by Heidi Roizen
In 2014, I had an intriguing conversation with Tina Seelig and Tom Byers of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program in the Department of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford’s School of Engineering. They were looking to bring a program to life that would both provide a small group of graduate students with an intensive study of entrepreneurship as well as create a much-needed micro-community within the Engineering school. There were two great programs in place — Mayfield Fellows for undergrads and Accel Innovation Scholars for PhD’s — but there was a gap at the Master’s level, arguably the place where both the education and the community were needed the most. After weeks of brainstorming and planning, my partners and I had the honor of being chosen to create and underwrite this program in collaboration with Tom and Tina, and the Entrepreneurial Leadership Fellows (now the Threshold Venture Fellows) was born.
While Stanford is rich with programs that teach the structure and tactics of startup formation, our program’s aim is to go deeper into the ethos of entrepreneurship itself.
We discuss what it means to be a leader, the importance of living a relationship-driven life, how to grow through failure, how to build an ethical culture, and how to create a mindset and practice of gratitude. We even break down the core of the topic — why (or why not) would I want to be an entrepreneur and what can I do to prepare myself for the unique challenges this choice entails?
Tina and I spend six months with our students, kicking off with a deep-dive retreat on how to design a culture — and setting the foundations of our own. The students meet weekly to attend the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders lecture and then discuss their reactions and learnings. We also meet for extended dinners in our homes every other week, where we unpack a relevant topic, often bringing in a founder willing to share their personal experience. For example, Tina leads an interactive session on negotiation skills, while I take them through my tenets for leading a relationship-driven life. We also journey to Stanford In The Wild for three days of lectures by Stanford thought leaders, hiking, kayaking, stargazing, and sing-alongs (and disco bingo - somehow they really love disco bingo.)
Through all these interactions, they get to know each other at a level difficult to reach in a regular class structure. And when they graduate in June, they leave better prepared to take on life’s challenges both at work and in their personal lives — and with many close friendships that will last well beyond the program.
As of today, we have graduated sixty fellows, representing a diverse range of master’s programs including computer science, electrical engineering, management science and engineering, mechanical engineering, and aeronautics and astronomics. The selection process is highly competitive, with roughly five applicants for every position. We’ve benefitted from representation from many countries, ethnicities, undergraduate institutions, and, after the first year, we achieved gender parity for each year since.
But while these statistics are impressive, they are not nearly as compelling as the continuing stories of these remarkable individuals.
Last weekend, two of them volunteered to cook dinner for all the graduates, and we ended up with thirty people in my backyard for a barbecue (see photo above in the requisite Threshold Ventures hoodies). Here are just a few of their stories:
- From the inaugural cohort, Michael Heinrich continues to grow Oh My Green from its start while he was still in school. He now employs about 500 people and is operational in nine cities, serving food to over 40,000 people daily. But what I appreciate most about Michael is he introduced me to meditation, a practice I do every day.
- Tania Abedian Coke from the class of ’16 has started Tellus, a technology company that uses advanced sensors and AI to predict and analyze the health behaviors and vitals of a person in a room, without the use of wearables or video cameras. Her company is focused on improving eldercare and has raised $3M in funding. Tania is about to move to Japan for three months to go native with her first customers — and learn some Japanese.
- Another member of the second cohort, Tess Hatch, has now become a venture capitalist. She always said she wanted to follow in my footsteps! I predict a great portfolio resulting from her tireless research and her way with people. You’re welcome, Bessemer.
- As for the third cohort, we’ve also launched both entrepreneurs and investors. Rachel Olney has founded Geosite, a spatial project management tool that helps enterprises leverage satellite imagery, internet of things, and drone data to increase operational efficiency and coordination. She went through YC, raised a seed round, and now has a seven-figure contract with the US government, among others. She does this while simultaneously juggling mom duties for her two adorable kids and writing her PhD dissertation at Stanford.
- Nishant Karandikar, a product-manager-turned-VC at Bain Capital Ventures, teamed up with Jacob Choi to mastermind the dinner. Nishant manned the grill much of the evening, proving that he’s as good with tofu skewers as he is with term sheets.
- As for fellow grill-meister Jacob Choi, he has also gone the entrepreneurial route as COO of Going Merry, a company that matches students with institutional aid and scholarships. Students at over 10,000 high schools across the US use it to apply to thousands of scholarships and to find financial aid information promoted by universities.
- We teach our students that being an entrepreneur often means learning important lessons from what doesn’t work as well. Samira Daswani, from our ’18 cohort, recently closed down a venture she was working on to address clinical burnout and depression. She made the decision based on market diligence and ability to pay from their primary customers and is now writing up the learnings into a white paper with the aim to support others building products in the space of behavioral health.
- Another from the class of ’18, Laura Shen, took the big company route, designing digital circuits on the Analog Mixed Signals silicon chip team at Apple. She said even she is sometimes not informed of which product she is actually working on at the secretive company!
- Last but not least, from our most recent class, Lisa Von Rabenau is now a Product Manager at Proxy, whose goal is to create a private and secure identity signal for every person on the planet, ensuring that technology bends around the human, and not the other way around.
I also asked Tina about her reflections of the program and she said, “It is a huge joy to work with Heidi and her colleagues at Threshold on this remarkable program. We get to see the students blossom over the course of six months, and well into their careers, after being given the tools for seeing problems as opportunities, and how to turn ideas into actions.” And as for me, I consider myself hugely lucky to partner with Tina as well as learn from her — she is one of the most thoughtful and action-oriented people I have ever met.
Tina and I are about to launch the search for the Threshold Venture Fellows class of ’20 — if you know any exceptional Stanford master’s students please send them our way!