Students in the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs program live in the southern Bay Area for seven weeks throughout the quarter. | Orfalea College of Business/Courtesy Photo

Lindsy Mobley
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While the rest of their classmates are continuing their education in San Luis Obispo, a group of Cal Poly students is immersing itself in the “unpredictable” business world as a part of the Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs program.

The pilot program is a cooperative effort between the Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (CIE) and Extended Education, said Jonathan York, Orfalea College of Business professor and founding faculty director of CIE.

“I kind of like to think of it as a boarding school for entrepreneurs. So it’s like Hogwarts for entrepreneurs,” York said.

Vice Provost of International Graduate and Extended Education Brian Tietje compared the program to study abroad where students experience a new culture while still receiving credits.

The 10-week program starts at Cal Poly, where students receive eight credits for two courses. They then travel to Silicon Valley and receive four units for the seven-week entrepreneurship “boot camp” run by Draper University, an organization founded by venture capitalist Tim Draper.

“Silicon Valley is clearly a different culture,” York said. “It’s the epicenter for technology and innovation, particularly around technology in the country.”

York describes the program as an exposure to all things related to innovation, entrepreneurship, technology and venture capital.

“It’s all about finding the inner entrepreneur within yourself,” York said.

In order to get involved, students had to go through an application and interview process in which 17 students were selected. These students vary in both age and major, York said.

“We have been working hard on getting this for about six months or so but we pulled it together pretty quickly at the end,” York said. “So there wasn’t a whole lot of time for students to plan and prepare etc., so we got a group of pioneers there now who sort of figured out how to make it work with their academic plans and stay on course for graduation.”

One of these “pioneers” is business administration sophomore Nick Sinai.

Sinai is currently at Draper University taking part in the program, where he has already noticed significant differences between Silicon Valley and San Luis Obispo. He laughed as he recalled being punished for showing up late to one of the activities.

The program participants picked cards out of a hat to see what the punishment would be. He ended up being blindfolded for the entire day, a clear message not to be tardy in the future.

“We’ve done Hackathon; we’ve done team-building activities; we do public speaking every single day; we have to get up in front of our group and in some way, shape or form speak about our ideas,” Sinai said.

Sinai summed up the program’s ideal goal as being able to pitch to billionaires and meet people who are influencing the world.

“You know, it’s not just business development talks — we’re getting hands-on experience from people from all walks of life,” he said. “We had a person building a nuclear battery, we had someone come talk to us who was a member of both teams that won the 2011 Nobel Prize for physics and his team was responsible for the discovery of the accelerating universe theory and the implication of dark energy.”

York said one of the most important things students will gain during this experience is the networking, he said.

“I mean every day they’re meeting some of the top technology people, some of the top investors, some of the top startup folks who come by Draper U as part of the program. They may not need a resume — a lot of these students are going to start their own businesses, work with startups, so the experience will be something that will serve them well when everybody asks, ‘What have you accomplished?’” York said.

Sinai has already realized the impact these people may have on his life.

“When you’re meeting people that are changing the world, it kind of broadens your mind and gets you in this state of living a 10x lifestyle and having 10x ideas. And 10x is a term that I first heard at Google that basically says take everything you know and scale it up 10x. You know, change the world, don’t improve a product. And it’s kind of cool being immersed in that 24/7,” Sinai said.

Not only are students being exposed to top names, they are also meeting other students from around the world. Sinai said that besides the 17 Cal Poly students, the Draper program includes one other student from America and the rest are from around the world.

Tietje pointed out that Cal Poly works hard to create a campus that has a safe and predictable environment. But that doesn’t always necessarily foster the entrepreneurial startup culture that these students need to experience. So he believes this program is an opportunity to immerse students in an environment that has dynamic elements to it, that are more unpredictable and challenging but still safe, Tietje said.

“I probably average about four or five hours of sleep per night. But I’ve never waken up or gone to bed more energized in my life just because every day here is inspiring,” Sinai said.

At the end of the seven weeks, students will pitch their ideas to a panel of real investors for the actual potential to raise funding and make these ideas a reality.

The panel includes investors from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Draper Associates, among other venture capitalists Tim Draper has in his network, Sinai said.

Some people may even stay in Silicon Valley after the program to bring their ideas to life, Sinai said.

“People are really preparing themselves. It’s one thing to think about it, but when you’re pitching in front of someone with a billion dollars who’s investing their time into you, and you really don’t want to ruin those connections, it’s a lot of pressure,” Sinai said.

Sinai took second place in CIE’s Startup Weekend SLO. He and a few others plan to bring that same idea to the panel at the end of the seven weeks.

“We’re working on something called ‘Clock’d.’ And that’s basically a web and application platform that allows employees to be clocked in and out of work automatically and this creates perfect time records, which decreases employer liability and maximizes business efficiency by the application of time and location data,” Sinai said.

Even though this is only a pilot program, it seems to already be a success. Tietje is hopeful that the program will continue in the future. They don’t have a specific timeline of if and when that might happen, but he hopes that if it’s successful they will be able to set up another opportunity the next academic year, he said.

“The No. 1 thing that the program has done is to help me understand where I have to go to become a better leader and a better team player,” Sinai said. “This has been one of the most frustrating experiences, as far as projects and one of the most rewarding. Recently I’ve kind of learned the value of what it means to dive into something and make it happen. I’ve realized how pivotal those are to being a successful entrepreneur.”

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