Editor’s note: This is a guest column written by Jacob Harmon, a student in the Kelley Direct Online MBA Program and a global portfolio manager at 3M.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business offers Kelley Direct, the premier online MBA program for professionals striving for an MBA while continuing their careers.
The Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation Major, which students can pursue within IU’s Full-Time MBA curriculum, offers many unique opportunities. Most will agree that the one opportunity that tops them all is the capstone course in the program, The Silicon Valley Venture Challenge.
The Silicon Venture Challenge course was designed by Donald F. Kuratko – known to many as “Dr. K” — with the goal of challenging students beyond the textbook and into a highly competitive, innovative, and entrepreneurial setting.
Kuratko, an award-winning professor, is the Jack M. Gill Chair of Entrepreneurship, professor of entrepreneurship and executive and academic director at the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
Kuratko has pioneered Kelley’s world-renowned MBA and entrepreneurial education programs. He firmly believes that without real opportunities to practice, students will never fully learn about, or develop the skill sets required to succeed in entrepreneurship. This is why he created the Silicon Valley Challenge Course, also referred to informally as “The Ultimate Spine Sweat Experience,” to put students to the true test.
A warm welcome to Silicon Valley
Throughout the semester, students conduct market, customer and business model research on a venture idea. They build a robust business plan and create a formal pitch deck for their concept. The business plan and pitch decks are critiqued on all the fundamental elements that any entrepreneurial startup would be expected to include in their investor-facing documents.
While many courses would end at this point and assign grades based on the research, the paper and presentation, the Silicon Valley Challenge pushes students to the next level. The final assignment for the course is to travel to Silicon Valley and pitch the business plan in front of a panel of venture capitalists, angel investors and board members from the Johnson Center’s West Coast board of directors.
Upon arriving in Silicon Valley, students are welcomed to Plug and Play for a guided tour and business model overview. Plug and Play is a corporate innovation powerhouse with more than 500 corporate partners and more than 50,000 startups. Their mission is: “To drive innovation by connecting entrepreneurs, corporations and investors worldwide.”
Beyond helping connect corporations and entrepreneurs, Plug and Play also has a world-class ecosystem of venture capitalists, governments and universities. Indiana University is proudly within Plug and Play’s university ecosystem and is among an elite company of other premier B-schools within the network.
Making the pitch to venture capitalists
After immersing in the Plug and Play ecosystem, students in the Silicon Venture Challenge course are sent to a large glass-walled conference room to prepare one last time for their final assignment. Meanwhile, Kuratko and the board member group of 16 venture capitalists settle into separate conference rooms where the students will soon be pitching. Each conference room has four venture capitalists of varying investment strategies and business backgrounds. They will be the ultimate decision-makers behind whether students pass or fail the final capstone course.
Students were assigned to pitch rooms and one by one head over to deliver their pitches to a group of four venture capitalists. The VCs read the business plans, listen to the pitches, ask questions and decide the fate of each student’s final grade. In some cases, the VCs are also deciding if they will be investing in the student entrepreneur and their startup idea.
Each student is on their own for this final presentation, as they are the sole owner of their business plan, their pitch, and their outcomes.
The venture capitalists are responsible for determining whether each student will pass or fail. They ask questions, provide feedback and decide if the financing and business plans are strong enough to gain interest from investors. Each pitch meeting is 60 minutes in length and students are expected to cover their entire pitch in 15 minutes to enable 45 minutes of discussion time.
The format puts students in the hot seat, and the judges have control of the thermostats — hence the “Spine Sweat” nickname mentioned earlier.
Students deliver their pitches and proceed to answer all questions that the venture capitalists ask about their business plans. Following the hour-long pitch meetings, students leave, and their projects are graded based on their performance.
Waiting for results follows a ‘Spine Sweat’ experience
After the pitch meetings conclude, there is a waiting period. This is when Kuratko and the VCs meet to review the holistic feedback for each student. Meanwhile, the student wait anxiously to learn their fates. Some students are feeling confident, while others are sweating, remembering Dr. K’s cautionary tales of students who previously failed this same capstone course and not received credit to graduate as planned.
Grades will officially come out the following week. The venture capitalists provide detailed feedback and suggestions for students who plan to continue pursuing their business plan after graduation. For those who pass, there is an overwhelming sense of joy, as the past 28 months of enduring their top-ranked MBA program is reaching the final milestone.
Kurako proceeds with announcing who passed and those who did not. After receiving this long awaited feedback, students and the the 16 board member investors head out to Plug and Play’s rooftop patio area for hors d’oeuvres and celebratory beverages. This is a chance for the students and board members to connect and get to know each other further.
As one would imagine, these VC board members have impressive backgrounds. Beyond providing helpful feedback, they also help create opportunities for students to become better connected within the Silicon Valley venture network and beyond. After the rooftop networking concludes, the entire group heads to the final dinner ceremony.
Bringing students into the world’s top venture ecosystem
As most of the students — the ones who pass — can finally relax, they head to dinner with Dr. K and the group of VC board members. The dinner is one final chance for students and board members to network and determine if there will be any follow-up investment meetings for their business ideas. The dinner also enables the board members to provide students with additional perspectives, ideas, and contacts that help strengthen their paths forward.
The Silicon Valley Venture Challenge course is a world class experience, bringing MBA students into the world’s top venture ecosystem, putting them onto a pitch stage in front of investors, and connecting them with highly respected business leaders. It is a shining example of the quality of education and opportunities at the Kelley School of Business. While it is a “Spine Sweat” experience, it becomes authentically clear that the true goal of the Silicon Valley Venture Challenges is to elevate every participant to the next level in their professional journey, and that goal can only be achieved through experiencing it.
Kuratko reports: “We had seven Kelley Direct students stake their graduations on the challenge this year and last Friday (Nov. 4) we were in Silicon Valley for the presentations. After a grueling day, they all successfully passed.”