WeFinance: Funding for the Student Crowd

It’s a common student dilemma: you’ve got a full-time offer post-graduation, but you still have several more months to finish your degree. And you’re facing the up-front costs of relocating—before your first paycheck or signing bonus hits your account.

What do you do? Often, your only option is to pile more credit card debt on top of your student loans, and bite the bullet on the high fees.

WeFinance_WillyChuEnter WeFinance, a crowdfunding startup co-founded by Willy Chu, MBA 15, that launched last week. Though crowdfunding is becoming a crowded space, Chu acknowledges, WeFinance is the first platform focused on truly peer-to-peer loans.

“Many students are paying seven to 8 percent on their student loans—even higher if you’re international—and they have living and moving expenses,” Chu says. “They’re low-risk borrowers but their credit scores don’t reflect that, and they can’t refinance until they have more credit history. Meanwhile, a peer lender in these students’ network could earn four percent or more on their extra savings.”

Built-in Assets

WeFinance launched with two critical resources. First, it has a software platform built by co-founder and CEO Eric Mayefsky, a Stanford econ PhD grad and ex-Facebook product manager who spearheaded the concept. This platform fully automates disbursements and repayments between borrowers and lenders, allowing both parties to rest easy that payments are made on time. Second, WeFinance has been tested by Chu’s network of fellow Haasies, a dozen of whom have signed on as guinea pigs seeking funding.

“My classmates have been incredibly supportive, willing to try out the product,” he said. “Faculty members have provided core guidance.”

Ton Chookhare, MBA 14, used the platform to refinance some of his higher-interest student loans, raising $5,000 in just a few weeks and lowering his interest rate from 8 percent to 4 percent. He already had accepted an offer with Kaiser Permanente, and was working on a side project involving custom suits made in his hometown of Bangkok, Thailand. “I think many people will be surprised at how willing people in their network are to offer financial support, especially when they’re getting much better returns while supporting someone they know and trust,” he says.

Entrepreneurial Evolution

Chu says when he came to Berkeley-Haas, he thought he might end up working for a startup—but had no intention of launching his own. His thinking evolved while taking Entrepreneurship with Prof. Toby Stuart and Lecturer Rob Chandra. His new path began last summer when a Stanford MBA friend saw an email from Mayefsky seeking help with the venture. After a few months of working well together, Chu—who previously worked at Credit Karma and Kiva—became a co-founder. He’s focusing on marketing, partnerships, and growth while Mayefsky develops the technological infrastructure.

“I’ve benefitted from starting this in my second year, after I had a strong base, and I’ve been able to piggyback on my coursework and lessons learned from my peers who launched businesses last year,” he says. “In particular, New Venture Finance with Asst. Prof. Adair Morse has been useful.”

Chu’s goal is to expand WeFinance to 40 schools within a year, beginning with Stanford, Harvard, and Wharton. In addition to MBAs, the company will focus on law and other top master’s and undergrad program students.

Read more about WeFinance in TechCrunch.

Students shift gears for Specialized at Innovation Challenge

A streamlined store experience that makes shopping for bikes less intimidating, and a chain of Specialized indoor cycling studios to get people comfortable with riding outdoors were two of the stand-out ideas at the DISC Innovation Challenge last weekend.
The annual event this year featured a business challenge from Specialized bicycles. COO-USA Joe Brunetti, MBA 92, Director of Global Retail Services Joe Wheadon, and five other Specialized representatives served as judges. Design consultants from IDEO guided students through the iteration and innovation process.
DISC_Specialize_I-Challege

Students got the chance to try out a Specialized electric bike, called the Turbo.

Brunetti said he was impressed with the students’ inquisitiveness and creativity, and how the short timeframe created a sense of urgency and unleashed their creative energy. He hopes to invite Haas students to participate in an internal brainstorming session at Specialized.

“One of the challenges in managing a business is that over time the team puts on blinders. It becomes easier to spend more time thinking of why we cannot do something, rather than why we can do something,” Brunetti said. “You go into ‘protect’ mode instead of being on offense. The energy of the Haas students could challenge our thinking and pre-dispositions.”

Katerina Barilov, Sandeep Pahuja, and Dan Goldman, all MBA 15, organized the event for the Design & Innovation Strategy Club (DISC). The goal is to give students hands-on practice with the design thinking under time pressure.
While there was not technically a “winning” team, Specialized judges chose the plan for a streamlined shopping experience—which students presented in the form of a skit—as their favorite. The team included Marisa Johnson,  Juan Franceschini, both MBA 16; Andrew Goodman, MBA 15; along with Hasnain Nazar of the School of Information and Alexandra Alden of the multi-disciplinary Development Practice department.

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Cross-Campus Collaboration + Innovation = 1st Place in Tech Challenge

Dirk de Wit, Kiki Liu, and Charles Guo (left to right), winners of the Tech-to-Market Innovation Challenge

Dirk de Wit, Kiki Liu, and Charles Guo (left to right), winners of the Tech-to-Market Innovation Challenge

The competition: Tech-to-Market Challenge, organized by the Berkeley-Haas European Business Club and sponsored by Orange Silicon Valley and Qualcomm Technologies.

The outcome: First-place win and $4,000 grand prize

The team: Charles Guo, MBA 15, Berkeley School of Information student Kiki Liu, and Dirk de Wit, a visiting I-School student from Eindhoven University of Technology in The Netherlands

The challenge: Students competed against teams from across campus to develop biz and tech strategies that capitalize on the emerging LTE Direct mobile standard. LTE Direct employs “ambient awareness,” which allows mobile devices to passively monitor broadcasts from other devices within several hundred meters. The technology opens up possibilities for hyper-local mobile advertising, a burgeoning industry expected to grow into the billions.

What made them winners: The team recommended that the competition sponsors adopt a platform they called “Connect Better,” which would allow retailers to attract consumers into their their stores by pushing out real-time offers and promotions. For example, a shopper strolling through a mall on a hot day might get an alert for a deal on a on a double Java Chip Frapuccino from Starbucks or a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone.

Charles said the team’s go-to-market strategy to get the full range of potential users–telecoms, advertisers, brands, and mobile device users–to adopt the advertising platform distinguished their project from others.

Working in an interdisciplinary team was a big advantage, he said. “Everyone brought a unique view and skill set to the team. Our team was able to successfully balance technical and business perspectives in every part of our decision making,” he said. “Working with a data scientist and a programmer also gave me a glimpse of the environment that I would encounter during my internship with HP this summer.”

The H-factor: “This was an innovation case competition so we used several brainstorming approaches from Problem Finding, Problem Solving to generate use cases ideas and business models,” he says. “I was also exposed to a variety of business models through the cases we examined in Toby Stuart’s Entrepenurship class. Exposure to numerous models really helped me mix and match concepts to form our business model.”

Classified: An EMBA Immersion Applies Innovation Cycle Lessons to Dating

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This article is part of a series called Classified, in which we spotlight some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms. If you have a suggestion for a class to feature, please email Haas News editor rkelly@haas.berkeley.edu.

Two days into Applied Innovation Immersion Week at San Francisco’s towering Grace Cathedral, Joe Inkenbrandt, EMBA 14, is on the phone with his co-founders to schedule an urgent meeting. Inkenbrandt, an entrepreneur launching a startup to provide security for 3-D designs, is excited to share what he’s learning about the importance of gathering customer insights before the team goes much further.

This epiphany strikes during a week in the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program when students move through an entire innovation cycle—gathering customer insights to frame problems, ideating and iterating their way to a product or service, and sharing their ideas in a culminating challenge.

Cast Assumptions Aside

Haas Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman, a leader in making design thinking and problem framing part of b-school curriculum, and Michael Barry, of Stanford’s Design Program, are teaching this applied innovation module, one in a collection of EMBA immersion experiences.

The challenge: develop a product or service aimed at easing the pain points of dating. In one exercise, Beckman has students generate “how might we” questions to get ideas flowing. “The goal is to generate as many questions as possible,” says Beckman of this process, known as “diverging.”

Post-its, each with a single question, seem to fly onto the walls: How might we help people have more fulfilling social lives? How might we soften the blow of rejection? How might we cure loneliness?

The shared element is focus on the customer, an orientation Inkenbrandt finds helpful. “I can see that my company’s founding team is making a lot of assumptions about what the customer thinks,” he says.

Rapid Prototyping

Surrounded by walls festooned with fluorescent sticky notes, Beckman issues the call to “converge” and the EMBA student teams begin the process of selecting one “how might we” question around which to design a product or service.
But first, they get a lesson on building—prototyping being an important part of the innovation process. The challenge: In 10 minutes, using only paper and tape, create an object that will drop as slowly as possible from an indoor balcony in the cavernous Cathedral to the floor below.

Suddenly the room is full of people standing on chairs counting as they drop an array of paper airplanes, doilies, and parachutes. In the end, the top performers are a tiny scrap of paper and, the winner, at 12.9 seconds—a completely un-embellished 8.5×11 sheet of paper.

Ahead of a second build (this one involving toilet paper and foil), Barry instructs, “Pay attention to how your team worked and pulled knowledge together rapidly—you’ll need this on Friday.”

Create under Challenging Conditions

By Friday, challenge day, the teams have begun developing solutions to problems that plague dating. Three tables of judges await, and each team, sticking with the same judges, cycles through in a process rather like washing one’s hair—with iterate, feedback, repeat standing in for lather, rinse, repeat.

Team “Sage Date” launches into its initial pitch, acting out a skit in which an anxious woman on a date suddenly excuses herself to make a stealth call to Sage Date for advice. The judges express reservations about mid-dinner disruptions. After five rounds, the team has added pre-date prep to their panic-abatement model.

“The process isn’t about coming up with the perfect presentation for the afternoon challenge,” says Barry. “It’s about teaming and about figuring out how to be creative while managing resources and incorporating (potentially contradictory) feedback.”
“I’ve been doing some of these things,” says Inkenbrandt, “but now I feel like I’m moving forward with even more tools that have proven success.”