Big Play in the Bay: UVA Darden Blazes New Paths in San Francisco Bay Area

By Jay Hodgkins

Matt Kaness (MBA ’02), then CEO of ModCloth*, sat in the company’s headquarters on the edge of San Francisco’s Financial District on a bright August day and remembered when he graduated from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, back when you could count the number of new Darden graduates taking jobs in the Bay Area on one hand.

Not anymore. More than 25 graduates from Darden’s Class of 2017 landed in the Bay Area this year. The total number of Darden alumni in the region now reaches almost 700, making it one of the largest nodes in the School’s global network.

Consulting firms like McKinsey & Co., ZS Associates and Accenture have long been popular landing spots among new graduates moving to the area, but the list of employers for recent classes has an increasingly tech-heavy flavor — Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Walmart eCommerce and more.

The tech lean is even more discernable in Class of 2018 summer internships. Of the 20-plus Second Years who took internships in the area, five landed at Walmart eCommerce, which has a growing recruiting presence at Darden thanks in large part to Arnie Katz (MBA ’09), vice president of international e-commerce at Walmart. Twitter, Airbnb, Google, Intel and early stage tech startups ZeeMee and VSCO also hired Darden interns last summer.

As the CEO of a startup online clothing retailer that was recently acquired by Walmart, Kaness understands why Darden’s network is starting to flourish in the Bay Area.

“It’s clear that there’s an eagerness for the School to participate out here,” Kaness said. “A lot of what you learn on Grounds, whether it’s through the case method or learning teams or opportunities like the i.Lab Incubator, it’s what the day-to-day is here for everybody. There’s a ton of people out here hustling.”

Co-creating New Career Paths

More and more Darden students want opportunities in the booming tech sector and with fast-growing startups, where they feel they can make an outsized impact early in their careers. Many of the best opportunities in those fields are in the Bay Area, where culture and climate combine with an entrepreneurial dynamism that is undeniably alluring for Darden MBAs.

Sitting outside on a cool, sunny August day at a coffee house in San Bruno, Jan Nilsonglod (Class of 2018) and Paige Hurlbut (Class of 2018) rave about the local weather, food and opportunities to explore the great outdoors. They were among the five Darden interns at Walmart eCommerce — four full-time MBA students and one Executive MBA student out of 25 total summer interns for the Walmart subsidiary. They also raved about how much their internship experiences exceeded expectations.

“I worked in online grocery in the customer development group, and my project was on online ordering express formats. I was given a conceptual idea they wanted to implement, and they said, ‘You go figure it out,’” said Hurlbut, who worked on the online grocery team with Dolly Hoskins (Class of 2018). “I felt like I got to be a business owner. The autonomy and responsibility given to an intern was amazing. I got a feeling for what working here would be like.”

Hurlbut said Walmart eCommerce rolled out the interns’ solution in the first location on the last week of her internship. “Walmart has 2.2 million employees, and I’m just one intern. To get the opportunity to do this and make a difference, I now have a better sense of what I can do.”

Nilsonglod, who is from Thailand, valued the supportive culture. “Since I had never worked in the U.S., I didn’t know what to expect in the work culture here. I was nervous that I wouldn’t fit in, but people at Walmart are very helpful and want you to succeed. They collaborate to meet an objective and they take the time to help each other. I really like the culture here.”

Bre Fife (Class of 2018) blazed a new trail for Darden by landing an internship at Airbnb, where she worked much of the summer with a product management team focused on customer retention. Fife worked with external vendors such as credit card companies to get the outside data Airbnb needed to develop an effective “share of wallet” metric, which the Second Year described as an emerging new metric in the business world. “Share of wallet” might, for example, measure what percentage of a customer’s total spending on travel a company is earning.

Whitney Hagan (Class of 2018) meets with Technology Venture Fellows sponsor John Glynn at the office of Glynn Capital Management in Menlo Park.

Fife was initially brought on as an intern to work on a customer referral project, and she also ended up working with the Airbnb finance team before the summer was over. It wasn’t exactly what she planned, but Fife said the speed with which the tech industry moves made for a rapidly evolving experience. The ability to deal with change is imperative.

Rapid change was a clear theme for Whitney Hagan (Class of 2018) and Van Hatchell (Class of 2018). They spent the summer working for early stage startups on opposite sides of the Bay — Hagan at VSCO in Oakland and Hatchell at ZeeMee in Redwood City — thanks to placements through the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation’s new Technology Venture Fellows (TVF) program.

During Hatchell’s internship, ZeeMee put out a major update of its free app that allows students to build profiles shared with college admissions teams, and they gathered immediate feedback by visiting a local high school where many students saw it in action for the first time. It was part of ZeeMee’s strategy for aggressively iterating its service.

“We learn about rapid prototyping at Darden,” Hatchell said, “but to see it here, and see the founders staying mission-based and focused on preserving strengths when getting feedback, is incredible.”

The TVF program created a unique new path for Darden students to land hard-to-get MBA internships with tech startups, thanks to the role venture capitalist program sponsors play placing the interns with their portfolio companies. Early returns indicate the program was as valuable for the startups as the students.

Van Hatchell (Class of 2018) sits with ZeeMee Founder Juan Jaysingh at ZeeMee headquarters in Redwood City.

“We weren’t sure about taking an MBA intern at first,” said ZeeMee Co-founder Juan Jaysingh. “We didn’t know what we’d need Van to do because things change, but he jumped right in and made it work. It all depended on the person who showed up, and he was a great fit.”

The TVF program exemplifies Darden’s strategy to build new pathways to exciting career opportunities in the Bay Area.

Darden’s annual Tech Treks to the Bay Area show students the career possibilities in the region. And increased efforts to bring recruiters from West Coast-based tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and others to Grounds to recruit has paid dividends with growing pipelines that are now yielding annual, multiple hires for those companies.

The effort is paying off. For three years in a row, more than 15 percent of new Darden graduates have landed in tech, many in and around San Francisco.

In order to increase its focus on those high-demand jobs, Darden’s Career Development Center is also hiring a new senior director of technology, entrepreneur, digital and consumer careers with a focus on high tech, tech-focused business areas such as fintech and biotech, entrepreneurial startups, digital marketing, and consumer-related industries.

Darden is also helping students develop the skills that tech companies covet. Professor Casey Lichtendahl launched his “Data Science in Business” course two years ago, teaching students how to use programs like Python and R that are central currencies in tech positions. Professor Raj Venkatesan’s marketing analytics course is essential to help students understand how data is put to effective use. Other courses in areas like project management, Agile, design thinking and effectuation, among others, give Darden students a leg up in a culture that prizes innovation and problem-solving.

Perhaps the biggest commitment yet: Darden partnered with the UVA Data Science Institute to launch a new MBA/Master of Science in Data Science dual degree this year. In its first year, seven students enrolled in the dual-degree program, and Darden expects enrollment to dramatically ramp up next year.

Carving a Strategy With a Scalpel

In an area where B-school competition is intense, Darden’s strategy for growing the School’s footprint in the area is not to try and be everything for everyone. Darden has no current plans for a brick-and-mortar presence where Stanford, Haas, Babson, Wharton and others have a physical campus.

Instead, as the old saying goes, Darden is using a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. It’s using a targeted approach to make an impact in the Bay Area where the School’s strengths align with the region’s greatest needs — areas of specialization like entrepreneurship and innovation, data science, and venture capital and private equity.

Take, for instance, the Batten Institute, which recently named Robyn Swift its first director of West Coast initiatives, based in San Francisco.

“The Batten Institute understands our relationship with the entrepreneurial hub of the world is paramount,” Swift said. “If we can create a superhighway for students between Darden and Silicon Valley, we will deliver on our promise of a world-class student experience while simultaneously engaging Bay Area alumni and expanding Darden’s brand presence.”

Swift has supported a growing drumbeat of Darden activity in the Bay area since she arrived as a development officer in 2014. The School’s presence around the Bay now includes:

  • Annual Tech Treks for MBA students interested in working in the area
  • Two elective courses taught in San Francisco – “Marketing Technology Products” taught by Professor Raj Venkatesan and “Applied Digital Innovation” with Alex Cowan
  • One-week Global Executive MBA residencies exploring San Francisco and Silicon Valley for the classes of 2016 and 2017
  • Batten Institute partnerships with venture capital firms Glynn Capital Management and BlueRun Ventures, which sponsor Technology Venture Fellows
  • Regular alumni networking and social events, such as Admissions/Alumni receptions and Cases and Cocktails events

There are plans for much more, Swift says.

“The advice I’ve received from alumni is: ‘Make small bets and see what clicks. If we fail, fail fast and move on. Try events, pick topics, try things in different places,’” Swift said. “To execute our strategy, we couldn’t expect our alumni to come to us. We had to bring Darden to the Bay.”

Bay Area Pioneers See Real Change

"It’s like folks here are making the first generation of airplanes in the time of locomotives. There is no bad experience here — big company, startup, capital side, operating side. Whatever it is, the Bay Area is creating the future. It’s incredible to be around. I’ve never seen anything like it."
Matt Kaness (MBA '02)

Darden alumni who have been around San Francisco and Silicon Valley for years like to refer to themselves as pioneers. Certainly, they had to build their own networks and forge their own paths in those earlier days.

But, today, their success is reaping real dividends for the new generation of business leaders who are leaving Darden with their eyes pointed west.

“I’ve been here for 20 years, and it was like the pioneer spirit,” said Ted Hollifield (MBA ’97), who holds three UVA degrees and is co-head of the venture and M&A practice at Alston & Bird, located in the Palo Alto office. “Over the past several years, there’s been more organization. A collective momentum building on individual success.”

Hollifield pointed to other successful pioneers like Cathy Friedman (MBA ’86), a board member at Yahoo who was previously head of West Coast health care at Morgan Stanley. And Jonathan Ebinger of BlueRun Ventures, Jackie Glynn of Glynn Capital Management and Sean Foote of Co=Creation=Capital — all members of the Class of 1993 — forged a strong Darden connection in the Silicon Valley venture capital space.

The reputation early Darden pioneers created for the School has paid off in spades. Hollifield jokes that his business contacts never fail to mention how easy “Darden people” are to work with.

That is good news, considering teamwork and collaboration are two of the most desired traits for companies in a hyper-competitive, innovative business hub that The Economist in 2015 called the new capital of American capitalism.

“It’s like folks here are making the first generation of airplanes in the time of locomotives,” said Kaness. “There is no bad experience here — big company, startup, capital side, operating side. Whatever it is, the Bay Area is creating the future. It’s incredible to be around. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Darden students are drawn to that creative energy like a magnet. The Darden School will be there to help them pursue their calling.

* Editor’s note: Matt Kaness was named vice president and executive-in-residence at Walmart eCommerce in October 2017. Walmart is the parent company of ModCloth and Walmart eCommerce.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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