Just over a year ago, Davis Smith WG11 G11 was doing exactly what scrappy Wharton entrepreneurs are trained to do: adapting to challenges, preparing for the future, and tapping into the wisdom of the Wharton community. Smith was meeting with a dozen fellow entrepreneurs, from Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal WG10 and Dave Gilboa WG10 to Amy Errett WG88 of Madison Reed and Jeff Raider WG10 of Harry’s. The only thing that was unusual was the setting — a virtual conference room via Zoom, with Smith reporting from his home office in Utah.
Due to the pandemic, these leaders of consumer brands were making swift adjustments to maneuver through a mass disruption. (Errett was in an especially unique position, given that her business was at-home hair-color kits.) They were transparent about how they were cutting costs and driving revenue; these collaborative videoconferences continued every couple of weeks through the spring. “There were certainly some big headwinds,” says Smith, the founder and CEO of outdoor gear manufacturer Cotopaxi. “Retail was very challenged, but we found some unique ways to innovate.” Smith launched a line of cotton masks made from surplus fabric, eventually selling close to one million last year, and also used the unprecedented real estate situation as an opportunity to open a few more Cotopaxi stores in prime locations.
That same creative spirit energized Wharton’s student founders, despite the COVID crisis and Penn’s campus closure. A new workspace on Slack provided a virtual workshop for business plan insights and recruiting team members. Faculty logged on for office hours, and by the fall semester, the online community grew to 1,300 members, including alumni. The beating heart connecting it all — from the student titans of tomorrow to the alumni CEOs blazing trails today — is Venture Lab.
When Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship rebranded as Venture Lab in July, it was with a similar resolve to rethink and reinvigorate. The name reflects this important shift to a “lab culture” of innovation, inspired by integrating new and sometimes risky ideas, experimenting, learning, and iterating quickly. By serving as the School’s one-stop shop for all things entrepreneurial, Venture Lab — a collaboration between Wharton, Penn Engineering, and the Stuart Weitzman School of Design — helps guide students, faculty, and alumni through the many resources across Penn’s landscape, from incubators and accelerators to competitions and funding. “The idea is that we can help them start,” says Venture Lab’s executive director, Trang Pham WG18, “and then involve them further in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
The Venture Lab offices are among the headliners in the new Tangen Hall at 40th and Sansom streets. Karl Ulrich, vice dean of entrepreneurship and innovation, views the building as a beacon for anyone interested in entrepreneurship. With nearly 70,000 square feet of suites, studios, and maker labs, plus a test kitchen and storefront retail space for student prototypes, Tangen Hall screams innovation. That includes its decor: A virtual furniture competition was held last year so the Penn community — including fine arts and engineering students and recent MBA grads — could design the lobby. In addition to its specialized spaces, Tangen Hall pulls several key programs across campus under one roof for a more efficient collaboration, including the master’s-level Integrated Product Design program — which Ulrich co-founded — and venture consulting training through the Sol C. Snider Center, among others.
While Venture Lab is often described as a “start here” launching pad, its larger mission is to build an even bigger and better entrepreneurial community at Penn — one that helps “grow the pie” for everybody on campus. It’s this total integration — inside Tangen Hall, across the university’s 12 schools, and throughout the existing startup universe—that’s going to propel Penn’s next chapter of innovation, one that’s almost five decades in the making.
Wharton’s story of entrepreneurship began with the launch of its entrepreneurial center in 1973 — the first of its kind. At the time, there was more focus on small businesses than, say, venture capital financing. But that focus shifted when professor of innovation and entrepreneurship Ian MacMillan was named director of the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center in 1986, bringing along his academic expertise in areas like corporate venturing, entrepreneurial mind-sets, and “discovery-driven planning” — a technique he helped coin.
The next game changer arrived in 1997, when Bob Goergen WG62 gifted $10 million to create the Goergen Entrepreneurial Management Program. New coursework was added and management professor Raffi Amit was recruited as the program’s academic director. It was around this time, says Goergen, that an entrepreneurial spirit was born on campus: “We now had an organization to let like-minded students interact together while learning some new disciplines.” His son, Rob Goergen Jr. WG00, was in the first wave of Wharton students to benefit from these studies that combined theory and practice.
“The entrepreneurship program is extraordinary at Wharton,” says Rob, “but it’s made even more valuable in the context of taking classes outside of the program.” Students who study entrepreneurship and innovation at Wharton are doubly equipped, because they also have access to the full range of world-class courses — valuable tools to deploy when, say, building a startup company’s financial model or analyzing market research for a product or service. Rob believes Wharton’s management program classes are especially relevant given that they successfully teach entrepreneurial students many of the intangibles that go into building a complete leader.
Today, Wharton offers more than 50 entrepreneurial courses ranging from building human assets to high-level marketing, but it’s taken time to fully integrate the program with experts in the field. “The really good entrepreneurs were out in the world building things,” says Emily Cieri, Dean Erika James’s chief of staff and the program’s managing director from 2000 to 2014. “Those were the kinds of people we wanted to bring in.” That’s why the Experts in Residence program was established in 2001. Executives visit campus on a weekly basis to meet with students about their business plans; more than 2,600 Penn students have been mentored during these one-on-one sessions over the past five years. Mike Vaughan W97, the former COO of Venmo, is just one of the alums who made appointments with students this year. (Vaughan started at Venmo on the ground floor — he was just the 13th user on the money app — and eventually scaled the company to more than 40 million users and a $300 million revenue run rate during his eight years there.) Cieri’s successor, Clare Leinweber, laid more groundwork for the Venture Lab model by building relationships with Penn Law, design, and other schools and was instrumental in growing the Venture Initiation Program, or VIP.
In a way, the School itself has been learning by doing. “The program just kept evolving and growing,” says Bob Goergen. “That, itself, was an entrepreneurial process.” Take, for example, the Wharton Business Plan Competition (now called the Startup Challenge), which was started in 1998 by, and for, Wharton MBA students. It was hard for the event to take root, because students were graduating every two years. So the entrepreneurship program took it over and widened its scope, which included opening up the competition to undergraduates and Penn students outside Wharton. Though the Challenge was held virtually last year, 77 teams entered. That speaks to the overall interest in student entrepreneurship at Wharton: About 28 percent of the 2021 MBA class majored in entrepreneurial management — the same percentage as those studying finance.
Over time, the university has produced a slew of pioneers in entrepreneurship, from founders Jeff Fluhr ENG96 W96 (StubHub) and alumnus Marc Lore (Jet.com) to winners of the Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship Alumni Achievement Award, including Lore, First Round Capital founder Josh Kopelman W93, and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner W92. (The latest award recipient, John Legend C99 HON14, was honored for his humanitarian vision in March.) Wharton entrepreneurs have even flipped industries on their heads: Look no further than Warby Parker’s impact on eyewear, or what’s being reimagined by alumnus Elon Musk and his Tesla and SpaceX.
Wharton has led in broader entrepreneurial spaces, too: In 2018, Inc. magazine dubbed the School the “spiritual center of the [direct-to-consumer] startup movement.” And the field of social entrepreneurship, which has been taught here for 20 years — Ian MacMillan co-wrote a playbook on it — has inspired many business models. A number of Wharton brands are DTC and built around giving back: Warby’s buy-one-give-one glasses; the eco-friendly shoes of Joey Zwillinger WG10’s Allbirds; Smith’s Cotopaxi, which inspires outdoor adventure and alleviates global poverty. “I wanted to prove that you could do good and do well as a business,” says Smith, who adds that he was motivated by his Warby friends while at Wharton.
“Success begets success,” says Ravi Viswanathan ENG90 WG98, a venture capitalist and founder of NewView Capital, who also serves as the Venture Lab advisory board chair. “It’s heartening to see more and more people think about Wharton not just for finance or accounting, but for all of these other things.”
It’s been not quite two years since Mike Weber WG20 and Vedant Saboo WG20 hatched an idea for Frutero, a creamy tropical ice cream that combines Pennsylvania dairy with exotic fruits from around the world (think: Colombian guavas, Thai coconuts). Moving quickly, they used the Penn Wharton Innovation Fund to create a prototype; tasked Wharton classmates with sampling flavors; built out their business model through the VIP-X accelerator; and got additional funding and visibility through the Startup Challenge. They were shipping out half pints in dry ice and landing their product in Whole Foods freezers as they were finishing their degrees.
As the nexus of all startup activity on campus, Venture Lab aims to attract a significant number of students from outside Wharton. “By serving all Penn students, we are really benefiting everybody,” says Pham, explaining that more often than not, entrepreneurs need outside help on their ideas. Last year’s Startup Challenge winner, Felicity Johnson WG20, didn’t necessarily have a strong understanding of veterinary sciences beyond having owned a cat. However, her idea — a telemedicine app for pet owners to get animal care anytime, anywhere — was so compelling that she partnered with John Hurst WG20 V20 and Penn Vet advisors to build out the concept. My Virtual Veterinarian, now called Hello Ralphie, placed first in the competition and netted $30,000, plus another $15,000 in support services. And that was actually just the beginning: It’s since raised $1 million in seed-round funding.
After Rui Jing Jiang W18 and her team, Avisi Technologies, won the 2017 Y-Prize technology contest with their idea — an ultra-thin drainage implant, called VisiPlate, to treat glaucoma — they moved through two university accelerators and developed their product through a Penn Engineering lab and the Singh Center for Nanotechnology. “We met a ton of entrepreneurs by just being at Penn, and it fostered a sense of community,” says Jiang. “Being able to get to where we are today is testament to the incredible nature of the technology that was spun out of Penn.” The medical device startup went on to win the Penn President’s Innovation Prize, which included a grant and living stipend to keep developing the invention. VisiPlate still operates today in one of the coveted “inventor garages” at the Pennovation Center, the university’s business incubator space across the Schuylkill River in Grays Ferry.
Jiang also received early help from the legal clinic at Penn Law on business matters like founders’ and operating agreements. “The law professors were just so accommodating,” she says. “You can learn, say, contracts in class, but when you’re starting a company, there is just so much you have to learn by going through it.” Avisi Technologies is working to gain FDA clearance for VisiPlate by 2024; meantime, the company has been filing more patents with hopes of building out a portfolio of other life-changing health-care solutions with cutting-edge technology.
It’s worth noting that the many resources on campus aren’t available only to founders like Jiang. While there will always be students wanting to launch the next unicorn (following in the footsteps of Andrew Dudum W11 and alumnus Jack Abraham, of DTC health-care startups Hims and Hers), the majority of the Wharton community consists of “joiners” — people who don’t necessarily have an idea that’s worthy of their full attention, Ulrich explains, but who still appreciate the entrepreneurial mind-set and gravitate to an environment of small teams and diverse tasks.
So it makes sense that Venture Lab has laid out a priority to support all pathways to entrepreneurship through programming, whether for “explorers” trying to figure out what they want to do or “navigators” looking to land some experience as consultants or managers on a project. Viswanathan adds that there’s room for all these roles at a startup — and some flexibility. “Maybe you’re amazing at finance or sales,” he says. “Going to a young company and being part of that hyper-growth journey gets you so much more confidence, contacts, and skills than if you were to work at a bigger company.”
Venture Lab is intentional about what innovation looks like at Wharton — starting with the diversity of students. “Right now, the percentages of entrepreneurs who participate in our program don’t reflect the student demographics on campus,” says Pham, explaining that Venture Lab is working to change the underrepresentation of women, students of color, and first-generation students. “We want to be pulling them into the top of the funnel and getting them all the way through the pipeline.” Ensuring equal footing starts with considerations like targeted and creative engagement, endowed opportunities, structured workshops, and a stronger mentoring program, all of which are going to be championed by Venture Lab.
These efforts are a big selling point to Miriam Williams C04 WG15, who co-founded modern maternity brand Superkin in 2018 and further developed it in Wharton’s VIP accelerator in San Francisco last year. (“The VIP program was such a great way to have structure around connecting the resources and entrepreneurship community,” says Williams.) Superkin’s clothing is all about empowering women with professional and functional pieces. “There was such a clear picture of how powerful and dynamic women are in the world, and we weren’t seeing it reflected in this pivotal moment of motherhood,” says Williams.
And when Williams saw a problem in the venture capital ecosystem — women raise a fraction of the dollars that men do, including at Penn — she decided she wanted to change that, too. “If you’re a Wharton grad female founder, you should be funded,” says Williams. “It was really inspiring to think about it in that way.” She rallied around Jarah Euston WG09 and Alice Zhang WG08 when they created a nonprofit in 2018 called the Wharton Alumnae Founders & Funders Association, or WAFFA. Since then, WAFFA has worked with Venture Lab to connect female founders with trusted investors, co-host educational programs and skill-building workshops, and increase the number of women in the School’s startup ecosystem. A few of the most promising female startups are awarded free advising through the Snider Center Venture Consulting program. “That’s what is so exciting about Venture Lab,” says Williams. “You’re creating the resources and visibility for the entire population of Penn.”
Priorities like diversity and inclusion are also being shaped by Venture Lab’s advisory board, many of whose members have started their own companies. Viswanathan explains that this type of environment promotes valuable nonlinear thinking. “When you have different personal experiences, there’s more of an open mind on investing in themes and trends,” he says. “You expand your critical thinking and judgment in ways that you wouldn’t if you had a monolithic organization.” In other words, a more diverse team has potential for a more diverse portfolio.
“We need to evolve with the industry, and with the country, to ensure we are nimble and resourceful enough to support not only this generation of entrepreneurs, but the generations of entrepreneurs to come,” says Rob Goergen, who serves on the board alongside his father. “And Venture Lab will be one of the preeminent resources that will allow us to continue to both lead and evolve for the benefit of the entire Penn community.”
Even after COVID-19 canceled all in-person events, WAFFA still managed to quintuple its membership in 2020. It got a Zoom account, says Williams, and hosted virtual roundtables with phenomenal speakers who were passionate about supporting female founders. “It’s been incredible to draw from the alumni community to encourage these conversations,” she says.
It’s no secret that students are drawn to Wharton’s vast global network, and the ethos of mentoring and paying it forward is especially powerful within entrepreneurship. The School’s alums are generous with their time and expertise, whether they’re judging school competitions, evaluating new programming, mentoring aspiring founders, or, well, Zooming with peers during a pandemic. Viswanathan, for example, volunteered as one of the first mentors for Venture Lab’s new mentoring program last fall. Although his two mentees were in fields outside his tech investment expertise (medical devices and life sciences, respectively), he helped the aspiring founders with common issues like team building and fund-raising. When you’re young, says Jiang, these resources represent unfathomable opportunity. “More undergrads should consider entrepreneurship,” she says. “You have energy and ideas, and you’re inspired. And you also have people at Penn willing to help you achieve whatever it is you want to achieve.”
Wharton alumni are generous with more than just their time. Venture Lab is entirely funded through them, as is its Innovation Fund, which provides multi-tiered pre-seed funding for student ventures. Not surprisingly, says Rob Goergen, the Wharton network very much wants to invest in Wharton products and people: “There is a broad group of unnamed investors who are investing dollars into companies that students are originating during their time at Wharton. They aren’t just being philanthropic — they truly believe in these companies.” When Davis Smith began at Wharton just before exiting his first company, he used the time to reflect on what he had already done as an entrepreneur — and what to explore next. But the experience also turned out to be an investment opportunity, as Smith met the Warby Parker founders and eventually became an angel investor in their company (and vice versa).
“The value of random encounters and having a place to work is pretty high for entrepreneurs,” says Ulrich, who oversees the Wharton San Francisco campus. A major catalyst for the Bay Area program’s development was the implementation of an “open-space” concept in which alumni can work alongside each other for natural collaboration and brainstorming. “We saw funding events, partnerships, initiatives, and hiring — all as a result of this open-space initiative,” says Ulrich.
“Wharton San Francisco provides easy access to Silicon Valley and deepens the connections of Penn and Wharton students and alumni to each other and to the entrepreneurial ecosystem here,” says Irina Yuen, director of Venture Lab programs in San Francisco. “We’ve seen alumni and business partners who connect through our San Francisco-based programs further engage in our Philadelphia programs, and this creates more meaningful opportunities for the entire Penn entrepreneurship community.”
Now, says Viswanathan, there’s a similar “nucleation site” in Tangen Hall, which will welcome students through its doors as soon as campus pandemic restrictions are further eased. The hope is that the same Silicon Valley energy can be channeled through the facility and harnessed by Venture Lab. “We’re looking to not just build a new brand, but also to expand the presence and availability of entrepreneurship in the public eye at large,” says Pham. Which means that with the startup opportunities at Wharton and Penn still blooming, what the future of entrepreneurship looks like remains completely unpredictable — and only in the best way.
Amy Downey is a freelance writer based in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Published as “The Evolution of Entrepreneurship” in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Wharton Magazine.