Haas In Silicon Valley: Student Profiles

Luke Johnson, Neat Capital founder

Haas 2014 EMBA and Neat Capital founder/CEO Luke Johnson speaks with a student over lunch at startup Tacolicous in San Francisco - Ethan Baron photo

Haas 2014 EMBA and Neat Capital founder/CEO Luke Johnson speaks with a student over lunch at startup Tacolicous in San Francisco – Ethan Baron photo

As a VP of corporate development in a large health company, Luke Johnson knew he’d likely need an MBA to advance. And at the same time, he had an eye on opportunities in the tech sector, and for years he’d had “Walter Mitty-style dreams” of owning his own company. However, he lacked the network, and confidence in his own entrepreneurial abilities, to quit his job and start an enterprise. With an MBA from an elite school, and the knowledge, skills, and connections it would provide, the world of tech entrepreneurship could be open to him if he chose to make real his founder dreams.

When it came time for deciding on which program to target for an EMBA degree, Johnson visited schools across the country. He sat in on classes, talked to students about their MBA-program experiences, and assessed school cultures. “Haas was a no brainer,” says Johnson, 35. “It was so welcoming and so family like. I’d just never felt at home like that. Business schools can attract kind of the worst people, and I don’t mean that to be a jerk. Berkeley was the opposite of anything I was worried about from that perspective.”

Johnson received his Haas MBA in 2014, and last February launched Neat Capital, a peer-to-peer mortgage startup, in Boulder, Colorado. His Haas Silicon Valley Immersion Week was “crucial” to his ability to launch the company, he says. “The week really did demystify entrepreneurship for me, the most glorious parts that are publicized, and also the most crushing moments that most entrepreneurs really experience all the time,” Johnson says. “They do not hide any of the gory challenges that they faced. There’s no way you could ever gather that from a case – you don’t see the pain. They talk about the split families or whatever has happened in their history.


“Listening to their struggles has helped me to learn, of course, what not to do, what mistakes people have made, and how successful entrepreneurs have scaled and de-risked opportunity, but most importantly, it also made it much more accessible. It makes you realize real risk and upside, (but) when you’re familiarized with it, it just makes it possible. All of this boils down to more confidence, which is so crucial for an entrepreneur.”

In a new-venture finance course during his last semester at Haas, Johnson studied the crowdfunding market, and began considering how crowdfunding might be applied in the lending sphere. “It was through, basically, a business school project that I came to find the white space of opportunity I’m targeting,” Johnson says. “I realized that through an alternative funding model, innovation could totally open up one of the most antiquated marketplaces in the world. As soon as I finished up the program I moved to Boulder and started up the company.”

While he’s left Haas, Haas remains with him. He speaks weekly on the phone with a classmate who’s starting a mortgage-application company. “We’ve talked about everything from founder’s agreements to recruitment of talent,” Johnson says. His friend sent him a chief technology officer candidate. “We share possible talent, we share ideas on capital raising, we share everything,” he says. “I have an investor from my class. All of that has been huge in helping us launch. I’ve heard that a lot of entrepreneurs work really hard to find advisory-level resources, and that’s just not been a challenge for me because I have this awesome network to reach out to.”

Johnson believes strongly in the value of the Haas EMBA program’s focus on experiential learning. His class’s immersions also included a week in Washington, D.C., and a week in China. “We’re off to China hanging out with startups there that are among the fastest-growing companies in the world,” Johnson says. “All of that combined in this experience just exposes you to so much more than you could possibly get in any classroom, no matter how awesome that professor could be.”


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