Immersion Experience – Reflections on the Silicon Valley IXP

The Silicon Valley IXP, Led by Professors Tom Eisenmann and Mike Roberts, brought fifty students with entrepreneurial ambitions to the Bay Area for six days in early January, to meet with the people and institutions that have led to the emergence of the region as the global leader in technological innovation and entrepreneurial success.

Supplemented by internal discussions on how to foster innovation, and what institutional and personal factors lead to success in such an environment, students got a first-hand opportunity to explore the rewards, risks, and challenges of an entrepreneurial path.

About fifty HBS students ventured out to the rather umimpressive suburban landscapes of Palo Alto during the first week of January for the first-ever Silicon Valley IXP. And while the flat (albeit tree-lined) vistas, one-story bungalows, and dreary weather of Silicon Valley may not have compared to the breathtaking landscapes of many of our fellow section mates’ treks to foreign lands, my decision to spend a week living and breathing start-ups was one the best decisions I’ve made since starting at HBS.

Having spent my immediate two years prior to HBS working in technology private equity in the Bay Area (including time on the venered Sand Hill Road), I harbored a strange mix of both excitement and hesitancy when deciding to take one of the coveted RC spots on this IXP. On one hand, I’d be returning to the Bay Area, where after a semester at HBS I could re-surround myself with the zeal and youthful entrepreneurial energy that Silicon Valley is (in)famous for. On the flipside, I asked myself, was it smart to be spending one of only two winter breaks returning to a place where I had once lived, rather than signing up for a once in a lifetime trek to, say, Africa or South America? After much contemplation, I decided “yes”, due in no small part to revisit my network in Silicon Valley, but also with the hope to reinvigorate my desire to engage in the entrepreneurial zeitgeist of the region.

For a little over five days, we engaged in various VC meetings, start-up tours, and small group/mentor sessions with entrepreneurial companies and VC firms, depending on which track (join a start-up, join a VC, or start your own business) we signed up for and which broad industry focus (consumer internet or cleantech) we were interested in. Although this sounds complicated (and the logistics certainly were, though seamlessly executed by our coordinators Laurie Matthews and Allison Wagonfeld), in retrospect the well-balanced mix of meeting with successful entrepreneurs, direct question-and-answer time with some of the region’s most experienced VCs, and filtering strong (and often times conflicting) opinions from various experts in the region provided us an opportunity to step back from the horrible economic situation and (speaking for myself, at least) often myopic perspective of summer recruiting, to ask ourselves how entrepreneurs have come to define Silicon Valley, and whether this sort of aspiration makes sense for each one of us personally.

During our first Monday discussion session, Professors Tom Eisenmann and Mike Roberts framed our IXP around thinking about the development of Silicon Valley, especially focusing on the people and enterprises that have come to define this region as the global hotbed of technological innovation and entrepreneurial success. Consistent with this goal, over the next week we had the opportunity to see many of the enterprises (namely start-up firms, venture capital funds, and incubators) and meet with many of the people (entrepreneurs, managers, and investors) that make up the Silicon Valley ecosystem, and importantly for many of us who want to be entrepreneurs, had direct opportunities to explore and learn about how they got there.

As a member of the Consumer Internet trek, I attended a plethora of sessions with C-level entrepreneurs at small-to-medium size companies, many venture-backed, who have seen success in the consumer internet space. This includes small recently venture-backed firms such as Yardbarker, a sports blog ad network, in addition to the Web 2.0 companies we’ve all heard of and used, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Linden Labs (of Second Life fame). In a more intimate setting, I had the opportunity to sit in on a two-on-one mentoring session with the head of business development for Mochi Media, an online game platform focused on ads embedded in Flash games. Speaking with Justin Wong, an HBS alum with previous experience in Consumer Internet, during that time was truly a refreshing experience. Having spent the past semester in the intellectual challenging and competitive environment that is HBS, I sometimes find it hard to step-back and really contemplate what longer-term career aspirations match my individual needs, desires, and skills. Being able to ask questions, meet with people who have made the “HBS to entrepreneur” transition, and hearing (and seeing) firsthand the challenges they have faced, helps to put a lot of this in perspective.

Another huge benefit of the Silicon Valley IXP was the opportunity to spend five days with other students serious about entrepreneurship. Although the Rock Center, faculty, and students at HBS are making positive strides to bolster the entrepreneurial opportunities and environment at school, having the chance to spend a week with other RC/ECs in Silicon Valley underlined for me the importance to foster an entrepreneurial backdrop where we are encouraged to take risks, and to avoid the “lowest common denominator” syndrome that haunts many of us as HBS students. Looking back, the self-selected nature of the students on the IXP (how better to self-select than to ask a student to sacrifice a week of winter break to go to Palo Alto?) did an amazing job bringing together students who were truly serious about entrepreneurship, leading to good debate between students, and opportunities to together, forge forward with our entrepreneurial explorations on campus.

Having worked in the Bay Area, and with a predisposition to pursue entrepreneurial ventures at some point in my career, I am obviously biased to the benefits of entrepreneurship and exploring the personal success stories of Silicon Valley, especially those of HBS alum. With that said, I do believe that HBS students who are given the chance to immerse themselves in an environment provided to us on the Silicon Valley IXP may be able to find value and fulfillment available through an entrepreneurial path, many times hidden during our busy lives in Cambridge. I hope that this IXP continues, and grows, in the years to come.

January 26, 2009
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