You know that feeling when your friends ask you for money? Now imagine them telling you that they might not pay it back — oh, and they’re going to use it for something you’re not even sure you understand. Would you give it to them? Well, we did, and it was one of the best decisions we ever made.
This story begins in 2014, and the “we” is my classmates from the Wharton MBA for Executives Program (affectionately known as WEMBA), which was one of the most impactful and arguably best experiences of our lives. For me, a physician, it meant two years of flying back and forth from Miami to Philly every other week to spend two days of class taking in knowledge that could make a global impact. My learning curve was steep and painful — think Dr. House sitting in Peggy Bishop Lane’s accounting class — but when our time on campus came to an end, none of us wanted to lose touch with or stop learning from each other.
So we decided to become angels. A few spirited classmates pitched the idea of creating a WEMBA 38 Investment Club as a way to stay together and learn how to assess and invest in startups. More than half of us immediately committed to putting in funds. We then worked with an experienced attorney who guided us through the process of establishing an LLC, with articles of organization that would govern the club. To keep the process simple, we elected a small group of members to oversee the day-to-day operations: accounting; organizing pitches to the club; obtaining and distributing funds; keeping records; closing deals; and keeping members updated. Our focus would be funding startups from WEMBA entrepreneurs, Wharton entrepreneurs, and referrals from alumni.
Soon after we founded the club, two of our classmates, Michael Madon WG14 and Timothy Jackson WG14, pitched their startup, Ataata, to us. Their idea was to provide cybersecurity awareness training to employees using a novel, fun approach. Even though I might not have fully understood the concept, I had learned by then that the most valuable part of a successful startup is its team. During our time at Wharton, Mike would often share his insights from working at the Department of the Treasury. Tim seemed to be an endless reserve of knowledge and skill far beyond his work in accounting and startups — and was always ready to help a friend. We believed in them.
Just as important as our trust in Mike and Tim was their belief in Wharton and their classmates. They knew they wouldn’t be getting a large sum of money from the WEMBA 38 Investment Club. But they saw tremendous value in saying that a group of Wharton grads had enough confidence in their company to invest in it. Mike would reiterate that point of pride at our five-year Reunion in 2019 when he recalled pitching to potential investors.
Our investment in Mike, Tim, and Ataata paid off in just three years when Mimecast acquired the company for $24 million in 2018. The return from that acquisition allowed our club to continue doing what we started out to achieve — staying connected, learning, and investing. As potential deals come in, we set up conference calls during which entrepreneurs pitch their startups and members can ask questions. The calls are recorded and posted to our secure website for members to access and listen to at their convenience. In order for us to invest in a potential opportunity, at least 60 percent of the club’s members must vote affirmatively for a startup. We don’t have the luxury of a huge fund of money and want to be able to keep the club going, so the investment amounts are limited to $25,000 per startup, although individuals can contribute their own money when permissible. To date, we’ve invested in three WEMBA startups, among other great companies.
As long as there are those willing to take the initiative to solve today’s problems and those willing to invest in their success, the WEMBA 38 Investment Club story will continue. We look forward to growing (especially since we recently learned that investment clubs can have up to 100 members) and sourcing more deals from entrepreneurs who are committed to making life better for all of us. We may not all be in Philadelphia, studying till the wee hours or getting a late-night meal at David’s Mai Lai Wah, but we are still gaining from the collective knowledge and experience that our classmates bring.
Aman Bhullar WG14 is a physician based in Miami, FL, and an entrepreneur in and beyond the health-care industry. He recently produced a film focused on charitable works in Guatemala.
Published as “Not-So-Risky Business” in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Wharton Magazine.