Ignite Fuels Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Imagine three days in which you meet one amazing entrepreneur after another and leave inspired enough to almost quit b-school to launch your own startup. That’s what I found at Ignite 2014, which had the inspiring tagline, Fueling Tomorrow’s Entrepreneurs. The conference was hosted by the Graduate School of Management and organized in collaboration with Rice University.
Ignite provides MBA, graduate, doctoral and medical students an immersion experience in the nation’s leading high-tech entrepreneurial cluster, otherwise known as Silicon Valley. On the first day of the conference, we had a choice to go on one of two treks. Trek A visited HP, Coursera, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB) and Google. Trek B visited MediaSpike, Khosla Ventures, Plug and Play Tech and Square.
Dan Perlea, a student in UC Davis’ Sacramento MBA program, chose Trek A. “Though I have no interest in becoming a venture capitalist, I would surprisingly say that the best visit was to KPCB. They did an excellent job relating their work to all aspects of entrepreneurship. Coursera was also pretty great: the presenters were very charming and fun to listen to, as were the people we met with at Google.”
Sixty-four students from UC Davis, Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine and Boston University participated in Ignite 2014. They came from science and/or business backgrounds, as Dr. Jack Gill, Ignite’s founding sponsor, believes that “techie-nerds” can start big companies, but you need business people to build great companies. Many participants have business ideas or technologies that they are in the process of commercializing.
On the second day, we heard from entrepreneurs who shared their ongoing case studies through presentations and “fireside chats.” I found Nicholas Seet, founder and former CEO of Auditude, particularly compelling. Seet is a techie-nerd. While at b-school at UCLA, he brought his initial concept for Auditude to the Rice Business Plan Competition. In its current incarnation, Auditude allows media companies to make better decisions around advertising and analytics. Seet’s success story from startup to being acquired by Adobe is one of passion, immense business intelligence and savvy, pivoting, seizing the right opportunity—and a singular sense of humility. A loving husband and a doting father of two girls, Seet now lives in New Mexico. Being a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a stable family life can be really hard to juggle; hence, Mr. Seet won my admiration even more. One of his key lessons: Choose your spouse carefully; they are the best support you can have as an entrepreneur.
We also heard from Michele Wong, CEO of Clean World Partners. The company is commercializing anaerobic digestion technology to convert organic waste—think stuff from a farm, or food waste from the cafeteria—to biogas. She is a leader in developing the Sacramento area into a clean energy hub.
On the third day, we heard three amazing stories. Garrett Gee, founder and CEO of SCAN, shared how he and his friends are disrupting the crowded QR codes market with innovative app designs out of their Brigham Young University dorm room.
Mark Otero, former CEO and co-founder of KlickNation (which was acquired in 2011 by Electronic Arts) and a UC Davis Graduate School of Management alumnus, shared his struggle of three years where he had 30 apps fail one after the other before he finally made a mobile video game that was a hit.
From Otero, I learned the power of passion and persistence to follow your dream. Otero sold his house and had depleted his savings by the time his hard work started to pay off.
Mark Randall, a serial entrepreneur and currently chief strategist and VP of creativity at Adobe, shared two decades of Silicon Valley experience. One memorable comment: Entrepreneurship is an extreme solo sport, and it can be a very lonely road. Randall worked day and night for seven years on a new product, and on the eve of his company going public, he lost his business partner to a heart attack. Randall shared that he learned that success was not about making money, and urged us to “Pursue joyful success. Without joy, success is no success at all.”
Throughout the conference, we also learned from Dr. Jack Gill. Dr. Gill has worn many hats in his life–scientist, serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, professor and philanthropist. Speaking as a VC, Dr. Gill shared the main lessons that budding entrepreneurs must follow to successfully raise funds and grow their company.
I found Ignite’s lessons immensely meaningful. At every entrepreneurship conference that I have been to, I have come out wanting to quit my current pursuit and start a venture full-time. Ignite initially offered a similar adrenaline rush. However, I have always been one to keep my day job and work on my startup part time. I have never been able to make the complete switch because of a keen sense that I am not ready yet. I have felt that I need to train more with people smarter than me before I make the big leap. The Ignite conference, and especially Dr. Gill, convinced me that I am indeed on the right track. I am not a techie-nerd, and so the best path for me is to gain business pedigree before I launch into a venture full time. This is especially true because startup founders rarely have the skills to be a CEO.
After much introspection, I have made peace with the path I am on. I need to continue honing both my entrepreneurial and my management skills. An MBA and a few more years in Corporate America, and I will be ready to be an entrepreneur. Indeed, Ignite is fuelling tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.
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Rashmi Ekka is a full-time first year MBA student at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. Before starting her MBA, she was an international development consultant by day, and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Adivasi Development Network by night. Adivasi Development Network empowers the indigenous people of India through sustainable projects in many sectors, including education, architecture and fashion.