Lessons in Success and Leadership From Silicon Valley

The opportunity to explore the tech capital of the world was the draw, but insights from Wharton alumni made the Wharton Industry Exploration Program trip to San Francisco unforgettable.

WEIP and W19 classmates (from left) Alisha Joshi, Cathleen Gui, Jessica Lim, Lindsey Li, Sophia Cen, Vivian Zhong, and the author, Savannah Heon.

 

As I stepped off our charter bus and into the Square headquarters with 40 of my classmates in January, we were all curious and excited to see what lay ahead. Most of us had never been to San Francisco, and many had no idea what to expect from seeing the Silicon Valley scene in person. During a tech-industry course with Vice Dean Lori Rosenkopf, I had tried to analyze the background of each C-suite executive and contextualize the surroundings. Were their lives really that different from those of other Wharton alumni? Thanks to the Wharton Industry Exploration Program—which sends undergraduates around the country to network and learn about various sectors—we were about to find out.

At first, the scene was pretty much what I expected—pristine floors, artistic common areas with pieces leased from the Met in New York, a multitude of Apple products everywhere. After a tour of the Square workspace, we sat down and talked with capital and people lead Jackie Reses W92 and hardware product lead Michael MacLennan WG11. We were enthralled with the amount of expertise both Jackie and Michael demonstrated, and it resonated with me when Jackie reflected on how Penn enabled her to go from “a ‘scrappy kid’ from Atlantic City to Goldman.” It was a nice reminder that pouring my efforts into life at Wharton will have its payoffs down the road.

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner W92 reminded us about compassion in leadership: People won’t always remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Over the course of five days, we visited eight firms and met with 22 alumni—some high-profile, like Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz W83 L86, and some just starting out, like Noah Ready-Campbell ENG10 GEN10 W10, who’s fleshing out a new startup, Built Robotics. The entire program was a whirlwind of knowledge, and everyone had a meaningful contribution to make. Our second day began with a fireside chat at Wharton San Francisco’s campus with Andy Rachleff W80 and Sachin Rekhi ENG05 W05, the CEOs of Wealthfront and Notejoy, respectively. Sachin and Andy amicably recounted Andy’s intense efforts to recruit Sachin to Wealthfront. Although those efforts were to no avail, Andy’s persistence with Sachin underscored the strength of the Wharton community on the other side of the country. “You can learn a lot from failure personally,” Andy said, “but you learn a lot more from success professionally.” He also emphasized the importance of discovering and developing all of your skills. At the beginning of your career, he noted, your contribution is partially dictated by your role, but it is maximized through your effort. His advice: Seek opportunities that are fast-paced, problem-solving-focused, and mentorship-driven.

Cen and Heon on the roof of Twitter’s headquarters.

The following day began with an alumni panel. Felicis Ventures founder and managing director Aydin Senkut G96 WG96 explained that there will be a point in your career during which you’re presented with the choice to do one of two things: bet on the route, or bet on yourself. When those two choices begin to diverge is when you need to bet on yourself, he told us. His vivacity when speaking with our group was unmatched—he wholeheartedly believed that we each had something unique to offer and should make it our priority to voraciously search for our passion. After the panel, we enjoyed a thorough tour of Airbnb’s campus and experienced the unique atmosphere of a tech workspace. We were all especially impressed with the built-in ecosystem wall and the endless supply of kombucha on tap.

Our last day of site visits was the most humbling, as we spent extended time with Catz and LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner W92. Jeff struck a robust chord as he reminded us all of the importance of compassion in leadership. People won’t always remember what you said, he told us, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. In this economy, he noted, there are plenty of highly skilled workers; what will distinguish you from everyone else is your ability to demonstrate kindness and interest toward other people, both above and below you. The acts of compassion you express throughout the day will be what propel you to success. Jeff said his best leadership quality is that he acknowledges he isn’t the sole talent of LinkedIn, but rather is the hub of the wheel—enabling everyone around him to excel.

On the last day, our group visited the Golden Gate Bridge and Ghirardelli Square. In those final moments of downtime before the whirlwind of the semester resumed, we pondered what this trip meant for us and what we want from our time here at Wharton. So many alumni reflected fondly on how their experiences at Penn shaped their life decisions going forward. While I had hoped this trip would give me a better understanding of the San Franciscan and tech communities, I also came away with a greater clarity as to what I want out of my college and professional experience—and, more importantly, how I can achieve it. As an undergrad, it’s easy to take your own ability for granted and search for risk-averse routes out of fear. The week I spent in San Francisco taught me there’s nothing too bizarre or tremendous that I can’t accomplish, especially with the support of Wharton alumni along the way.

 

Savannah Heon W19 is from Thurmont, Maryland, concentrating in management and information systems. She loves being engaged in the Penn community as co-chair of the Wharton Cohorts System and as a head teacher within the Financial Literacy Community Project.

 

Published as “Westward Ho!’” in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of Wharton Magazine.

 

 

 

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