Sonny Aulakh Thrives as Intrepreneur—and Entrepreneur
Sonny Aulakh MBA 08 grew up in Italy, married his college sweetheart more than 20 years ago, and has two daughters he would do anything for. His first job was as a gas station attendant, but his career began as a sales engineer in Silicon Valley after graduating from Cal State Sacramento. After working in Silicon Valley for eight years, he moved into management—and decided to earn an MBA.
“Once I started b-school, I wanted to experiment with all types of business competitions and entrepreneurship ideas,” he says. “An MBA program like the one at UC Davis provides the perfect platform for vetting all your ideas and meeting/collaborating with a lot of interesting students. I wanted to do something that had a bigger impact than just making a profit, and had the idea to start a company that would have a social impact. I started discussing this with friends who were with me an entrepreneurship class, and next thing we knew we were meeting over weekends to build our idea.”
“In parallel, my MBA gave me the tools to be a better manager at work, and my career flourished first at Cisco, followed by EMC. I love technology and will always consider myself a technologist first. However, once we got to the finals of the Global Social Venture Competition, we decided to launch Greenlight Apparel as a side project. The side project has turned into a small business that continues to grow year-over-year.”
We asked him about his business, passions and UC Davis MBA experience.
You recently gave the keynote at the Big Bang! Business Competition kickoff. Talk about your entrepreneurial journey with Greenlight Apparel.
Greenlight Apparel started off as a simple business plan exercise a group of us in the Bay Area MBA program drew up as part of our studies. It was conceived as a social venture to help address a segment of the market that we felt did not have a viable option: an option of sourcing socially conscious athletic apparel. The mission we founded the company on can be summarized by our tag line “Wear It For Good.” We wanted to build a business that sources ethically manufactured apparel and give back a portion of our profits to fight child labor and promote micro-finance.
In a nutshell, what’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
My best advice is to chase their passion, and first and foremost engage with an idea they are truly passionate about. If you do that, you will always have the drive to succeed and find creative ways to turn it into a sustainable and profitable business. When we started Greenlight Apparel, we were not sure how the P&L’s and go-to-market would work out in a competitive industry like apparel. However, we were all passionate about trying to resolve a complex problem and find a solution.
What are you passionate about in your work?
Simplicity and Impact. Simplicity because I always like to take the complexity out of everything. Simplicity leads to productivity and drives value. I’m also passionate about impact. What impact does my team have on the overall company, what impact do I have as an individual? Without measuring impact, we are all flying blind.
Where is your career headed?
It’s headed down a path which I enjoy doing over an over again: building businesses from the ground up. Even within large companies like Cisco and EMC, I tend to find and associate myself with projects that need to be built from scratch. I have a very hands-on approach to work and everything I take on. Startups fit in this category as well. I ended up in Cisco via a startup that was acquired, and I ended up at EMC via a startup that was acquired.
How are you a game changer? Or—how are you making a positive impact in the world?
I believe it’s really important to give back. Through our “Wear It For Good” program at Greenlight Apparel, I look to make a social impact among children and women in Asia and Africa. I volunteer as much as I can for a number of causes in my community. Even with my work at EMC, we always promote giving back to society. We closely work with Charity Water and the First Harvest Food Bank.
How has your UC Davis MBA experience helped shape your success?
In more ways than I can count! I use the skills I developed at the GSM in my everyday work at EMC, and also in helping shape Greenlight Apparel for its next stage of growth. Finance and accounting were always a weakness for me, and the GSM was a huge help in this area. But above all, the networks and friendships I developed during my MBA have helped shape my career in many ways. Education is what is going to shape the future of our society. Great education will always have a positive impact. However, it’s also important to give back. Graduate programs give you the tools to succeed in business but also help shape you to make better and more intelligent decisions everyday.
What is the most significant thing that’s happened to you since graduating?
Being appointed global VP of sales engineering for the Emerging Technology Division at EMC.
Your favorite GSM memory?
Taking part in the Global Social Venture Competition with my fellow students and representing the GSM in the finals. It was an amazing journey that started in the classroom and quickly developed into a business plan and eventually into a real company. The countless team debates around the financial plan, go-to-market, social impact and sales strategy is something I’ll always remember. During the GSVC semifinals, I had the opportunity to meet with Tony Shieh, the founder and CEO of Zappos at the time. We pitched our business plan to him, and he and others found a lot of holes and provided constructive feedback which I’ll never forget.
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’m a resident of the Bay Area have lived in Nor Cal for just over 30 years. While I get to travel the globe for work, I believe we live in one of the best geographies. It’s not only an amazing place for entrepreneurs but also a fantastic place to raise kids. I enjoy networking with fellow GSM alums and also helping new graduates with career advice in Silicon Valley. I’m an avid athlete and enjoy extreme sports—an adrenaline junkie!
How do you support and participate in the GSM now? Why is it important to support graduate business education—and the programs offered through the Child Family Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship?
I try to volunteer and speak at any GSM event or class I get invited to. I was fortunate to get some financial assistance during my MBA and as a result, I always try and contribute to the Annual Fund. I make myself available to help network current students and alums with anyone in my professional circle. I also promote the GSM among prospect students who are looking to get an MBA. At the end of the day, by supporting the GSM, I believe that I’m investing in the future of our society and community.