When 1986 College graduate Ted Schlein was an undergraduate, his father’s position on the board of Apple Inc. meant that he was one of very few Penn students to have a personal computer in his room. When he found all his friends using it to design their resumes, the intrepid economics major started a resume business, charging $35 for 10 copies and allowing unlimited changes.
That enterprise — which ended up netting Schlein a few thousand dollars — was one of many on an entrepreneurial path that eventually led him to his position as a managing partner of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm that has invested in companies like Google, AOL and Twitter.
It also led him back to Penn, where he now sits on the Board of Overseers for the School of Engineering and Applied Science and was an early funder of the Engineering Entrepreneurship Program.
Though it is by no means uncommon for successful graduates to give back to the Penn community, Schlein is one example of a handful of actively engaged venture capitalists who have helped strengthen Penn’s connection to the world of startups and entrepreneurship on several levels of university life, from the Engineering School to Penn’s endowment.
Another such figure is Josh Kopelman, a 1993 Wharton graduate and serial entrepreneur. During his sophomore year, Kopelman started a tech company called Infonautics; by graduation it had 20 employees, and three years later it went public. His second venture, Half.com, ended up being bought by eBay for $350 million. It wasn’t long before Kopelman was investing on the side, and in 2004 he started First Round Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm.
Kopelman is also a paragon of active Penn involvement, as he holds a position on the advisory boards of both the Weiss Tech House and Wharton Entrepreneurial Center.
Although most startup action happens in Silicon Valley and only more recently New York, he noted the value of staying involved at Penn, where entrepreneurship is alive and well.
“It was a rarity back in ’93 for someone to go off and start a company. Now it’s routine,” Kopelman said. “There are great companies that we’re seeing come from Penn.”
Kopelman cited the likes of Invite Media, Warby Parker and Adaptly, all startups from Penn students that First Round Capital has invested in. And for Kopelman, that is just the beginning.
“I would like to do more at Penn,” he said. “The University has made tremendous progress in every aspect of entrepreneurship, and they are increasing the pace of companies started by undergrad and grad students.”
And Kopelman’s involvement certainly has not hurt — every year he mentors about a dozen students through the Wharton School’s Entrepreneur in Residence Program.
One Penn venture capitalist who spends more time on the other side of campus, however, is Andrew Rachleff, a 1980 Wharton graduate who became involved in venture after a stint on Wall Street. When Rachleff decided to give back to Penn, he passed over his home school of Wharton to join the Engineering Board of Overseers instead.
Rachleff, who is a University trustee and was a general partner at Silicon Valley venture firm Benchmark Capital for a decade until 2004, is now chair of the Board of Overseers. One of his hopes is to reduce the number of engineers who go on to Wall Street.
“I want to see them build products, and I want to see them practice engineering,” he said. “Historically I’ve been very disappointed by how many of our engineering candidates go to Wall Street. But I’m glad to learn that more and more of our grads are interested in going to Silicon Valley.”
According to Career Services data, 23 percent of the SEAS Class of 2011 that was employed had jobs in finance, compared to 17 percent in engineering.
Rachleff himself has helped encourage engineering pursuits: in 2008 he established the Rachleff Scholars Program, which helps Penn undergraduates pursue independent research, and he often comes as a guest lecturer to Engineering Entrepreneurship courses.
Engineering Dean Eduardo Glandt said that Rachleff and other involved venture capitalists serve as role models for entrepreneurial students. And on the Board of Overseers, Glandt notes that they can bring a unique perspective.
“Because they don’t come from an engineering background, they sometimes value the engineering side more,” said Glandt, in contrast to overseers from engineering backgrounds who may take their disciplines for granted.
Professors stand to benefit from the entrepreneurial connection as well.
Robert Stavis, a 1984 Engineering and Wharton graduate, partner at Bessemer Ventures in New York and another Engineering overseer, noted that the board has been having a conversation about improving the ability of professors to apply their research — which is officially owned by the University — to commercial interests. The process, known as tech transfer, is well established at a school like Stanford University, but some see Penn’s policies to be lacking.
Entrepreneurs like Rachleff and Schlein have strengthened Penn’s connection to Silicon Valley on another level as well, playing a role in connecting Penn’s endowment to desirable and exclusive venture capital funds, according to the Office of Investment.
“Penn’s alumni in venture capital have been integral to the Penn endowment’s effort to build its venture portfolio,” Chief Investment Officer Kristin Gilbertson said. Rachleff is himself a member of the Investment Board.
Whatever the involvement, most are motivated by the same prospects that got them into venture capital in the first place.
“I’m in venture capital because companies are trying to apply technology to change the world for the better,” Stavis said. “That excitement and passion has encouraged me to be involved at Penn.”
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