Why I Teach Venture Capital

Preparing the Next Generation of Professional VCs

Scott Lenet
Risky Business


Image: Shutterstock

I’m now in my 20th year teaching venture capital, but it started by accident.

It was early 1993 and I had been in my first job in venture capital for less than a year. The phone rang and it was my best friend, who was studying law at Syracuse University. He was excited about a new program called “Law, Technology & Management,” which mixed a mini-MBA into the curriculum.

“We have a lecture on venture capital scheduled for the spring and there isn’t a speaker lined up. My professor asked if anyone in the class knows any venture capitalists, so I raised my hand and said I know you.” Uh-oh.

“Anyway, he says that if you’ll fly to Syracuse and give us a three-hour lecture on venture capital, he’ll take us both out to a steak dinner afterwards.”

I discussed it with my bosses, who thought it would be a good experience for me to get up in front of a room of students and articulate the job of a venture capitalist for three hours. At that point in my career I also had a pretty strong fear of public speaking, so I wanted to test my bravery. The class went well, the steaks were delicious, and I repeated the visit for the next two years while my buddy was still at Syracuse.

After business school and some time as an entrepreneur myself, I moved to Sacramento and returned to venture capital, co-founding an institutional venture fund called DFJ Frontier. It was there that I met Andy Hargadon in 2003 at a UC Davis entrepreneurship event. We were seated next to each other on a panel to provide feedback to a local startup developing a wireless device for monitoring patients at risk of heart attacks. We had a mutual connection to Princeton, because Andy’s dad had been the Dean of Admissions, and it was like we had been friends for a long time. Andy invited me to guest lecture in his class in the business school at Davis in November of 2003, and we went to a local café for lunch afterwards.

At lunch, Andy described an idea he had for an innovative new entrepreneurship course. Andy has a strong background in design, having worked at Apple and studied the methodology of IDEO and other similar organizations. He felt that some of the key concepts of product design could also be applied to business design. In an architecture studio, Andy argued, students wouldn’t give up on a task just because the first effort failed. If a student designed a chair, and it fell apart when someone sat on it, the next step was to take what was learned and update the design. Andy felt the same thing could be done with business models, and that business school faculty could design exercises for students to experiment quickly and cheaply with various designs for startups. I loved this idea, which was similar to Eric Ries’s “lean startup” concept, and helped Andy brainstorm how to make his new course successful. At the end of our lunch, he asked if I’d like to be involved in the new class, should he wind up teaching it. I said it sounded like fun, thinking that he was inviting me to guest lecture like I had just done.

In mid-December, Andy called me saying he had good news. The experimental course had been approved. It would be taught on Monday evenings starting in the first week of January, and he had pitched it with me team teaching the course with him! Then he asked if I still wanted to do it. I was a little surprised because I hadn’t expected to be teaching a full course, but I thought Andy would be a great teaching partner, so I said yes.

Over the next seven years, Andy and I developed curriculum to teach entrepreneurship and venture capital at UC Davis and co-founded the school’s entrepreneurship center. While Andy and I started teaching together, my DFJ Frontier co-founder David Cremin began teaching the same program at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo. Like me, David comes from a family of educators (in fact, his father was a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who wrote the definitive history of American education while he was a professor at Columbia University) but he had never taught a class before. Nevertheless, he made the drive up to San Luis Obispo every Monday, and we would talk on the phone about our respective lesson plans for the evening. David also taught at UC Santa Barbara, and when Frank Foster joined Frontier, he started teaching with us, too.

Despite the fact that we taught after hours and were able to share our curriculum with each other, teaching was a lot of work. While we were concerned that teaching could become a distraction, we also felt it an important way to give back to our local communities and establish a stronger culture of entrepreneurship in our “frontier” geographies outside Silicon Valley. David and I always felt that there were three essential ingredients to a successful startup for new companies created at universities: first, there needs to be an idea, often based on a scientific innovation at a university; second, there needs to be money to pursue the idea, which is where venture capital comes in; finally, there needs to be a team well-versed in the culture of entrepreneurship, and that was where we felt that our frontier schools were lacking. UC Davis and CalPoly and UC Santa Barbara didn’t have the natural dynamic at Stanford and MIT, where scientists and business people freely engaged and shared information with each other, creating the perfect petri-dish for new entrepreneurial life. But in coastal California and the Central Valley, knowledge of the equity economy was limited. We thought the solution was to try to teach that culture, so we spent our evenings with future entrepreneurs who weren’t attending Stanford or MIT.

Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and met Kathy Allen, an entrepreneurship professor at USC. She and I co-taught a similar curriculum together for six years. Kathy retired — unfortunately for me — and asked me to take over the class, which focused on how entrepreneurs should prepare to work with venture capitalists. Eventually, I decided that it would be interesting to teach MBAs how to be venture capitalists themselves, and I am still teaching this class at University of Southern California together with our senior associate Selina Troesch. I met Selina as a student in our USC class thanks to Robyn Ward, who also teaches with us. Selina was the first person to join the Touchdown Ventures team after the three co-founders, graduating first in her class in the MBA program. Our Touchdown associate Greg Maiatico also helps us with the class.

Along the way I also met Al Osborne, who recently served as Dean of the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and Elaine Hagan, the Associate Dean of Entrepreneurship. Al and Elaine asked me to teach corporate innovation and entrepreneurship at UCLA, which is closest to what we do every day at Touchdown Ventures. I just finished teaching this class for the second year with help from Touchdown senior associates Will Geiger and Kevin Jones, and Beth Kearns from 20th Century Fox. Will, Kevin, and Beth are all Anderson MBA alumni.

My classes are mostly at night for three hours, just like that original Syracuse class, and take time to prepare. Over the years, my kitchen cabinet has often asked me whether teaching is something I could give up, and the answer has always been “no”:

  1. I like to stay sharp by articulating my craft. Something about getting up in front of a room of students brings everything into focus. My style of teaching is not just telling war stories, but creating frameworks from what I’ve learned by practicing the business. This mix of practical education with an academic approach also seems comfortable for the students.
  2. It’s a great way to give back. MBA students are fascinated by venture capital, and there just aren’t that many classes available on this topic. There is no place to go to school for a venture capital degree or certificate, and I believe the classes taught by the professionals in our firm are some of the best curriculum available.
  3. Teaching is great for recruiting at Touchdown. I never know when a student like Selina is going to turn into a long-term colleague, and a classroom setting is a great way to get to know someone over the course of ten or fifteen weeks.
  4. Teaching is also helpful to train team members who are already in our firm. I’m particularly proud of Touchdown’s young people like Jack Taylor getting involved in these teaching activities and seeing them grow their confidence in front of the classroom and their command of our subject material of venture capital, corporate VC, and overall innovation.
  5. My dad has taught in the evenings since I was a kid. He would sometimes bring me to class, and following in his footsteps this way feels right to me.

Over the years I have also guest lectured around the country, including University of Michigan, CalPoly, UC Santa Barbara, Harvard, the University of Texas at Austin, Portland State University, University of Pennsylvania, and many more. There are lots of other ways to teach, including the in-house training sessions run by my colleagues David Horowitz and Eric Budin, week-long intensives, the “sector summits” we manage for our corporate partners, and working together with groups like the National Association of Corporate Directors and Global Corporate Venturing.

Everyone likes to say that venture capital is an apprenticeship business, but the reality of the business is mostly “sink or swim”— at Touchdown we are serious about training the next generation of VCs, so adopting a teaching mindset is an important part of our approach.

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For more on the apprentice model of training young venture capitalists, check out my article “Darth Venture,” originally published in TechCrunch

Scott Lenet is President of Touchdown Ventures, a Registered Investment Adviser that provides “Venture Capital as a Service” to help corporations launch and manage their investment programs.

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Scott Lenet
Risky Business

Founder of Touchdown Ventures & DFJ Frontier, USC & UCLA adjunct professor, father of twins, Philly sports Phan, Forbes & TechCrunch contributor