In this episode of OneHaas alumni podcast, we chat with Rhonda Shrader. She is the Executive Director of the Berkeley-Haas Entrepreneurship Program and the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program for the Bay Area Node. Her previous experiences include founding and being an early stage member of startups in biotech, behavioral health, retail, non-profit, and AI.
Rhonda shared her story from Harvard to startups and then eventually to MBA. She also narrated her consulting career in healthcare.
Next, we talked about Lean Transfer, the class she teaches at Haas, her role as the Executive Director of the Berkeley-Haas Entrepreneurship Program and the I-Corps program, and how these programs can help startups.
Finally, she shared her advice on how to build and work with school or business partners.
On the importance of spending time with the school community – “It’s important. It’s not scalable, but people need to know that you care, and that’s the way to build a community.”
“As an entrepreneur, you need skills. You need someone to hold your feet to the fire. You need someone to hold you accountable so that you do not fall victim to confirmation bias. As entrepreneurs, the worst sin we can commit is believing what we want to believe and hearing what we hear.”
“Don’t feel like you have to start a company as a student. This is not the only chance you have for the rest your life. So, learn what you need to learn. And when the problem comes for you to solve it, you’ll be ready.”
“You want to have someone who is obsessed about the problem as you are but has a completely different skillset. Not completely different, but someone who makes up for the skills that you don’t have. Those are the best kind of partnerships.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas Alumni Podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today, we’re joined by Rhonda Shrader. She is the Executive Director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, as well as the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program for the Bay area node. She is also a lecturer at Haas on a course called Lean Transfer, which any graduate can take.
[00:00:37] Her previous experiences include founding and being an early stage member of startups in biotech, behavioral health, retail, nonprofit, and AI. Above all, she is a Haas alum. Welcome to the podcast.
[00:00:52] Rhonda: Hello.
[00:00:53] Sean: Rhonda, you have such a rich background. I would really love to hear what you did before Haas, just your origin story.
[00:01:00] Rhonda: Yes. When I came to Haas, I’d already been part of three startups. I didn’t start out to be a founder or an entrepreneur; actually, started out as a pre-med. And I paid my way through Harvard and I had four jobs to do so. One of those jobs at Harvard med school turned into my senior thesis and another of those jobs from an MIT lab turned into being part of an early-stage founding team for a spin out of MIT. It went public and it is still around all these years later. So, that’s where I really got the bug when I had to make the decision, do I want to spend four years in medical school to help people or do I just want to get stuff out of the lab and helping people immediately?
[00:01:53] Sean: So, from Harvard onto the startups, what brought you to the MBA?
[00:01:58] Rhonda: What brought me to the MBA was that my undergrad was in science and I saw a scientist in the startups that I work for, I don’t want to say being taken advantage of, but that’s what it was. And I really needed to understand what was going on. If I truly wanted to dedicate my life to commercializing technology, I needed to understand the business part of it.
[00:02:20] Of course, I did all the rounds of the business school. When I came to Haas, I showed up to the admitted students’ day barbecue, and there was actually a professor there. And I got to talk to that professor. I had not had that experience a lot at Harvard and I just knew immediately, wow, this is the place for me. Professors will actually take time to talk to admits. Wow.
[00:02:45] Sean: That’s amazing. That’s something that I know you do a lot for students in our community. You spend a lot of time with our community, from what I hear.
[00:02:56] Rhonda: It’s important. It’s not scalable, but it’s important for people to know that you care and that’s the way to build a community.
[00:03:04] Sean: That’s true. So, tell us a little bit about after Haas. What did you do after coming to Haas?
[00:03:12] Rhonda: Yes. At Haas, because I’ve been part of three startups at that time, entrepreneurship was taught as a way of making these enormous business plans. So pretty much the only entrepreneurship classes at that time were about going into a class, coming out the other side with a 500-page business plan. I opted out of that because I had seen as an entrepreneur how quickly things can change.
[00:03:42] And I knew that the minute you step out of that class, that plan is obsolete. So, I opted out of entrepreneurship and I took things like strategy and operations, game theory, things that really rocked my world. You don’t always have to take entrepreneurship classes. If you want to be a founder, you really need to shore up the things that you don’t understand.
[00:04:05] So armed with that, I got the consulting bug and was sucked into that recruiting vortex, as I knew it was happening to so many of our students right now. I wanted to learn more about health care. And so, I joined a boutique health care firm and was a consultant for a couple of years after that.
[00:04:27] Sean: Is there a particular area of healthcare that you were particularly interested in?
[00:04:32] Rhonda: I was interested in all of it, but when I was sent on my first assignment to Honolulu, which was pretty sweet, I was sent to Kapiolani Women’s and Children’s Hospital. So, I really got the bug for working at specialty hospitals, especially with children’s hospitals. Then my next assignment, I think partially in retribution for being stationed in Honolulu for six months was in Minneapolis. So, Minneapolis Children’s Hospital. But I learned a lot and that became my specialty operations.
[00:05:05] Sean: My wife, actually, she’s a pediatric hospitalist down here at Children’s of Orange County.
[00:05:10] Rhonda: I was at CHOC for a little while, CHOCO Bear. I love the amazing people down there and an amazing culture. And they do such an incredible service for the entire community. Oh, that’s so cool.
[00:05:25] Sean: Yeah. I guess, what kind of consulting were you doing for children’s hospitals? If you don’t mind me asking.
[00:05:30] Rhonda: Yeah, no, I don’t. At that time, it was all about refining operations. So, in Minneapolis, there were two competing children’s hospitals, one in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Didn’t really make sense with the move toward even then more managed care, more value-based care. It didn’t make sense to fully staff two hospitals, especially if one was doing 40 hearts a year and the other was doing 200.
[00:05:57] So, we really started to understand the dynamics and the politics. And it really opened my eyes to, even though it’s healthcare, it’s still a business, and you have to make rational decisions based on evidence even though it sometimes breaks your heart.
[00:06:15] Sean: That’s really interesting. And part of the reason I’m asking is because obviously, every night, my wife comes home, we have these conversations around healthcare, especially around children’s healthcare. And as a fellow entrepreneur, my brain’s always spinning on what are some ways we can make this more efficient, make this more effective.
[00:06:38] And I just remember, and I actually want to hear your opinion on this because I had a conversation with Harry Goldberg. He was on the podcast and we talked about healthcare because he did some internships in healthcare with Google, Verily I believe. And he mentioned that disruption in healthcare in his opinion had to come from the outside in.
[00:06:59] Meaning from these smaller clinics, because hospitals are such big institutions that are very difficult to change from the inside out. From your experience working in the field, is that something that you agree with or are there other ways to go about entrepreneurship in the healthcare system?
[00:07:16] Rhonda: Ooh. I will say that from my time in healthcare, I became much more interested in policy. So, how those external forces can drive change from within. And one of the biggest mandates as an entrepreneur, or even as a consultant, is having some sort of policy change. For example, when the mandate came for electronic health records. That never would have happened without that policy.
[00:07:46] So, I’ve really become super interested in what are the big buckets of policy that can really make changes at all levels of healthcare. And now in my role at Haas and with NSF, for commercializing technology, what are those opportunities and policies that we can craft that are really going to move the needle to make things easier and remove the barriers?
[00:08:13] Sean: Wow. That is, that feels so spot on because just thinking about hospital software, right? The fact that it’s not agnostic, that one hospital or one clinic can’t talk to the other and we just have a mess of a system for patient data. I think you’re spot on with that. I’d never thought about that. Thank you for sharing that.
[00:08:44] Rhonda: Sure. I even go back to some of my Organizational Behavior cases. So, Jenny Chatman was our OB professor. And I think she’s still teaching some of the OB core classes. And the whole idea of aligning incentives, I’d never thought about that before as a scientist because there, you’re just looking for evidence, looking for patterns, validating, invalidating hypotheses, but really this idea of aligning incentives is a central tenet of organizational behavior theory. So, it’s the very same thing in healthcare because if physicians or anyone is incented to do more procedures, to do more because they’re paid for it, they’re going to do it. So, I think the advent of value-based care and the charging for re-admissions that has caused all kinds of behavior change at multiple levels and also open up opportunities for entrepreneurs to come in and help facilitate that.
[00:09:45] Sean: That makes sense. I want to talk a little bit since we’re on the topic of Haas, let’s talk a little bit about your Lean Transfer class that you teach at Haas. Can you share a little bit about what the class is about?
[00:09:56] Rhonda: Absolutely. It’s one of my favorite topics. So, like any good entrepreneur, I like to start with a problem. And when I came to Haas six years ago, one of the problems I saw was that many students wanted to learn the Lean Launchpad methodology, but a) they only had one shot because Lean Launchpad is in the spring, b) they needed an idea and a team to apply to the class with. So, I saw a demand of students that wanted to learn the methodology. But I also saw a supply of IP at UC Berkeley, patents that were being filed, IP sitting on the shelf because inventors wanted to go back to the labs and keep inventing and, you know, fair enough. So, I put the two together and we take IP that’s sitting on the shelf at UC Berkeley, UCSF, Berkeley labs up the Hill. Also, this year, the office of naval research and in the past, we’ve done NSA, has offered us some unclassified patents. So, we put teams of grad students around that and they spend the semester learning the Lean Launchpad methodology.
[00:11:08] Sean: That is amazing. And that’s why it’s called Lean Transfer. You’re transferring the IP into the lean canvas model and building a business around it.
[00:11:19] Rhonda: Seeing if there is a business model around it because much at the time, it’s the best technology, but either the market doesn’t care, there are other solutions that customers are satisfied with, or it’s part of a bigger solution that needs to be licensed. But all of these are great outcomes to learn because they inform the perspective of the licensing officers that need to go out and license the technology.
[00:11:48] Sean: Is this a relatively new class at Haas?
[00:11:52] Rhonda: Yeah, we started it in engineering and my friend who was a venture capitalist, we did it for free for the first couple of years, just because we believe in it so much. So, we did it at engineering for a couple of years and then Haas picked it up last year.
[00:12:07] Sean: And is it offered in the spring or the fall?
[00:12:09] Rhonda: In the fall. We have our final presentations on Thursday. So, I’m very excited.
[00:12:15] Sean: I just really admire what you guys are doing here. I just think it’s really amazing that you guys are helping in a way, show inventors and scientists to push their ideas forward even more so that they don’t feel bound by their own limitations.
[00:12:47] Rhonda: A hundred percent. And the thing is, I want to help scientists and engineers understand that business isn’t a scary thing. That actually, the Lean Launchpad methodology is at its core, applying the scientific method to business. And I think once you tell folks that you show them the business model canvas, and you say, look, this is just like your lab notebook. You are making your hypothesis about the experiments that you run. You get data, you iterate. And it’s going to be a messy scratched out kind of thing. And once they see, Oh, my gosh, this is not mysterious. I can do that. That just opens up a whole new world.
[00:13:31] Sean: That is so true.
[00:13:32] Rhonda: And the scientists that have done Lean Transfer and also, the I-Corps, which is a separate model of that, they say that it makes them a better scientist because they think about the customer in the back of their mind. Is there someone that is going to care about this enough to pay for it, or what do I need to understand to make this commercially viable?
[00:13:56] And so it offers up a whole new dimension to their thinking. And I think that, as a teacher, that’s all you ever want. You just want people’s minds to grow and their perspective to widen.
[00:14:06] Sean: And as an entrepreneur, you want real problems to be solved.
[00:14:13] Rhonda: A hundred percent. I’m going to be old one day. I want all kinds of things done, fixed. So please get at it, people!
[00:14:22] Sean: Yeah. I think that’s a perfect segue into what you’re doing at Haas, the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program, and the I-Corps program.
[00:14:33] Rhonda: Yes. So, for the entrepreneurship program, there are two of us for 2200 students and we are not funded by Haas. We are currently in a fundraising campaign to create an endowment, to get more staff. And so that we don’t have to rely on grants and donations year in, year out.
[00:14:53] What we try to do in the entrepreneurship program is to provide equal opportunity to all four programs. So, we have undergrads, Full-Time MBAs, Evening & Weekend MBAs, and EMBAs. That is our organizing principle. We don’t have defining principles for BHEP, but that’s one of our organizing principles. Create opportunities so that everyone can participate.
[00:15:17] When I got here six years ago, there were not a lot of programs for entrepreneurs. There were classes, there were clubs, but I’m a big believer in a curriculum that needs to go through a defined process. Especially as an entrepreneur, you need skills. You need someone to hold your feet to the fire. You need someone to hold you accountable so that you do not fall victim to confirmation bias.
[00:15:43] Because as entrepreneurs that’s like the worst sin we can commit – believing what we want to believe and hearing what we want to hear. So over the course of the six years, with the support of many awesome students, we’ve helped developed an accelerator program called UC LAUNCH that is open to students, faculty, alumni.
[00:16:05] Hello. We have a lot of, we have a number of alum teams in this year’s cohort, and, yeah, it’s open to any of those folks in any UC. So, it’s a really rich mix of folks who have found that product-market fit. From Lean Startup 1.0, and our moving on to the scaling sales activities, as they hurdle towards fundability.
[00:16:30] So there’s that. Then we’ve helped to support StEP, which is the onboarding of folks who come to Berkeley, see 80 different activities and initiatives, and go, ah, where do I start? All of this is in service of trying to build some sort of pipeline so that people know where to go after they complete one step.
[00:16:53] It’s not perfect. It can’t be with this limited amount of staff and resources, but we’ve tried to basically fill in the big holes. My favorite program that’s open to alumni and everyone on campus is Mentor Hours. So, we have three to five mentors that come in every single week. They are ready to talk to you about anything.
[00:17:17] We have attorneys, VCs, we have operatives, and start-ups. It’s a really rich mix of folks who are willing to talk to you for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, answer anything.
[00:17:30] Sean: That’s amazing. We’ll have to make sure to link those resources in the episode description for people listening.
[00:17:37] Rhonda: Yeah, a hundred percent. Just get on our mailing list and you will find all this out. Some of the other things we do, Venture Capital Investment Competition, which I’m sure that many of you have heard of, it’s been around for a while, we were able to raise enough funds last year to expand it for the first time to undergrads.
[00:17:58] And it’s not so much a competition, although that’s part of it. The real value add is the training that you get and the nuts and bolts of VC. How do you actually do a term sheet? How do you negotiate with both the partners and the entrepreneur? I think it really, you know, what I-CORPS does to demystify business to scientists, I think VCIC does to demystify the world of venture capital to folks who just have an interest because you really realized, Oh, yeah, it’s just, these are the nuts and bolts. It’s not that difficult. And some of the skills you may have already, such as good negotiation skills, make you a great venture capitalist.
[00:18:38] Sean: Agreed. Because venture capital and entrepreneurship are two sides of the same coin, right?
[00:18:46] Rhonda: I’ve seen it actually make much better entrepreneurs out of folks who have gone through the program. Just this year in LAUNCH, we have an entrepreneur who graduated full-time MBA class of 17, moved back to Kyiv, and started a startup then. So, he didn’t start it when he was a student, he spent his time doing VCIC and exploring venture capital.
[00:19:11] And then when he moved back, he started it. And now he’s in LAUNCH. He’s winning a bunch of competitions around Ukraine and really, I guess the message is, and I posted on Slack this morning, don’t feel like you have to start a company as a student. This is not your only chance; you have to rest your life. So, learn what you need to learn. And when the problem comes for you to solve it, you’ll be ready.
[00:19:35] Sean: And make sure to leverage the resources that you’re providing.
[00:19:38] Rhonda: A hundred percent. Yeah.
[00:19:41] Sean: Let’s stay on the topic of alumni a little bit, for alumni listening, how can our alumni community help out or contribute to your cause?
[00:20:11] Rhonda: Oh, that is a great question. So, we would love to have folks, offer their time up as mentors. We offer Mentor Hours year-round. You can do it for anywhere from two hours to four hours, once a year, twice a year, twice a semester, whatever fits into your schedule and your personal desires. We would love to have you. It’s an easy onboarding process and you get your photo and bio up on our website. Yay.
[00:20:43] Sean: And what website is that?
[00:20:45] Rhonda: entrepreneurship.berkeley.edu
[00:20:49] Sean: Simple enough. I love it.
[00:20:51] Sean: What about on the other side, on the financial aspects?
[00:20:56] Rhonda: Oh, yes. Put extra zeros on your checks. That’s always very welcome. One thing I love, Dean Harrison has really made it a priority to get innovation and entrepreneurship better funded at Haas so that we can have more parity with schools, the same size, and quality of us. She is helming a wonderful fundraising campaign that has many opportunities to get involved at multiple levels. So, I’m sure alums are getting information about that.
[00:21:28] Sean: Yeah, so definitely, at least as a student, one of the challenges from my perspective, may be inaccurate, that I saw was that we have a lot of ideas but there’s a disconnect with the funding side a bit. Wherewith other schools, I feel like the wallets are so deep that you can’t turn a corner without someone throwing some funding at you.
[00:21:52] Rhonda: So, that’s where I want to segue to talk a little bit about I-Corps because that’s the other half of what my wonderful teammate at Adiba and I do. I-Corps is a program from the National Science Foundation. We have been given a grant to train folks with STEM technologies and to help them commercialize. So, we teach a basic course every month. It’s three evenings. We teach the basics of lean startup and we require teams to do 15 customer discovery interviews. That’s a lot but it simulates the velocity of a startup.
[00:22:29] And those are enough data points to start seeing a signal about whether or not somebody cares in a particular segment. So, I think that training has been super important in helping not only Haasies validate their ideas, you know, thumbs up or thumbs down pretty quickly. It offers another opportunity in that if you successfully complete that and you have an academic connection, and I’m happy to talk with people offline about what that means, you can go onto the national program. It’s seven weeks, a hundred interviews and you get a $50,000 grant for your customer discovery. And this is another place where alumni can get involved, both as teams and as mentors for these teams.
[00:23:19] One of my favorite examples is an alum team. It was two Haasies who were moms. They graduated 15 years ago. And they created a company to solve a problem their high school kids were experiencing. They were terrific. They teamed up with two other moms who did the tech part and the industry mentor part.
[00:23:45] They went all the way through nationals and created one of the most memorable videos – it’s hilarious – about their lessons learned, but they are still around. The company is called Epixego. And they did pivots. They learned so much, but it was a really great program for them. So, we would love to have more alumni participation in both our monthly I-CORPS courses and then at the national level as either teams that are going through the program or industry mentors that are volunteering their time for those.
[00:24:20] Sean: That’s amazing. I think that is a perfect segue into a conversation about partnerships, right? You have been really successful, in my opinion, and I think in many people’s opinions, in building partnerships at all these organizations. One of the biggest challenges as an entrepreneur is finding partners. I’m curious to hear if you have any advice on how to build and work with partners.
[00:24:48] Rhonda: I’m thinking about when we do the business model canvas and we get over to that left-hand box key partners. The way we train our students to think about it is that there has to be some skin in the game for both sides. So, both sides have to have some risks. Some, both sides have to have aligned incentives, and then both sides have to be equal in importance to each other. Because you need communication.
[00:25:20] And if you’re a very low priority and your partner is not going to talk to you, that’s very difficult. So, what I’ve tried to do in partnerships with other parts of campus and beyond is to really emphasize what is the benefit to the students, just to keep the students at the heart of it, because they are why we’re doing what we do. There’s all this, we want to make Berkeley number one, great. But it starts with the students and that’s where I try to focus all the efforts.
[00:25:50] Sean: Does that advice apply to finding a business partner, to start a business as well?
[00:25:57] Rhonda: A hundred percent. Yeah. You want to have someone who is obsessed about the problem as you are. Someone who makes up for the skills that you don’t have, those are the best kind of partnerships.
[00:26:11] Sean: Rhonda, anything else that you want to bring up or mention in terms of resources or in terms of fundraising that we should make alumni aware of?
[00:26:22] Rhonda: Ooh, I would just encourage everyone to get on our mailing list. We have a couple of one-off events that we do during the year that is, I think, super enjoyable. And now with everything being online, folks can participate in it. Viewing it remotely versus having to drive all the way to campus.
[00:26:40] We have Hult Prize coming up. A Hult Prize is an organization that sponsors a $1 million prize. But it’s really about the challenges and the training that it gives students and teams along the way. They issue a different challenge every year, which has been a forcing function for a lot of our students to actually start their companies.
[00:27:06] I think back to the first one that we did, we pulled it together literally in five days. And the challenge was, create something that will help improve education in the slums. Dost Education started out of that. That was the very first time she got a team together. She got up on stage. They went on to go to LAUNCH where I think they won second place that year.
[00:27:30] They went to YC and the company is still going on. Another year, the challenge was about refugees. The team that ended up going very far in that turned out to be two teams at our local campus competition that didn’t win, but they had a good synergy. So, they partnered together. This year’s challenge is around food and sustainability. It’s just so exciting to see the sausage being made.
[00:27:56] And I just thought of another opportunity for alums to get involved. We have, thanks to a very generous donor who endowed, an award students can get their $25,000 grants that are issued every year, 10 in the fall and 10 in the spring. It’s called the Berkeley Haas Seed Fund.
[00:28:17] And this was another forcing function for getting students from other schools to work with Haasies because you have to have one Haasie on the team to apply. So, we have a large panel of alumni judges that help us select the winners for these and it only takes an hour or two. You can do it once a year, twice a year, and we really appreciate the help and the students appreciate the feedback.
[00:28:45] Sean: That’s amazing. And I do want to note that the UC LAUNCH Accelerator is, I think, the only one that is equity-free. Really student-focused. It’s quite amazing.
[00:28:57] Rhonda: By students for students. I love being part of LAUNCH. I’m on the faculty of that. The students go out and fundraise every year. That’s another thing that we’re trying to get endowed so that the students can focus on being students and not have to be contacting sponsors all the time. But yeah, the student co-chairs for this year are just amazing because we typically do it once a year. But with COVID they saw an opportunity and stepped up and said, yeah, we’re going to volunteer our time again to do this experiment in the fall. So, we’re now doing it in the fall and the spring.
[00:29:34] Sean: Just creating more opportunities for students.
[00:29:36] Rhonda: Super exciting.
[00:29:38] Sean: Yeah. All right. And everything we can find I noticed on entrepreneurship.berkeley.edu.
[00:29:44] Rhonda: Yeah. Or bayI-CORPS.com. You can find our training schedule and apply as a team and just learn more about some of the teams that have gone through.
[00:29:57] Sean: it’s perfect. Well, this has been a real pleasure, Rhonda. I want to thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.
[00:30:02] Rhonda: Cheers. Thank you so much.
[00:30:08] Sean: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the OneHaas podcast. If you enjoyed our show today, please remember to hit that subscribe or follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate it if you could give us a five-star rating and review. You can also check out more of our content on our website and haaspodcasts.org, hat’s podcasts with an S at the end, where you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out some of our other Berkeley Haas podcasts until next time. Go bears.