Why Wharton: Connecting Entrepreneurs Coast to Coast

Earning an MBA at an intense business school like Wharton can be all-encompassing and exhausting, and when I’m in the middle of the grind, I sometimes don’t have a clear answer to that “why Wharton?” question a lot of people ask.

As an engineer by training and profession, my decision to attend this business school certainly puzzled some of my friends and colleagues. But I am constantly reminded of the dynamic, talented, and diverse set of people drawn to Wharton, and what a fantastic opportunity it is to study here.

The first-ever Wharton Entrepreneur Summit in San Francisco just three weeks ago was a case in point. My friend Shawn Xu and I organized the event, and it went even better than we expected, so I’d like to share some of my ideas and insights about the experience.

Although most people associate Wharton with the world of finance, I chose it for its increasingly impressive track record producing successful — and often visionary — entrepreneurs. In fact, Wharton’s San Francisco campus is a testament to its commitment to keeping its finger on the pulse of the most promising and exciting trends and developments in business.

Its bicoastal footprint doubles the reach and scope of Wharton’s network, and also signals that the institution is not bound by staid thinking about what a university is, how it should act, and what it should aspire to become. On a more granular level, this expansion has allowed Wharton to develop additional subject-matter expertise in areas such as tech, healthcare, and data analytics.

The entrepreneur-oriented conference took place in New York City last year and, seeing the exciting things taking place in The Bay, Shawn and I began contemplating moving the conference to San Francisco.

We had some concerns about moving it away from New York because last year’s event was so well attended, but in the end, we elected to take this bold step and committed ourselves to rounding up a group of excellent speakers whose presence would entice people on the East Coast to fly out to California.

Leveraging our connections, we were fortunate enough to secure the Google San Francisco office as our venue. (Let me give an enthusiastic “thank you!” here to both Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Google CFO Ruth Porat, both of whom are Wharton alumni.)

Wharton San Francisco Campus

Our next major decision was whether to open the event to business schools from across the country. Business school students are often siloed when it comes to interfacing with other like-minded individuals.

There is so much talent across the country that we decided to use the conference to bring the community of tech-focused MBA students together to share and learn from each other, with the hope that maybe two people will form a friendship or professional partnership and have our conference to thank!

Students talking to Casey Winters after moderating the growth panel

In order to promote our event, Shawn and I reached out to the entrepreneurship clubs, venture capital clubs, and various other student organizations at more than 20 business schools across the country. We were limited in terms of the number of attendees we could accept due to venue capacity constraints, but we had over 250 applications.

Having too much demand and figuring out what to do from there is not a bad problem to have! In the end, 150 students from 16 business schools attended. And, a special shout-out to INSEAD, who sent students from Singapore to the event! The demographics of the group included some interesting stats:

  • 53% of attendees were male, and 47% female
  • 44% were first-years, 47% were second-years, and 9% other
  • 27% of attendees had technical backgrounds
  • 43% were active founders

In addition to the amazing panels on growth hacking, early-stage AI investing, and a keynote speech from Wharton MBA alum Joey Zwillinger (co-founder of Allbirds), a major component of our conference was a pitch competition in which we looked for the top business school startups nationwide.

With over 60 applications, we narrowed it down to the top 10; these were invited to the conference to pitch to partners and principals from Lightspeed, Floodgate, NEA, DFJ, and Felicis.

Judges (from left to right): Arif Janmohamed, Iris Choi, Sundeep Peechu, Chirag Chotalia, and Aaron Jacobson

These diverse startups ranged from a company tackling the nail salon industry to a company using blockchain technology to alleviate inefficiencies in banking systems.

The winner of the competition was Mon Ami, pitched by two female founders from Stanford looking to enter the dementia care market, a $55B market in the US that will only continue to grow as the population ages. By providing an online marketplace where people with dementia and their family caregivers can find and hire “activity companions,” Mon Ami makes it easy for customers — family members desperate to meet the human needs of their loved ones — to find their “mon amis.” This particularly hit home for Shawn, whose father has Parkinson’s Disease and recently suffered a stroke.

His father now needs around-the-clock care at home, and their family has found it particularly difficult to find the right caregivers. As Shawn puts it, a company like Mon Ami should exist in the world, and he’s hopeful that one day they might grow into a company that could help families like his.

From left to right: Kelly Chen (outgoing e-club president), Shawn Xu (incoming e-club president), Madeline Dangerfield-Cha and Joy Zhang (co-founders of Mon Ami), and I

Going into this conference, I had some concerns that the competitors would be merely “business school startups” that lacked technical sophistication. I feared that judges from the top VCs in the world might not be impressed. I couldn’t have been more wrong!

The pitch competition was very well-received, and the judges expressed delight at the quality of teams and ideas coming out of business schools today. Indeed, one judge in the pitch competition commented that Shawn and I “did a great job curating [the] companies. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the teams and ideas!”

And I found it most interesting that each judge had a different runner-up, an indicator of the diversity in thought among VCs, and the fact that different companies appeal to different investors for various reasons.

In addition to meeting other interesting and talented entrepreneurs, the conference also helped to make connections that strengthened the Wharton community. For instance, Brian Rothenberg, VP and GM of Eventbrite, was one of the speakers on our panel on growth, and during our subsequent conversation, he expressed an interest in guest lecturing at Wharton.

He already speaks frequently at Stanford and Berkeley, and he’s keen to become more involved in the Wharton community because he sees it as a fertile ground for dynamic, promising companies. Relationships like this are, in fact, why Wharton sought to establish a robust presence on the West Coast.

Of course, although we view this experience as a huge success, we still want to make it better. With this in mind, we were eager to hear detailed feedback and specific ideas. Attendees indicated that they loved the Networking Happy Hour (not sure if it was the open bar or the networking itself), but that it was too short.

Given that one of the main strengths of such an event is the space it allows for relationship-building and networking, they suggested more fully featured opportunities for business students, successful entrepreneurs, and business leaders to interact. Thus, in the future, we will have a longer networking event that includes name tags indicating what schools people are from.

Thank you to all of our amazing sponsors!

Finally, I’m still amazed that the entire event was all self-funded. We hustled to secure the partnerships that made it possible for the event to be entirely free for the business students who attended. We can’t thank all of our sponsors enough for their generosity. Had it not been for Google, we wouldn’t have had a venue to host our event. Had it not been for Accenture, we wouldn’t have had a $20K cash prize for the pitch competition, a clear incentive for startups to come pitch. Had it not been for WeWork and WSGR, we wouldn’t have had an open-bar networking happy hour and founder investor dinner, respectively, and been able to meet and connect with like-minded individuals across schools.

Our corporate sponsors showed their dedication to nurturing the next generation of tech companies, and we are massively grateful for their contributions.

As the VP of the conference and with Shawn as the Co-President of Wharton’s Entrepreneurship Club again next year, I can’t wait to do this again. It not only brings like-minded individuals from across the country together, but helps bring Wharton to the center of technological innovation and entrepreneurship. In the aftermath of that weekend, the answer to “why Wharton?” has never been clearer to me.

If you’re a VC, startup, student, or person with a general interest in being a part of next year’s event, please feel free to reach out! We can’t wait to see you soon.