The trip of a lifetime

I started writing this post a few months back while sitting in LAX waiting for my good ole AirNZ 747 to arrive and reflecting upon the past month I had spent having a second summer in California. More specifically I had undertaken a summer school program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

The program, The Summer Institute of Entrepreneurship brings together 75 Masters, PhD students and post doctoral scientists who get put through a business boot camp. Despite the class consisting of 80% Stanford based students, class diversity was still maintained with a mixture of educational backgrounds, cultures and languages (there were 13+).

Over the four weeks of the course we were exposed to a series of lectures, workshops, team activities and projects. The class component utilised the GSB’s characteristic MBA style methods taught by professors poached from their MBA program who were able to convey complex and new (to us) ideas in a compelling manner. The takeaway from these series of lecturers was ultimately a new defined perspective, skill set and intuition when it comes to business – an ability to think more critically, more strategically.

While I had a lot of experiential and ‘street style’ teachings from back home, the course provided in depth general business skills including frameworks around pre-learned concepts such as market research and business strategy. Classes encouraged active participation and student discussions based around the case study method were a frequent occurrence. This typically involved long days and nights reading up material for the next day’s lessons – the success of the class dependent on this. Topics that were covered included marketing (research, communication, strategy), finance, accounting, strategy, alignment and growth, social enterprise, operations (supply chain, services), economics (pricing, demand and supply, game theory), financing ventures, evaluating business opportunities and constructing venture teams.

We also got exposed to the local VC community ( particularly Sequoia Capital and Doll Capital Management) and seasoned entrepreneurs such as Tim Westergren founder of PandoraWill Harvey of IMVU and Jagdeep Singh of Infinera.

A core component of the course was the team project where we had to prepare a business plan in the form of a 25 minute presentation to pitch to a panel of venture capitalists. The ideas behind these businesses were submitted and selected before the commencement of the course by class participants. The project formed a pivotal part of the SIE experience; Talking to industry experts to gain advice and direction, talking to regulatory authorities and potential suppliers, talking to investors and strategic partners – actually getting to work on a business which could be launched at the program’s conclusion.

All of the above was integrated with professional development courses particularly focusing on presentation skills and teamwork. Surprisingly these courses provided a unique and realistic skill base that was rapidly absorbed and utilised by all in the group.

There was also the social aspect of the course which included networking functions with classmates and staff, McKinsey recruiters and SIE alumni, bowling and softball nights. I also utilised this opportunity to catch up with two UoA Alumni/ Fulbright Scholars (Platinum Triangle Scholarship in Entrepreneurship), Priv Bradoo and Alex Dunayev, in addition to the San Francisco based UoA Alumni function.

Overall this experience was no doubt life changing. The fact that you are at one of the world’s top universities [and business schools], with its resources at your disposal, while being embedded in arguably the world’s hottest tech start up area is a very overwhelming thought. By the end of my time in the valley I notice myself talking in lbs, miles and farenheit as apposed to kgs, kms and celsius. One could really get use to this bay area lifestyle quite easily with great weather [we only saw rain once] and great people [misconceptions of working and socialising with Americans were unfounded] who are all passionate about ‘creating meaning’ in one way or another.

I deeply thank the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology for enabling this opportunity.

Some interesting take away points

  • The same idea which would not fly in NZ due to our small domestic market would make you into a multi-millionaire in California. Anything is possible. Moreover a technology that, in NZ, you would naturally look to license out would in the US be one you would take through to a final product and sell yourself, within a new tech company.
  • You can get access to highly influential people or industry leaders very quickly. Part of this is due to the Stanford banding that each student carries. Even if people don’t stand to benefit by helping you they see it as a wise investment or are simply just willing to help.
  • Strangely enough lawyers have a very prominent role in the valley. They have a wealth of knowledge with deep professional networks e.g. gatekeepers to investors. More so their is a widespread understanding that they waive their fees while your in a start up state.
  • The words recession or economic downturn were not once spoken.
  • At Stanford a business culture is highly integrated into engineering, IT and medicine departments/courses (check out STVP).
  • Researchers are encouraged to follow through their ideas into a commercial venture.
  • Design, sustainability and business are very much connected. Strong focus on social enterprise.
  • The investment industry is very well integrated into the university.
  • Medical students are encouraged to seek other career paths e.g. medical technologies. And there is good utilization of hospitals for both research and business opportunities.





Stanford GSB on the left.




Logan Wait, Prof. Peter Reiss (Economics), Prof. Garth Saloner (Dean of GSB), myself


Over at the Stanford medical school.


Logan at AT&T Park watching the San Fran Giants take on Houston.


Myself, Professor Stuart McCutcheon (Vice Chancellor, UoA), Logan Wait, Kate Thodey.


And the pitching begins


The US$350 million new business school to be completed in 2011. US$105 million coming from the founder of Nike, Phillip Knight. Hence the name Knight Management Centre.


Graeme @

3 responses to “The trip of a lifetime

  1. Wow wot an exciting experience G!
    Just a quick question with the team project you were involved with- what kind of ideas materialised as business plans?, and would you be kind enough to compare the feedback you received there, in comparison to the kind of feedback we get here in NZ?

    • Hey
      They varied quite a bit in terms of both stage of development and industry.
      From patented medical devices, social enterprises ( e.g. a machine to help villages mix vitamins into their bread) to iphone applications and online fashion rental services.
      And you mean the feedback given to us following our pitch?

  2. Interesting.

    Yes I meant after the pitch. Which project were you involved with, and what were the highlights from the feedback post-pitching you recieved, which was different from similar presentations you might have had in NZ? ( I think you covered some of this in the bullet points you listed)

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