For fledgling entrepreneur Alberto Gandini, the takeaway from a networking trip to the West Coast was encouraging, despite the current state of the weakened economy.
“If the idea is good, eventually you’ll find somebody to invest,” says Gandini, an MBA 2009 candidate who co-founded Tropical Health Systems with Tepper School classmate Salman Mukhtar. “We think the idea is good, so now we have to prove it.”
Gandini was among 20 first- and second-year students who made the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club’s second annual trek to Silicon Valley in January to learn where the market is headed and how trends are affected by the economic climate.
Accompanied by Amanda Fox, Business Development Manager for the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship, the students attended panels such as “How VCs choose investments,” which featured general and managing partners from such companies as Innovacom and Matrix Ventures.
Students enjoyed a 90-minute meeting with Ray Lane, managing partner of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and visited one of the VC’s portfolio companies, Ausra, a solar-thermal clean technology firm. They also visited Accel Partners, meeting with founder Jim Swartz, MSIA 1966, and visited Facebook, which is one of its portfolio companies, where they discussed the challenges and opportunities associated with a fast-growing startup.
“A number of these people are alumni or friends of alumni, so they were very approachable, helpful, nurturing even,” says Fox, herself a Class of 2007 alumnus of the Tepper School.
Opinions from panelists were mixed on whether the timing is optimal for entrepreneurs to start new companies, but Gandini — who was a research professor at the University of Texas before enrolling at the Tepper School — points out that in some ways, the economic environment is beneficial.
He and Mukhtar have given themselves a post-graduation timetable in which they can raise money, with plans to move on and work for someone else if they don’t meet their deadline. So if they do not accept a position for six months after graduation, that won’t raise eyebrows in a soft job market.
“A real entrepreneur will [start a company] anyway, because that’s what they’re born to do,” says Fox.
While less venture capital is available than in the past, it is still out there, according to the panelists who met with the students. The difference, trek participants learned, is that the competition is stiffer — so their presentations to venture capitalists must be flawless to succeed.
“You learn [that] you get one chance, so you have to have it ready, and if not, you’re not going to make it,” explains Gandini. He feels his education at the Tepper School has given him the knowledge base he needs to prepare a solid pitch.
Mona Abdel-Halim, a first-year MBA who organized the trek along with two other classmates, felt that having students run the visit enhanced the overall experience.
“It allowed us to interact with the panelists beforehand, give our advice on what they should discuss, and even provide them with questions ahead of time,” she says. “We were able to sculpt the dialogue.”
In the short term, Abdel-Halim plans to pursue a career in general management consulting, but in the long term, she would like to open her own social venture fund for Arab women in science and technology. That was something she didn’t even consider until attending business school.
“VCs and private equity, all those different forms of investing, were completely off my radar,” she says.
That’s true of many students who wind up in entrepreneurship, says Fox.
“One young man says this [trek] completely changed his mind about what he wanted to do,” she says. “There’s this great energy out there in the entrepreneurial community; it’s just so positive and can-do.”