An introduction to startup culture at UC Berkeley

Illustration of a person walking through Sather Gate, holding a briefcase and with a lightbulb over their head
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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Access to entrepreneurship culture is one of the most unique aspects of being a UC Berkeley student. Given our expansive alumni network of founders and CEOs, as well as our proximity to many Bay Area tech headquarters, UC Berkeley is the best school to be at if you want to build a successful startup.

Having lived in the heart of Silicon Valley my entire life, I’ve always known that I wanted to start my own startup. UC Berkeley’s reputation for its students having founded more companies than any other university in the world is one of the main factors that influenced my decision to attend.

Over the past two years, I’ve been involved in a myriad of entrepreneurship programs affiliated with campus. I’ve particularly enjoyed the A. Richard Newton Lecture Series which features talks from many successful campus alumni and former students such as Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google; Marla Beck, co-founder of Bluemercury; and Prakash Janakiraman, co-founder of Nextdoor. I’ve also taken a few project-based classes through the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship & Technology, the main entrepreneurial and innovation center on campus. Last semester, as a part of an entrepreneurship class, my team worked with Ecover, a household cleaning products company; our task entailed figuring out how best to market Ecover’s reusable products to environmentally conscious Gen Z and millennial consumers. Our class came up with a product box subscription service for soaps and detergents, and I liked that I could combine my passions for marketing and customer discovery to help a global company with a pressing marketing task. In an entrepreneurship class I’m currently taking, I’m working with a team to use augmented reality and virtual reality technology to create an ecommerce virtual fit product that can help decrease pollution and fast fashion waste. I’ve also taken a few design classes through the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation and have had a chance to apply design theory and methods to an artificial intelligence project my team is working on to make speech and voice recognition more inclusive and equitable for people of color. I would recommend that every founder take a design class because design is an invaluable skill in ensuring that you are creating a product in a way that is user-friendly and efficient for your target user. 

The Berkeley SkyDeck is campus’s leading startup accelerator. I had the opportunity to take the SkyDeck DeCal, a shortened version of the incubator experience in which I discovered the fundamentals of building a startup, learned about user experience and user interface design and heard industry experiences from venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. At the end of the DeCal, the class had a demo day. My team’s food-tech startup was selected as the winner, so our project received auto-selection for the SkyDeck HotDesk incubator program, where we will work on launching and scaling our product. Incubators are a fantastic way to grow your startup and accelerate product development because these programs often give you access to industry experts and mentors who can guide you and provide advice on pitch decks, mockups and screen designs. Working on a startup is ultimately difficult and the process can be daunting so it is important to surround yourself with other young entrepreneurs who are going through the same process.

One of the hardest parts about startup culture at UC Berkeley is finding the right people to start working with. While many formal entrepreneurship classes on campus provide a curriculum and guide you through a project, it is up to you and your team to decide if you want to take the project further after the class finishes. This requires dedication, organization and accountability of all members to put in time and effort if the project is something that is no longer required for a grade. Moreover, when you are at the point where you are ready to seriously pursue a project, you will want to create a team of people who have different and complementary skills. This is one reason why I recommend actively taking classes in different departments, joining clubs and meeting people in other colleges. As a nontechnical person, I have been able to form a technical team through Convergent at Berkeley, an interdisciplinary entrepreneurship club. Over the last year, our team has pivoted from a few ideas and have settled on a financial technology productivity product. We are now entering pitch competitions, applying for seed funding and networking with alumni founders to receive advice and mentorship as we launch and acquire paid customers. 

Ultimately, campus entrepreneurship and startup culture is what you make of it. If you simply want to dip your toes in, take classes at the Sutardja Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. If you are willing to put the time and dedication into launching a product and receiving venture capital funding, apply for an incubator and learn how to network with industry experts in Silicon Valley who can introduce you to the right people. Startup culture at UC Berkeley can be fast-paced and competitive at times, but you also have more resources and a more successful alumni founder network than any other school.

Contact Amrita Bhasin at [email protected].