People often equate Wharton to being the “finance school” – and for good reason. Some of our alumni can be found within the highest echelons of the financial world as respected CEOs and esteemed investors; Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital Management or Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital certainly fit that description. Careers in banking and consulting are still highly-sought after by many Wharton students. Courses in Mergers and Acquisitions or Valuation can often be found in the largest classrooms at Huntsman Hall, with eager students filling the chairs from corner-to-corner.However, what most people don’t think of when they envision Wharton is entrepreneurship. For budding startup founders—or those interested in joining a burgeoning company as employee number three—not considering Penn for your undergraduate experience is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.
A HIDDEN GEM
On Wharton’s front webpage, there is a motto that embodies what our school stands for: “The Power of Wharton: Incubating Ideas, Driving Insights, Creating Leaders.” Although all three concepts are related – and the Penn curriculum truly helps develop students in each way – incubating Ideas” is what I plan on focusing on today.
Outside of University City (the area just west of Philadelphia that’s home to several University Campuses, including Penn), you would be hard-pressed to find someone who associates Wharton with entrepreneurship. What is not known to these “someones” is that Penn has some of the most robust programming available for student founders. There are over 20 entrepreneurship initiatives at Wharton and Penn. Consistently, over the past couple of years, nearly 10% of students per class have started their own companies.
Perhaps the biggest indication of Penn’s commitment to investing in student entrepreneurship is the opening of Tangen Hall. The seven-story, 68,000-square-foot building is a space on campus wholly dedicated to student entrepreneurs. Home to an electronics lab, a test kitchen, engineering studios, workspaces, and a roof terrace with a pretty sick view, Tangen Hall provides all the resources one could possibly need to incubate ideas and help them come to fruition.
PATHWAYS TO POSSIBILITIES
Tangen Hall is also the physical address home to Penn’s Venture Lab, an all-encompassing program for students looking to be involved with startups in some way. Don’t yet know what exactly this involvement may look like? No problem. The “Explorer” pathway is built for students just like you”“who may not yet know what they want to do or where they might fit in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.” Already have a business idea and want to start building a company? Great. Enter the “Founder” pathway to get instant access to coaching sessions, equity-free capital prizes, and more. For those who want to work in an entrepreneurial environment but find coming up with their own idea to be impractical, trot along the “Joiner” pathway, where you can find student-led startups specifically looking for people with your skillset. Of course, being a so-called “finance school,” many of our students hope to get involved in the startup space via Venture Capital or Angel Investing. The Lab has you covered there as well—join the “Investor” path to learn more about “making capital accessible, shaping business plans, constructing a portfolio of promising startups, and building expertise in an industry or company stage.” Lastly, if none of these pathways perfectly align with your interests, you can always choose the “Navigator” path, designed for students to get involved with the operations and programming at the Venture Lab without being directly involved with a startup.
Regardless of what pathway you find yourself subscribing to, there are creative offerings to help you satisfy your startup itch. For “Joiner” students, for instance, Penn offers a stipend for a summer internship. This allows you to forgo a traditional “banking” or “consulting” experience. Instead, you get funding to spend the summer working with a start-up that may not have been able to offer any compensation prior. For “Investors,” join the Penn Wharton Innovation Fund, which exists specifically to invest in ventures from the Penn community (and whose investment team is also composed of Penn students). And for student founders, there is no better place to tinker with and germinate your idea than VIP-C, Penn’s very own in-house incubator.
Over this past summer, I interned at a fund in Silicon Valley, California. You know what they say about the Bay Area—spend enough time there, and you’re bound to start your own company. Sure enough, the entrepreneurship bug bit me. Along with a fellow intern whom I had met, we decided to go out on our own and try to build a fintech company. We had an idea for a payment system in a virtually untapped market with a TAM that, at least in our view, would be the envy of any company out there.
Starting the process of becoming an entrepreneur is easy enough. My partner and I used to meet in a park every day after work to discuss our business model, how we would attract customers, and what partners we needed to target to become successful. This was interspersed with frequent daydreaming about what could be if all things went right (which, of course, they seldom do). What was particularly challenging were the steps that followed those planning sessions next to the baseball field: executing plans, finding product-market fit, understanding the right path to enter the market, and actually building relationships with necessary partners. That’s where joining the Venture Lab and, specifically, VIP-C came in. Within the first couple of weeks of being back on campus, that’s exactly what I did.
ACCESS, RESOURCES, AND EXPERTISE: THE WHARTON DIFFERENCE
Being a part of VIP-C gives you access to rich programming, a vibrant community of founders, and curated information covering everything you need to start a company. Among the benefits of being part of this community are invitations to a semester-long workshop program. These workshops are designed to give students the rundown on everything from customer discovery to building a team. Intimate coaching sessions and group advising meetings designed for founders to get individualized advice are also available. During my first coaching session, in the span of just five minutes, I had a page of notes, which kept me and my startup partner refining our business plan and rethinking our approach for hours.
Wharton boasts over 100,000 alumni, who are readily reachable by using our alumni contact portal. By being a part of VIP-C, you have more direct access to those alumni, and current students, who are directly involved in the start-up space. The VIP-C private Slack channel alone has over 3,000 members, who range from first-years to established business owners. The common thread between everyone is we are all dedicated to helping our fellow Penn entrepreneurs succeed.
Being part of VIP-C also gets you invitations to hear from guest speakers who, again, often graduated from Penn and who also took advantage of resources available for Penn student founders. One presentation, in particular, stood out for me. It was from ChargeItSpot founder Doug Baldasare, who came up with his business idea while he was an MBA candidate at Wharton. Many founder talks you may hear online give you general advice on strategy and are often filled with buzzwords when they’re really not adding anything (think “synergy” and “disruption”). In contrast, Doug’s talk gave some of the most practical advice I had ever heard and was presented through a mix of informative slides and enthralling anecdotes.
Doug walked us through his methods of reaching out to CEOs and getting in the door for pitch meetings, ways to keep his customer consistently delighted, and how to stay resilient in the face of your dream client ghosting you. With one potential client—T-Mobile—Doug became aware that its CEO John Legere was a huge fan of Batman. After realizing this, ChargeItSpot built a custom Batman-themed version of its product and sent it to Legere. The memorable move won a tweet from the surprised CEO and catalyzed a strong partnership. That raw honesty, those real-world strategies, and this kind of unfettered access to successful entrepreneurs is something you could only find in a place like Penn.
PREPARING FOR A NEW WORLD
It’s no secret that the road to building a successful business is not an easy one. Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, is quoted as having reached out to over 242 venture capital firms for funding when he was starting out. 90% of those firms told him no. Yet today, Starbucks is the largest coffee chain in the world, with over 33,000 locations (and a special place in my heart since Mocha Frappuccino is a necessity in making it through finals). Ariana Huffington’s second book was rejected by 36 publishers, and yet she went on to found The Huffington Post media empire. Having access to endless resources is by no means a way to ensure you will be able to build the next big thing. At Penn, the resources available to you alleviate many stresses and allow you to circumvent many pitfalls that founders who do not have this kind of access often face.
Today, the world is faced with challenges that seem insurmountable—climate change, natural resource shortages, income inequality. We, as humanity, are in desperate need of innovators who want to change the world for the better. Penn recognizes this need and has been at the forefront of universities that provide resources for you visionaries.
It is true that Wharton remains the premier place of study for those interested in a career in finance. After all, as Warren Buffet says, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation (and five minutes to ruin it).” I think the first half of this famous quote best describes Wharton’s reputation. Since 1881 – that’s 140 years – Wharton has been the leader of finance education, so it’s no wonder that people equate Wharton to finance. But the world is rapidly changing, and one of Penn’s guiding principles is to innovate and stay not just with but ahead of the times. This means we are constantly rethinking what a business education looks like and the resources one needs to be a leader in the world. That’s where our emphasis on supporting student entrepreneurship stems from. And who knows, while no one can tell what the future holds, I have an inkling that in another 140 years, “Oh, so what kind of company are you working on building?” could very likely be the prevailing question when you share, “I go to Wharton.”
Nicholas Imam is a Senior in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He is from New York City and is concentrating in Finance and Business Analytics with a Double Minor in Computer Science and Political Science. Outside of classes, he is involved with numerous clubs and organizations including VroomPay, Wharton Ambassadors, and the International Affairs Association.
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