How To Think About Tech As You Start Business School
Advice from current MBA founders and investors who have been successful in tech
Immediately after I left Silicon Valley for Wharton, I started to look for the nodes of influence within tech across the wider business school community. I tapped my network (and also did a fair bit of cold emailing) to connect with the best founders, investors, engineers, and hustlers currently in graduate programs in the United States. These are the people I want to collaborate with over the next two years and beyond.
I found that the most knowledgeable folks I spoke with were the partners at the Dorm Room Fund. For those unfamiliar, DRF is a student-run venture fund backed by First Round Capital that operates on college campuses in 4 major innovation hubs (Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia). Other influencers were part of organizations such as General Catalyst’s Rough Draft Ventures or UC Berkeley’s Free Ventures incubator. I believe these institutions serve as the connective tissue for the students across the country who will one day become the technology leaders of the future.
I ended up speaking at length to DRF partners currently attending Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, Cornell, and UC Berkeley. Here’s some of the advice and insights they left me with on how to start thinking about tech as we begin our graduate school journeys.
Recognize that there is seriously impressive tech talent at business schools.
There is a growing number of students each year that have deep backgrounds in tech. These folks are founders and venture capitalists. They’ve led teams and launched products. I’ve personally found my “tribe” amongst this community, and am really excited to work with them in the future.
“I got my start in sales and trading at HSBC. I liked my job, but I saw the writing on the wall: technology was already replacing traders. I ended up taking an FP&A role at a mobile marketing startup in New York, and eventually joined the business development team. Knowing our customers and communicating their needs to our technology team naturally evolved into a product management role, and that experience ultimately led me to Warby Parker. I worked in ecommerce at Warby Parker, managing the Home Try-On program before joining Wharton. I loved the company, my team, and my role, but I was ready to start down my entrepreneurial journey. Neil, Dave, and the other Warby Parker co-founders started their company at Wharton and I came here to learn what they learned. As much as I loved Warby Parker. I figured there’s no better time than now to get started.” — Nick Kim, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School
“I’m from India. I studied computer science in Singapore for undergrad. After graduating, I did consulting for a couple of years, but left right when the India tech scene really started booming. I had a chance to work with Sequoia Capital in India, and did a lot of healthcare tech investing there. I really enjoyed venture capital, it was a lot of fun. I’m still interested in healthcare, particularly in the US. America is seeing a lot of innovation — it’s at the forefront — and I want to be exposed to it. That’s why I’m here.” — Priya Banerjee, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School
Understand the unique tech community at your school
Different universities will have different startup ecosystems and tech communities. One DRF partner described Penn as being historically strong in startups focused on “meds and eds”, or healthcare and education. Another DRF partner described Cornell as particularly strong in ag-tech. Understanding the unique qualities of the tech community at your particular campus, and the trends that have led to it, is fairly important.
“I may be biased since I’m launching a company in the space, but I believe there is a lot of untapped potential in the AgTech sector for both hardware and software solutions. Cornell has a particularly strong reputation in the space, with leading researchers in its food science and plant sciences department producing technologies that have resulted in large, venture-scale companies for decades. I think it’s important to understand the strengths of one’s school, and take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with other leading technologists across disciplines.” — Mike Annunziata, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, Cornell University’s SC Johnson Graduate School of Management
“The undergrad computer science majors at Penn are really interested in AI and machine learning. Many of them are very talented and have been exposed to large companies like Google and Facebook over their summer internships. Fintech has also recently become big at Wharton. There are a lot of active founders in the fintech space.” — Priya Banerjee, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School
Make sure to collaborate with undergrads.
There are really sharp and motivated undergrads involved in tech at every university. At Penn, one of the most impressive folks I met early on was David Ongchoco, an undergraduate senior who is an active partner at the Dorm Room Fund and also founder of YouthHack. Over the summer, we mutually introduced each other to people in our respective networks. He connected me to venture capitalists across Southeast Asia and I introduced him to founders in the valley. This was super valuable. Cultivating relationships with undergrads is important. We’ll probably be building stuff together one day.
“One of the most endearing qualities of undergrads is their eternal optimism and unending ambition. This can pair well with an MBA founder who is often taught to diversify risk and ‘measure twice, cut once.’ One of the more impressive groups of undergrads at Cornell is the team at Comake.io, that is building a neural network to help make your desktop file browser more efficient and contextual. It’s a big problem that takes a unique combination of technical skills and founder grit to solve.” — Mike Annunziata, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, Cornell University’s SC Johnson Graduate School of Management
Find opportunities to get operational experience, they’re super valuable.
There’s only so much you can learn in a classroom, especially if you want to be a founder or a venture capitalist. Experience at a rapidly growing startup is critical. Learn by doing.
“True operating experience — helping build and scale a company — is really powerful, whether you want to be an investor or an operator.” — Lilly Wyden, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, Columbia Business School
Appreciate the value of business school professors and the MBA network
The MBA curriculum is becoming more and more relevant for people hoping to break into tech, particularly for those interested in founding startups. This would have been unheard of ten years ago. DRF partner Nick Kim offers advice on specific classes at Wharton that helped him as he started his company Walnut, as well as the value of the student network at launch. While the advice below is specific to Wharton, the general themes are applicable to all business schools.
“Wharton has many classes that are solid for founders. One specific class — Legal and Transactional Aspects of Entrepreneurship — was great. Bob Borghese has been teaching it for over twenty years and he is an entrepreneur himself. He taught the full lifecycle of a business from the perspective of a founder, starting from leaving your employer with a noncompete and ending with an exit. He’s also unapologetically opposed to venture capital, which provides a thoughtful alternative perspective to what you see in the popular media. That class alone was worth my first year tuition.” — Nick Kim, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School
“Another great Wharton class is Venture Implementation with Patrick Fitzgerald. His first class starts with him stating, ‘My goal is for you to take my class and drop out of Wharton before the end of the semester.’” — Nick Kim, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School
“You can’t overstate the value of the Wharton network. I saw how much Warby Parker got from its relationship with Wharton, and it was a big part of my decision to enroll here. When my co-founder and I wrote posts announcing our startup Walnut, I sent it to two groups: my close friends in New York who I knew would support me and a handful of my new friends at Wharton. Without hesitation the majority of the Wharton people shared my post, but what struck me was how many random people I had never met posted about it as well. It’s a small reflection of what Wharton can really do for a career, but I think it shows how much this is like a family — people jump at the opportunity to help out.” — Nick Kim, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School
Be very intentional and hyper-focused.
It helps to come to business school with a plan. Whatever you do, understand that it will take time. Be clear on what you want to do — be it becoming an entrepreneur, breaking into product management, transitioning into venture capital, or some other goal. Don’t fall into the classic business school trap of biting off way more than you can chew.
“Don’t spread yourself too thin. Choose a few things and do them well. Be intentional. Then, have an open mind and talk to as many people as you can. That worked for me.” — Priya Banerjee, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School
“If you’re certain tech is the path you want to pursue, your ability to succeed might only be rate-limited by your sheer resilience and humility.” — Lilly Wyden, Partner at Dorm Room Fund, Columbia Business School
In summary, the key takeaways are as follows.
- Recognize that there is seriously impressive tech talent in business school.
- Understand the unique tech community at your school.
- Make sure to collaborate with undergrads.
- Find opportunities to get operational experience, they’re super valuable.
- Don’t discount the value of the MBA network or business school professors
- Be very intentional and hyper-focused.