Wharton MBAs normally have a hard time entering the seemingly fortified world of Silicon Valley. Many technology companies do not see MBAs as having the necessary skills necessary to participate in their businesses or start-ups and tend to focus on finding talent through different methods. However, as participants in the inaugural Silicon Valley Bank Trek (SVB Trek), Juan Abraham (Lauder/WG ’15, German Track) and I had the opportunity to interact with Ashraf Hebela, a SVB bank veteran, Managing Director of Strategic Analytics, and ex-entrepreneur eager to show his customers that MBAs are indeed capable of delivering value to the world of innovation.
Aside from putting together a great speaker panel, Ashraf and his colleagues at the Silicon Valley Bank did an amazing job at laying out all that Silicon Valley has to offer. On our first day, Ashraf presented a cosmological view of the Valley, which made explicit the importance of networking within Silicon Valley. We were also given instructions on how to tailor business pitches to suit not only the investment climate, but also the culture of the valley. After our morning sessions, we toured Stanford University’s Engineering School followed by a quick seminar on design at the world-renowned Design School. After our first jammed packed day, we were amazed by the opportunity of one-on-one conversations bank employees and Stanford entrepreneurs looking for their next inspiration, mostly over dinner and drinks, a testimony to the casual flavor of the place.
Day two was busier than the first, and the quality of speakers and networking events continued to impress. After breakfast at a co-working space in downtown San Francisco, we listened to advice put forth by Joe Lonsdale, the General Partner and Co-founder of Palantir and Formation 8. He’s a bit of a legend, having started no small number of hugely successful companies, and he’s not yet reached his 33rd birthday. As we intently listened to the reasons why he chose entrepreneurship over a traditional role, the conversation took an emotional turn when he highlighted the importance of work-life balance. John only became aware of how unhealthy his work life balance was when his mother unexpectedly passed away. After John’s presentation, Theresia Gouw, a managing partner for Aspect Ventures gave us her formulaic approach to evaluating investment opportunities in the world of start-ups. Her feedback was highly useful to Juan and I as we are currently evaluating three paths that our start-up could take on the path to funding. After a long day, Ashraf had a surprise for the trek participants. We watched a rather personal account of his time at the failed start-up govWorks.com, presented in the movie Startup.com. And guess what? We watched the movie in the newly completed Levis Stadium in Santa Clara, the new home of the SF 49ers. The experience was nothing short of amazing.
Our last day in Palo Alto was by far the highlight of the trip. Meetings and feedback sessions with Steve Weiss from Andreesen Horowitz, Sequoia’s Raoul Botha and lastly FoundryGroup’s managing partner Jason Mendelson. Each tremendous successes and there we were, Juan and I, getting up close advice. It seems that a bootstrapping method is perhaps the best method for continuing the Agribots business going forward.
Interacting with all of these entrepreneur- turned-VC leaders was also an emotional roller coaster for us. We both felt completely and utterly unprepared for the challenges that our start-up faces, while at the same time confident that if these successful people—who seemed strangely demigod like and yet entirely human to us—could achieve their dreams, Juan and I could do so as well with a lot of elbow grease and a lot of hard work.
As the trek wrapped up at the final dinner, one thing became evident to me; Juan and I were extremely lucky to have participated in the trek. Ashraf went well out of his way in introducing us to key influential people in the agriculture and technology fields in conjunction with the people on his own team who could help us make better connections in the future. As the dinner waned and the red wine flowed, the length and difficulty of the journey that Juan and I are embarking upon was clear. Still, I’m confident that we now have made indelible relationships with people who have embarked on similar journeys and not only have emerged unscathed, but also successful. Giving up traditional recruiting in order to pursue a start-up was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, but thanks to this trek, I know I’ve made the right decision.
Carlos Vadillo Rodriguez (Lauder/WG ’15, Japanese Track)