WesTrek: Behind the Scenes of HBS’s Largest Professional Trek

Dennis Chua, Contributor

Just after Fall semester came to an end, 142 HBS students embarked on WesTrek, an annual pilgrimage to the West Coast for all budding HBS technopreneurs. Sure, escaping the chilly frost of the Northeast was a welcome change, but WesTrek’s biggest draw remained the privilege of intimate meetings in the legendary Silicon Valley with the movers and shakers of the tech world. This year, the Tech Club secured engagements with 53 such companies across San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area.

142 participants, 40% female, diverse backgrounds

Anyone who’s attended an LCA class knows the mantra: there are always multiple stakeholders behind any endeavor. Along the same vein, WesTrek involved many different parties: student participants, alumni, new admits, companies, and the organizing team.

Within the group of 142 participants, the gender ratio was roughly 60%/40% male/female, which is relatively in-line with the gender representation of the broader HBS class. Emily Sillari (HBS ’19), a ‘WesTrekker’, shared that this gender split was mirrored in the male/female mix of the representatives of the companies visited throughout the trek. “This was encouraging to see,” reflected Sillari. “Especially,” she continued, “within a stereotypically male-dominated industry like tech.”  

WesTrekkers also boasted diverse professional backgrounds, with 35% coming from technology and startups, 25% from finance or investing, 15% from consulting, and the remainder from a mix of other industries such as healthcare, military, and non-profit. This attests to the fact that WesTrek is for everyone, not just the tech geeks (like me)!

Yield on startups only 35%

Securing companies for WesTrek was not an easy feat. The organizing team reached out to 111 companies and managed to confirm 53 of them – just under a 50% total yield.

Perhaps expectedly, Big Tech had the highest yield of over 75%. Participants got to visit the “usual suspects” like Google, Facebook, and Uber, but also had the opportunity to meet with new additions like Paypal, Nvidia, and Box.  

We interspersed tech titans with startups and venture capital firms, for whom the yields were only 35% and 50%, respectively. The 21 startups we visited included Stitch Fix, Allbirds, Pinterest, Quora, and Square, while the venture capitalists we visited included Accel, Bessemer, Greylock and many more.

To me, it wasn’t too surprising that we experienced the lowest yields for startups. Many startups that we reached out to were too busy building their product, and at least one of them simply did not have enough office space to accommodate 20 visiting students!

700 lines of code, 3 hours of processing for the matching algorithm

WesTrek’s COO, Stephen Lantz (HBS ’19), was the wizard behind the complex matching algorithm. Lantz’s algorithm managed 142 people visiting 53 companies spread over roughly 7,000 square miles of the Bay Area, all over the course of two days. Each company presented to an average of 25 students for 60-90 minutes, with each student meeting eight companies over the course of the trek. We used 700 lines of code and three hours of processing time (on a Core i7-7700k) to assign all 142 participants through a points-based bidding system. Remarked Lantz on the experience, “I wish this process could have just been my TOM final.” Let’s suffice to say that if it were a TOM final, Lantz would have aced it.

Favorite companies were Google X, Upstart, Pinterest and Allbirds, due to their strong vision, sense of society, honest and engaging leadership, and work-life balance

So, you may be asking, what were some of the biggest takeaways from this adventure?

We gathered detailed feedback from participants, and the themes that resonated positively with most students were a strong vision, sense of society, honest and engaging leadership, and work-life balance. Google X, Upstart, Pinterest, and Allbirds were the highest-ranked companies, all scoring an average of 4.5 (on a range of 1 to 5) or above in a survey that asked WestTrekkers how highly they would recommend each company visit to next year’s attendees.

I personally attended the Google X visit, and I can see why it was ranked highly. Instead of a typical sit-down meeting in a conference room, Google X employees took us on an exclusive tour around the facility. Students got to learn about the various moonshots that Google X is building, including balloon-powered internet for rural areas of the world and smart contact lenses with built-in sensors and wireless communication. One participant shared that Google X is the “dream company to work for,” as it is a “combination of a startup and a VC, and is a leader in human intelligence and company culture.”

Participants who visited Upstart and Allbirds spoke very highly of their respective CEOs, who both personally hosted the groups. The group that visited Pinterest spoke about the diversity of the employees who hosted them, and praised the hosts’ insights into managing work-life balance. In fact, one participant felt strongly that the reason Pinterest was “the most impressive visit that went beyond expectations” is because the speakers were “very well-prepared for a deep Q&A about work and life.”

Another unique experience was touring the Tesla factory in Fremont, CA. 24 students spent 60 minutes on the gargantuan factory floor, with its stunning visual clutter of red and white heavily-automated machines and black tape on the ground guiding autonomous robots. Many of the participants shared that this was the “best part of WesTrek,” and, according to one Trekker, “the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”

Big plans for 2018?

Everyone’s very excited to see what WesTrek 2018 will bring. Now that we have the magic well-documented, we’re hoping to grow the Trek, both in terms of students and companies. Some ideas that are percolating include visiting Apple’s “spaceship” campus, and maybe even SpaceX.

One thing’s for sure: planning WesTrek was fun but a real colossal feat, and I cannot imagine how the School organizes FGI for all 930 of the RC class…

Dennis Chua (HBS’ 19) is an investor and budding entrepreneur. He was co-chair of WesTrek, CFO of the Tech Conference, and is co-chair of the upcoming Investment Conference. Prior to HBS, Dennis did investing at D.E. Shaw, and investment banking at Goldman Sachs. Dennis received a B.Sc., summa cum laude, Tau Beta Pi, in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from Cornell University. In his free time, he enjoys thrillers and road trips.