Carnegie Mellon University

The Graduate Entrepreneurship Club took 27 students from across CMU to Silicon Valley to meet with startup companies and investors.

May 12, 2020

Entrepreneurship Club Visits Silicon Valley Startup Scene

The Graduate Entrepreneurship Club took 27 students from across CMU to Silicon Valley to meet with startup companies and investors.

For students interested in starting a business, or even those interested in working in the startup environment, the path toward a career can be difficult to chart. The Graduate Entrepreneurship Club hopes to bring those students from across the Carnegie Mellon University campus together to work on their ideas and learn about entrepreneurship opportunities.

"Together with the resources and network provided at the Swartz Center, the GEC gives students access to the tools they need to succeed as entrepreneurs, as investors, or as just anyone involved in the startup environment," said David Mawhinney, Associate Teaching Professor of Entrepreneurship, Executive Director of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship, who serves as an adviser to the club.

Interdisciplinary Ecosystem

"There's a lot of pop culture around what a startup is," Dan McDade, first-year MBA student and GEC member said. "The reason GEC exists is to broadly educate students on what it actually means to be an entrepreneur, to work with a startup, or to work in venture capital or private equity. It's about trying to give students the resources so they can succeed in any of those environments."

The club fosters a membership representing every school at CMU, though member Austen Sybert notes that most of the leadership comprises MBA students. "I do think it's good to have the business school's contribution to the leadership," he said. "We can bring that insight in for somebody who says they want to start something but don't really understand what it's going to take to organize people to make that happen. That bit of work experience from the MBAs is always valuable, even if we may not have the technical chops to get some code on the screen."

The interdisciplinary nature of the club, Sybert said, is motivated by Mawhinney. "He's made it really clear that the Swartz Center, the clubs, the CONNECTS series — they're all to foster that interdisciplinary collaboration," Sybert said. "Having the #2 computer science school right across the street is huge, but at the end of the day, if they're over there and we're over here, it's not an asset to the entrepreneurial community."

The GEC offers a variety of opportunities to learn more about the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Two of their most significant events are their Hack a Startup competition, in which individuals work over a weekend on a startup idea to pitch to judges, and the Venture Capital Investment Competition, which challenges teams to evaluate actual startups for a panel of investors to judge the students’ investment decisions. In addition, the FrIDEA event series invites aspiring entrepreneurs to workshop their ideas with peers in an informal environment.

The club also provides career support for students interested in recruiting for roles in startup companies. "It's a little different than most on-campus recruiting," Sybert said.

Inside View of a Startup

In early January, the GEC hosted a career trek to Silicon Valley, visiting with venture capital firms like Accel — co-founded in 1983 by James Swartz (MSIA 1966), a Carnegie Mellon alumnus and namesake of the Swartz Center — and with startup companies in robotics and artificial intelligence. Swartz and Accel talent partner Peter Clarke (CMU 2007) met with the students for a question-and-answer session and joined them for a dinner reception during the first evening of the trek.

Later visits included disaster response developer One Concern Inc. and construction automation company Dusty Robotics. During a visit with a conversational AI company named Suki AI Inc., the students had the opportunity to join the entire organization for an all-hands meeting. "It was a really good opportunity for all of us to see what the inner workings of a company like that is really like," Sybert said. Trek participants were also invited to sit in on a fireside chat at Suki with Patrick O. Brown, CEO of Impossible Foods.

McDade and Sybert organized the trek with Brian Yan, a graduate student in the School of Computer Science who is Swartz Fellow alongside McDade and Sybert. They put together a list of companies that GEC members were interested in visiting, especially those that last year's trek participates enjoyed.

They also consulted Mawhinney, who helped them to make connections with company founders and leaders. "We threw out very general buckets of types of companies, and you could tell his mental Rolodex was spinning through all the contacts that he has out there," Sybert said. He and McDade credit Mawhinney and Sonya Ford, Program Manager at the Swartz Center — both of whom traveled with the students on the trek — for much of its success.

The trek introduced students to the kinds of opportunities are available in the Bay Area and make connections that can contribute to their summer internship search and recruiting efforts. "A lot of students are interested in startups for one reason or another," McDade said. "Some students are interested but a little bit afraid of exploring that, so the trek is an excellent opportunity to get that inside view into what it’s actually like at a startup, and to really get your foot on the ground."