A hidden benefit of doing a full-time MBA in UCD Smurfit comes in the form of GNAM week. “GNAM”, or Global Network for Advanced Management, is a network of leading global business schools who aim to drive innovation and create value by connecting with one another and sharing resources with their stakeholders over a week-long exchange in October.
Of the 20-odd schools offered, the programme entitled ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship’ in the Berkeley School of Business blew me away. I was like a child on Christmas morning finding out that I had been accepted into this programme, which promoted itself as a deep dive into the Silicon Valley Innovation Ecosystem.
Prior to the program, we were assigned to groups and allocated an emerging Silicon Valley start-up company: in my case, water quality monitoring device firm “Osmobot”. I looked forward to a total immersion into the world of innovation and investment through the eyes of a start-up entrepreneur, hoping that by the end of the week long program, I would have a better sense of which identity—investor or entrepreneur—best suited me.
Arriving and Acclimatizing
After approximately 8 hours in transit from Dublin, Ken and I landed in Berkeley on Friday afternoon. The chill vibes of California’s student district were exactly what we needed to decompress after a busy 6 weeks of MBA_hood in UCD. The next day’s sparkling sunshine saw us through a walking tour of Berkeley campus–where I hugged a golden bear and got the impression that studying in Ireland could not hold a candle to the US experience. We concluded the day in the campus’s botanic gardens, where I particularly enjoyed the ‘medicinal gardens’, reminding me of my forsaken profession as a pharmacist. Ken reckoned the exhibits weren’t a patch on the Glasnevin equivalent. Sunday’s light hangover dissolved over brunch with our classmate Grace, who lured me out of Berkeley and onto a bike in San Francisco. It is hard to describe the feeling: freewheeling along the water’s edge in brilliant sunshine, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background!
After a jovial welcome reception in Haas School of Business on Sunday evening, we presented eagerly for breakfast and our first lectures on Monday morning. We spent the first half of the day focusing on entrepreneurship, customer identification, and company adaptation, while second half introduced us to Venture Capitalism. Practical examples from the faculty’s own experiences complemented detailed theory.
Tuesday morning commenced with detailed and structured exploration of our allocated start-ups. Later, Professor David Charron interviewed a panel of venture capitalists from the Bay Area, who explained some hard truths about their careers–including expensive mistakes and missed opportunities.
The afternoon stole the show for me. Hopping on a luxury bus and heading downtown to San Francisco, we enjoyed some free time during which we made a visit to Union Square. Thereafter, we went to meet successful start-up, Ginger.io, which deals with mental ill-health using a tech platform, and met founder Karan Singh. We next went to tech super-power Salesforce’s office. Their luxurious office block—resembling a mini-theme park with friendly mascots and animal-themed merchandise on sale in their entrance area–dazzled even the locals among us.
During a lecture on building consumer profiles, Professor introduced the concept of diverging and converging: building ideas individually, and then bringing them together, towards improving a team’s creativity.
While Monday and Tuesday had ignited my entrepreneurial gusto, the introduction to VC demonstrated that when it comes to investment, the investor tends to have the stronger hand. This stimulated two streams of thought. Firstly, perhaps being a VC is in fact a lower risk pursuit than being an entrepreneur? and secondly, being a good entrepreneur actually necessitates having a good understanding of investment models.
On Thursday morning Stephen from Catering introduced me to the purple potato, which he served with other exotic varieties, seasoned and roasted – an awakening for my Irish taste buds, though I have long identified as a “potato expert”.
In class, Dr. Vivek Rao guided us through refining the value proposition of a company – namely by assessing its desirability, viability and feasibility. From Vivek’s lively session, I understood how the “who” the product/service is just as important as the “how”.
Friday was the day the light shone on our diligent assignment work and presentation planning. We each pitched our classmates (“investors”) for fictious investment in our allocated start-up companies. We made a hard sell for our shrimp farm water-quality monitor (Osmobot). After 5 days of exploring founder Zach Stein’s product and business plan, I felt genuine passion towards the Osmobot and confidence regarding its future prospects. My classmates appeared marginally less convinced than my teammates and I, and we received no direct offer of $5 million for our proposed 20% company share!
I was fascinated by the concept that as both an entrepreneur and a VC, you are constantly placing bets. From my cosy life as a pharmacist, where actions are generally deemed right or wrong by legislation, I felt an explosion of excitement at the risk involved in pursuing either entrepreneurship or VC. My risk-averse life experiences initially inclined me towards VC, but what really invigorated me was the concept of growing a simple idea into a business with the potential to have an exponential impact on the world.
The week concluded with a self-reflection session lead by Sara where we focused on “designing a life you love”. In a team setting, we explored our values and motivators as well as our view of work and of the world. Though challenging at times, this session ultimately provided clarity of thought. The humanity and morality of my classmates shone through. I shocked myself by shedding a few tears, in mourning for the meaningful work in healthcare that I have put on hold as I advance into the unknown of life beyond an MBA.
From exemplary lecturing and first-hand encounters with successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, to sharing state of the art facilities with a group of 49 other MBA students, there was nothing not to love about the whole Berkeley Haas experience. Returning to Ireland, I feel as though little seeds of ideas are beginning to sprout in my mind. Suddenly, anything feels possible as an entrepreneur. When I make my success in business, I know I will think of my GNAM experience as the week when the scope of life’s possibilities opened in front of me.
Siún Tobin, Full Time MBA 2019-2020