Dror says.
“We’re basically ‘living’ in the same ecosystem, and it was interesting to get their perspective,” he says. “Awesome people, it was a lot of fun. We had a group speed-dating where everyone talked about their backgrounds, ideas, and goals. Especially interesting was to hear about their entrepreneurial/VC aspirations. A good measure for a successful event — people didn’t want to leave! We went to a close-by pub after the event and I felt that we really formed great connections between the two groups.”
A CHANGE IN MINDSET
Stanford has typically dominated in the top-tier venture firms, sending many more grads into venture capital than Haas does. In fact, in its most recent employment report, Stanford sent nearly the same proportion of its 2021 class into VC — 11% — that Berkeley Haas sent into all jobs under the finance umbrella.
But Haas is trying to change that. After the success of the November mixer, Berkeley’s VC Club is planning more events — a sequel with Stanford this spring, as well as events with students from Wharton’s San Francisco campus. And then perhaps cast an even wider net.
“What I personally really love about this experience in particular is that we kicked off with this one founder mixer event in November,” Vergara says. Like Sadeghi, she now works in venture capital; together they are launching a new fund at Haas called Courtyard Ventures. “We are now talking about hosting a second one. So this first one was, the GSB comes to Berkeley. We’re now talking about spring, knock on wood, if everything goes back to in-person, having Stanford GSB host Berkeley Haas. So that way we have an annual or semi-annual cadence. And I think the event will evolve. It won’t just be a mixer; that was sort of just the kickoff. But we’ll see.
“Alon kept in touch. I talked to him quite often throughout the process and he was the one that reached out after the new year: ‘Hey all, hope everyone had a great year. Let’s start talking about the next event.’ And it’s sort of like that domino effect because as Atusa said, there’s other schools as well. There’s the Wharton Evening-Weekend from San Francisco. I’ve gotten a lot of inbound from UCSF lately. People want to do it. You need an example to point toward, because no one really wants to be the first, because it’s a risk. It could have been like, ‘Oh no, actually we’re too busy. We kind of need to network with our own school or whatever.’ And it was quite the contrary. I’m happy to see sort of that inbound from other schools and hopefully it’ll be replicated across the country and other MBA programs as well.”
Sadeghi adds: “The beautiful part of it is how easy it is to do it. There’s a lot of administrative work that went into it, but it’s just a lot of legwork, and maybe some pushback here and there by some faculty. But if you have the intention, it’s not impossible.
“We never had an all-school touchpoint. It was always very competitive. And for us, we wanted to create change. We were sitting in class, and people — including professors — would still say, ‘Oh well, the other school on the other side of the bridge,’ or, ‘Oh well, we don’t want to talk about them.’ And they would do the same thing for us. And we’re like, ‘You can’t make change with that mindset.'”