Innovator Article

Ignite Lights a Fire for Aspiring Entrepreneurs

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The road from good idea to successful business can be golden—and fraught with potholes. For 16 entrepreneurial UC Davis MBAs who attended Ignite 2011 in early March, that route is now better lit, with opportunities and pitfalls more clearly marked.

An inspiring three-day immersion program for MBA and science/engineering students, Ignite is the brainchild of veteran venture capitalist Jack Gill, who founded a similar program, The Velocity Conference, at Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business in 2000.

A professor of the practice of entrepreneurship at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and the founder of Vanguard Ventures, Gill taught a course on entrepreneurship as the Graduate School of Management’s Robert A. Fox Executive-in-Residence last spring. The Houston businessman has a long-standing friendship with Dean Steven Currall, and serves on the Dean’s Advisory Cabinet.

When it came to selecting Ignite’s inaugural-year host partner, UC Davis was a logical choice, said Gill, citing the GSM’s catalytic role in entrepreneurial activities in the region and its strategic location near the world’s innovation hub.

Ignite combined candid “fireside chats” and presentations by veteran entrepreneurs and CEOs with a one-day whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley’s most storied start-ups and VC firms. UC Davis MBA students networked and learned alongside four UC Davis Business Development Fellows and like-minded MBA student counterparts from Rice University and Boston University.

“The program provided a rare opportunity to hear from both early-stage entrepreneurs and those who are already backed by millions of investment dollars,” said Full-Time MBA student Keith Weissglass. “I gained an appreciation of the level of sacrifice and commitment that a successful start-up requires.”

In Silicon Valley, students visited Facebook and Google to learn firsthand how the two web giants quickly morphed from ideas, to early-stage ventures to game-changing companies that have altered cultures and practices across the globe. They also gained insight into the funding side of the coin at information-packed meetings with Sand Hill Road venture capital leaders at Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

“Kleiner Perkins opened the doors and answered any question we threw at them,” said Full-Time MBA student Carolyn Dicharry. “They emphasized that the idea is important, but the team is more so. If your start-up has a strong team that is genuine about the problem to be solved, and you add in preparedness and passion, you have a much higher chance of succeeding—and of receiving VC funding.”

The notable speaker line-up included Luka Erceg, founder and CEO of Simbol Materials; Oleg Kaganovich, a venture partner with DFJ Frontier; Jeff Mullen founder and CEO of Dynamics; Auditude Founder Nicholas Seet; Mark Randall, founder of Play Inc. and Serious Magic; and Emily Armenta, who started her jewelry firm while at business school and now sells next to Chanel in Paris.

Learning from those already walking the walk was priceless. “Mark Randall’s talk was spellbinding,” said MBA student Weissglass. “He shared a very personal story about his turbulent journey as a serial entrepreneur, what it cost him and what motivated him to persevere.”

-by Marianne Skoczek

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