A classic talk with Ben Horowitz and Michael Franklin from SCET’s largest and most popular course, the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series

The A. Richard Newton Lecture Series has long been one of SCET’s most important courses for helping to educate and train entrepreneurs at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 2005, the Series has hosted some of the world’s most influential founders, innovators and visionaries to tell the story of how they created a disruptive startup, changed their company’s culture, or started something completely new. As one of the required courses for the Certificate in Entrepreneurship & Technology, the course has grown very popular and swelled to more than 300 people this semester.

The course is emblematic of how SCET is working to change the way entrepreneurship is taught on university campuses. Traditionally, entrepreneurship is learned through a series of business cases, frameworks, and models that entrepreneurs can use as reference to kickstart their own ideas. While these elements of entrepreneurship are important, one of SCET’s new approaches is to focus on the mindsets of the founders and innovators behind the cases, which can be just as important to understand as the cases themselves.

Focusing on the innovator mindset

In his new book, Innovation Engineering, SCET faculty director, Ikhlaq Sidhu, discusses innovation cases with the focus on understanding the mindset of the founders when making critical decisions. For example, in his interview with food delivery company Caviar’s co-founder, Richard Din, Sidhu talks about how Caviar’s founders created a low-tech order system online to validate their idea that delivery was something restaurants would outsource.

“On the back side, the development was simply a manual order form. Literally, a person would read the order, then in a manual manner, call the restaurant, place the order, drive over to pick it up, deliver it, and pick up a payment, and finally deposit it at the bank. [This was a] completely manual and non-scalable process. The main purpose was to know that the customer would use the system, not to make it scalable or technically advanced. Once the user’s behavior was known, only then did they start to add the needed technology on the back end of the web site.”

Ikhlaq Sidhu, Innovation Engineering

Many teams might first create a beautifully-designed website or application-based order system before validating and likely fail as a result. However, Caviar’s approach of using a low-tech website and manually fulfilling orders was the best way to figure out if their startup could scale and actually require the advanced technology that many entrepreneurs may erringly start with. For Sidhu, this story was a great example of “executing while learning” because the goal of any early-stage startup should be to continually learn and adapt their approach.

Some entrepreneurship courses might end the case there, but Sidhu also works to understand the psychology of Din and his co-founders. One of the key mindsets that Sidhu identified in Din was that trust was of utmost importance. SCET has found the ability to trust one another as one of, if not the most important mindsets that a startup team can have. In Din’s case, he and his team were confronted with the uncomfortable task of letting go one of their co-founders, who they did not believe they could completely trust. For Din, being able to trust the co-founding team was an important part of moving the startup forward, similar to using the low-tech demo above to validate that a company could successfully take over the delivery function for restaurants.

While this is a recent case, the SCET has focused on understanding the mindsets of individual founders since its beginning in 2005. The A. Richard Newton Series began shortly after that and gave the SCET a venue to interview startup founders and learn about the psychology of their decision-making. Since 2005, the SCET has featured more than one-hundred innovators in this large venue such as Marc Andreessen, whose web browser popularized the Internet, Marissa Mayer, early Google employee and former Yahoo CEO, John Battelle, co-founder of Wired magazine, John Hanke, co-founder of Keyhole, which lead to the creation of Google’s Geo division (Maps, Earth, etc.) and founder and current CEO, Niantic (Pokémon GO, Ingress), and many, many more.

Marc Andreessen speaking at the Series in 2005

Challenges Bring Opportunities

In response to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the UC Berkeley campus has suspended in-person classes on campus. While we are lucky to live in an age where video-conferencing is widely available, it is undeniable that there is a certain *magic* with in-person face-to-face communications. There is a reason why sales teams prioritize phone calls over emails, and in-person meetings over phone calls. That in-person magic helps to build relationships and so far has not been replaced by any technology. While video conferencing has been widespread for over a decade, people will still fly to the opposite side of the planet to attend professional conferences in-person, because they want to build relationships, and relationships built in-person are stronger and last longer.

While the A. Richard Newton Series generally records the talks from the distinguished speakers, watching the talks online isn’t the same experience as attending a large lecture hall in Li Ka Shing Auditorium and feeling the energy of 300+ fellow students who are having the same ah-ha moments in sync. So, how can our series create the most engaging course that will give students the best chance to absorb the mindsets of our speakers?

Victoria Howell, SCET’s director of executive education and instructor for the Series is working to create an opportunity out of the challenge to bring SCET’s largest class online by making the series more engaging and interactive for students.

Last week, when news came that UC Berkeley would move all in-person classes online, Victoria recruited Dr. Renee Wurth, a population data researcher to join the class. Dr. Wurth recently wrote an op-ed in The Guardian titled: “Will American cities have a Wuhan experience? Only if they are lucky.” 

While this may not replace an in-person experience, having a speaker who is an expert on the topic that is on the top of everyone’s mind, will certainly make the upcoming talk more exciting and engaging for students.

Victoria also changed the typical format to a webinar focused on Q&A. Students will be able to ask questions using Zoom’s webinar function, and get answers directly from the speaker through the talk. Additionally, students are being asked to submit questions ahead of time. 

“Get those questions ready — anything you are worried about, anything you think would be a good idea,” said Victoria in an email to students in the course who are currently confronting the challenges of a pandemic combined with social isolation during the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order.

Students typically do have a chance to ask a few questions for some of the talks in the series, but by moving to a Q&A webinar, SCET is re-organizing the course, which is typically run in a lecture or fireside-chat format, to one where students will have more direct access to these innovators, even if remotely.

Completing the Berkeley Method and Executing While Learning

Thus far, this article has discussed the importance of understanding the mindset of an entrepreneur while learning traditional entrepreneurial training. However, understanding the entrepreneurial mindset, a concept which the A. Richard Newton Series helps students understand, doesn’t tell the whole story. 

SCET actually has five elements included in its method of teaching called The Berkeley Method of Entrepreneurship: Mindset & Behaviors, Cases & Frameworks, Inductive Learning, Journey-based, and Networks. Together, we believe, these elements will better prepare students to create new companies and execute innovative projects.

It is well-known that students learn more in classrooms that adopt active-learning approaches, (though sometimes students do not feel like they learn more and instructors do not always know how to successfully implement this kind of teaching). SCET’s idea of inductive learning simply means that entrepreneurs will learn more by doing and discovering patterns that work for themselves, instead of reading about it in a book. While startup cases can be quite memorable, we believe you will learn more, if in addition to learning startup cases, you also create a startup in a class with a group of like-minded students. That kind of struggle is hard to forget.

There is still work to do to complete the Berkeley Method, and we must continue to execute while learning how to make our courses more engaging online. How can we make the class more journey-based? How can we help students network and better get to know the unique resources that each can offer each other in the future?

We have much left to learn to adapt to a new normal of teaching students remotely. For now, the main takeaway is that there is something lost when classes are not taught in-person. Using passive-learning approaches, such as long lectures without student interaction, may have been acceptable in a previous time when all the students were in the same room, but in the future, successful online classes will have to go the extra mile to get students to engage, participate, and actively learn, so they can still “be in the class” even if they aren’t there, (otherwise, they may as well watch the lectures on YouTube).