Why UCSD will never have its own Mark Zuckerberg

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

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Entrepreneurship is a hot topic for many in our generation…and for a good reason. We live in a generation where some of our biggest cultural idols are people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk. Technology has changed our lives forever, and those who are at the forefront of the movement are nothing short of household names.

So where do all these big shots have their humble beginnings? And where do many of the up-and-coming players in the rapidly changing tech world hail from? Well, many of them were drop outs. But there’s also a high tendency for the “startup type” to at some point have attended a Stanford or Berkeley. And surprisingly, these schools don’t necessarily discourage dropping out — in the contrary, they give their students as many resources as possible to encourage they start their startup and drop out of school. Even other up-and-coming UC’s are putting lots of effort into making entrepreneurship flourish.

And why are they doing this? Especially for a public school, why focus on a few potential dropouts instead of a better program for many other students? The answer (and why entrepreneurship matters for everyone) all boils down to alumni donations. It seems that UCSD nets $700,000 or so a year in direct donations to the Chancellor, most of which is through alumni. But in comparison, Facebook’s first employee gave UCSD $2 million alone. This isn’t an accumulation, by the way. This is a single gift.

Take that in. Your school gets more funds from entrepreneurs than many combined years of donations from ‘standard’ employees. Sounds like a worthwhile investment for everyone.

So where does UCSD fit into the mix… Do they have any resources? Will UCSD help you make your startup?

The short answer is no. I won’t make you go searching.

The better answer is not well, but change can come from the student body. It would be a lie to say there aren’t any programs, and some of them might be right for some people. But for the vast majority of students like myself, I would go as far as to say that the many aspects of the entrepreneurship community are nothing short of toxic. But knowing more about the options available, and making your voice known, we can move towards pushing UCSD in the right direction.

There are a few supposed options you can find by poking your head around campus. All of the options I’m aware of are:


Moxie Center on its closing day, photo credit to UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering.

The Moxie Center was by far the best of all of the options at UCSD. Despite its flaws, it was the only option actually open for all students, with the director, Jay Kunin, always making himself available to help others. It recently closed though, so there’s not much use in explaining spilled milk.

von Liebig, on paper, also sounds like a good option. But in reality, there’s only one process that it excels at — commercialization of existing technologies.

What exactly does this mean? If you are a graduate student in their third year of research under an esteemed professor, and you finally think you’ve found a way for algae to produce better biofuel, you might be able to sell your idea. However, it is normally assumed that researchers are not business people, and they need help not messing up this process. In swoops von Liebig and its subgroups, with legal counseling and MBA-on-demand. Don’t get me wrong, this is valuable. It’s just niche. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there are nearly 25,000 undergraduates, and plenty of graduate students who aren’t doing research. Essentially, this isn’t an option that fits 95% of UCSD affiliates. Keep looking.

StartR and myStartup XX are both part of the Rady School of Management. StartR is only available for Rady students, and myStartup XX (although not officially such) is limited to only teams with female founders. Both of these options are potentially good, but like von Liebig are not designed to serve UCSD.

So you’re just a normal person; where is the new general UCSD option for entrepreneurship now that Moxie is closed? That would be called The Basement, and it couldn’t be any more dysfunctional.

Created earlier in 2015 by Associate Vice Chancellor Armin Afsahi, the project quickly lost direction as Armin announced he would be leaving UCSD only weeks after his ‘baby’ opened up. With this nice resume booster on his portfolio, he made the jump from Associate VC to normal Vice Chancellor at the University of Denver. He also took his second in command from UCSD, Brandon Buzbee, and brought him to Denver too.

But there are other people who can run The Basement, right? You’d think. Part of the problem is that they didn’t allocate any of the funds for The Basement to pay someone to run the program. In theory, this saves more money for helping student entrepreneurs; in practice, no one knows how to handle the money, so none of it is going to the student teams.

Nonetheless, The Basement still seems to operate, largely by the efforts of existing staff member Gloria Negrete. But instead of helping students, they treat them like tools.

Aside from AWS credit you could easily request without affiliation with The Basement, the only service being offered to teams who join The Basement are networking events. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Possibly even helpful.

Only on surface level.

Like I mentioned before, the draw for schools to invest in entrepreneurship is increased alumni donations. For example, the huge grants given to UCSD already by alumni leading LionTree and Upfront Ventures.

So how do you make the alumni feel loved enough to give more money? You force students to listen to them talk.

As part of the vague contract with The Basement (which leaves total ambiguity for the school to steal your intellectual property,) it is explicitly stated that students must go to multiple events a quarter, enroll in 12 units of courses, and attend job fairs. So students, afraid of what they might lose, go to these events.

“What a turnout! I’m amazed so many students showed up to hear me talk!”

I have heard many alumni express amazement and joy at how many students show up. Their excitement is met with smiles from The Basement staff, letting them know how everyone was just so excited to learn from their infinite wisdom, and was dying to come.

Cha-ching. Another deal closed.

When anything goes awry from this plan, students are met with a surprising form of opposition. Such as what I was told:

“When alumni come, you have to understand, they want to hear positive things. Next time, only tell them positive things!”

“Are you asking me to lie?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s a lie. You have to understand, the alumni want to hear positive things!”

The result of this culture is apparent. All Moxie teams were allowed to automatically enter The Basement when Moxie dissolved — few wanted to take the offer. Teams in The Basement are eagerly looking for mentors, and not finding any so their ventures are quickly failing. Many of the alumni who were told every team would get a mentor are realizing this was a lie as current students talk to them, and are becoming disillusioned with the university as well.

It takes a lot of faith to invest in the university, especially at the price tag of $1 million or more. I have to wonder how many top dollar donors will never give another penny when they realize how their donations go to waste.

Hopefully the landscape is changing. The Chancellor recently created a new branch of management at UCSD, the Office of Innovation and Commercialization, or OIC for short. Having been around for only a few months or so, there seems to be no particular change to the student entrepreneurial landscape from this new office.

Yet even then, the change can’t necessarily flow directly from the university. In an interview with Paul Roben, the newly appointed head of OIC, he expressed concern that “even 20” entrepreneurially-minded students could be found. And when that’s the case, it can hard for even administration to justify change.

In the end, if the students want something, they need to rally for it. Only time will tell if the student body is ready to demand change, or if they are content with the status quo.

Photo Credit: Oscar Espiritusanto Nicolás via photopin (license)

0 Replies to “Why UCSD will never have its own Mark Zuckerberg”

  1. Delara says:

    Hi Ryan,
    I agree that none of the resources currently available at UCSD are directly pushing students to become entrepreneurs, and instead they support students who already are to some extent in progress with their ventures. However, I’d like to bring my point of view as a UCSD/Moxie/VonLiebig alumn, and current Stanford student (Stanford being one of the hubs of student entrepreneurship) and objectively say that UCSD has had a really great start to building an entrepreneurial atmosphere. I’d go so far to say that I could see it being on-par with the resources I’ve found at Stanford. Part of being an entrepreneur involves getting out there and starting something yourself without being pushed to do so (essentially before running to an incubator and asking for help).
    Student entrepreneurship can be encouraged by the school, but students need to take that first step, find a team, and start building something before they can be nurtured by university-sponsored programs. And in fact, UCSD does offer courses like MAE 154, which leads students through the product design and entrepreneurship process (alumni include Hush Technology, who were recently recognized on Forbe’s 30 under 30 in consumer tech). UCSD also offers ENG 100b, which is a class that teaches engineering leadership and features weekly brainstorming of problem areas and potential solutions which can be spun off as ventures. Furthermore, programs like the Gordon Center for Engineering Leadership exist, which requires a capstone ‘Challenge Project’ and encourages students to get out there and start building incredible things. To go even further, there are plenty of pitch competitions that come to UCSD and the San Diego area (RECESS, Social Innovation Challenge, E-Challenge, etc) which give student entrepreneurs opportunities for early-stage funding and support.
    UCSD offers plenty of opportunities for students to get involved with entrepreneurship, but it seems that the student body is not fully taking advantage of them. I find it unfortunate that most of your article has focused on the weaknesses of the programs available rather than their strengths. I agree that the programs available are by no means perfect, especially because these programs really have only been around for <5 years, but this is why it is incredibly imperative that the student voice needs to be heard.
    I wonder whether you have specific rallying advice to UCSD students. I think your concerns need to spark a dialogue among the students passionate about improving the entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus, rather than be archived in what I frankly saw as a rant without a well-formulated solution (sorry). I was also curious as to whether you had a specific source to your quotes: “When alumni come, you have to understand, they want to hear positive things. Next time, only tell them positive things!” / “Are you asking me to lie?” / “I wouldn’t say it’s a lie. You have to understand, the alumni want to hear positive things!”. I agree that unwarranted praise is not a productive way to improve a program or an ethical way to encourage donations, but I question whether it is appropriate to include quotes like this without a reference or context.
    I'd like to respond to a handful of other points in your article, but I am a student-entrepreneur, and I'm busy finding the resources I need to succeed with or without my university holding my hand.
    I would love to talk more, because I do believe that UCSD's programs can be improved. However, I strongly disagree with your approach in bashing what currently exists rather than suggesting ways to improve, working toward making improvements happen, and highlighting what has worked thus far.
    Delara Fadavi

  2. brandonio21 says:

    Thank you for writing this article. It is interesting to hear your thoughts about the state of UCSD Entrepreneurial support. However, I really want to take a moment to talk about your arguments.
    The article is entitled “Why UCSD will never have its own Mark Zuckerburg.” Ignoring the obvious click-bait, the title does not seem to reflect your general argument at all. You are seemingly disappointed that UCSD cannot produce “business prodigies” and you argue that it is primarily due to the lack of resources available for students. With this, you’ve made an implicit connection between Mark Zuckerburg et al and the resources that their university provided to them. Yet, you seem to lack any evidence that their success was due to these resources. In fact, it is well known that Mark Zuckerburg independently developed Facebook without the aid of University resources. A similar statement can be made about your other examples.
    Further, your only evidence as to why these “prodigies” are advantageous is a “prodigy” himself. You state that the sum of alumni donations is dwarfed when juxtaposed to a single donation from “Facebook’s first employee.” This person also happens to be a UCSD alumnus. Isn’t it true, therefore, that UCSD is indeed producing high-caliber, ambitious businesspersons?
    You then close your argument with the statement, “In the end, if the students want something, they need to rally for it.” Out of the blue, you are urging students to rally for “change”, presumably regarding UCSDs entrepreneurial support facilities, so that UCSD may produce a single “prodigy” who becomes a household name. I do not see how this article could inspire any such change.
    Although I am sure that UCSD could be improved, this piece is not taking the right approach. As Delara mentioned, there is no clear solution suggested and the mere existence of this rant seems to suggest that the general negativity of the UCSD student-body may be the real problem.

  3. Ryan,
    This post is disappointing. So disappointing and so juvenile that it’s hard for me to write about it without regressing decades into adolescence. So I’ll just enumerate with curtailed commentary the problems with your article.
    1) Profoundly naive to suggest that entrepreneurship fundamentally depends upon pageantry and startup clubs.
    2) Excessive drama (“how many donors will never give another penny ….”). Stop it.
    3) The two million dollar donation was to support computer science education, not your app to make Facebook for dogs.
    4) You lament that one organization only supports commercialization of existing technology…
    Do you think you’re inventing fundamentally new technology after 48 hrs with a pizza and a Coke 2 ltr in your mom’s basement?
    5) In exchange for funding, you had to listen to some boring talks… I’m sure no one has to listen to boring talks from donors at Stanford.
    Now to be fair, it sounds like you’re upset that some on campus organizations that you loved either closed or lost momentum. Rather than write a whiny rant and poster it all over social media, why not instead take some time organize coherent arguments and solutions? Take some time to read your own writing and think about whether your arguments make sense, determine whether you’re contributing anything useful or just crapping all over other people who are trying.
    The tone of this article is so virulent as to be contagious. I feel dirty for responding in kind. But @disqus_usli9R8SU6:disqus and @brandonio21:disqus have responded so eloquently below that perhaps someone needed offer a firm hand.
    TLDR: Stop whining, write better, get off your butt and build something.