They came, they saw, they, what? Turned up their noses at the chance to launch the next unicorn? Well, at least some of them did. What’s clear from the student experience during the U.C. Berkeley Haas School of Business Silicon Valley Immersion Week is that entrepreneurship is not for everybody. In fact, that reality is built into the week’s programming, and even its reason for existence. While the high-stakes, life-consuming roll of the dice involved in developing a startup has little appeal for many people – particularly for a lot of executive MBA students with established careers, homes, and children – the ability to innovate cuts across all types of jobs and sectors.
So Haas with good reason includes a Silicon Valley trip in its experiential education offerings for EMBA students. For some of the students on this year’s trek, the week opened up new career possibilities, even – yikes – in the startup arena. For others, the week provided new skills and strategies for bringing innovation into their own fields and companies. Below, you’ll meet three EMBA students who discussed with Poets&Quants their takeaways from the immersion, and you’ll also meet a Haas EMBA graduate who most definitely did not turn up his nose at entrepreneurship, and considers his own Silicon Valley immersion to have been crucial to launching his financial services firm.
Sally Allain, Johnson & Johnson director of external alliances in immunology
Sally Allain has powerful credentials as a scientist. The Haas EMBA student has a BS in biology and master’s in microbiology and immunology from Virginia Polytechnic, and she has flown high in biotechnology and health sciences, rising through management positions in bioscience firms, then moving into consulting for Johnson & Johnson before taking a job as an associate director with the company before her promotion in March to director of external alliances in immunology in the firm’s pharmaceutical group. “For the past 15 years it’s all been learning on the job. I’ve taken certifications and gained skills, but have not had the formal business training,” Allain says.
Allain is likely one of the 60% to 75% of Haas EMBA students who will never become entrepreneurs. Her experience during the Haas EMBA Silicon Valley Immersion Week, however, sheds light on the over-arching purpose of the program: to provide an up-close look at innovation as it is practiced, to teach skills applicable to startups as well as established companies such as Johnson & Johnson.
“I don’t actually have a drive to run a startup or to become and entrepreneur,” Allain says. “But what I do have a drive for is harnessing entrepreneurship and taking that back to my company. How do we innovate in a large biopharmaceutical company? How can I put this to work and create an entrepreneurial spirit to drive innovation internally?”
Also, Allain works directly with her company’s research partners, and her exposure to startups during the immersion provided insights into their makeup and operations, she says. “We do collaborate with startup biotechs very early and they’re liquid by different avenues. For me to understand now possibly their internal structure before I partner with them . . . is just helpful knowledge.”
Still, Allain admits the startup bug can be infectious. “I could walk away from this week, as well as the executive program, and have the tools to start down that path if I want. The energy is high, exciting. It’s cutting edge. How can I make a real difference or a change to a pain in some market?
A BIG LEAP IN A FAMILIAR SPACE
Allain was struck by the fact that nearly all of the entrepreneurs the students met had launched companies from largely familiar ground. “They saw pain in the market and opportunity, but they were also really experts in that environment as well,” Allain says. “If you jump into a space that you’re completely unfamiliar with, you would really never, I think, best understand the needs of a product or a customer. You have to have a drive and a passion around it.”
Allain had been attracted to the Haas EMBA by the school’s focus on experiential learning, including five immersions. The Silicon Valley trek also showcased the Haas network, Allain says. “Twenty-eight companies in one week speaks volumes.”