Entrepreneurship For All: A Conversation with Umair Khan

April 26, 2023

Umair Khan’s mission in life, it seems, is to help budding entrepreneurs. “At Folio3 Software, I help entrepreneurs build out their products. At Mentors Fund, I invest in entrepreneurs. At Berkeley, I teach entrepreneurs. And at Zareen's, the restaurant which my wife established, I feed entrepreneurs.”
Umair’s connection to UC Berkeley began through outreach from the Institute for South Asia Studies. These discussions and interactions motivated Umair to take entrepreneurship out of business and engineering schools and into the College of Letters & Science, empowering “the social scientists, the humanists and the artists and poets” to be entrepreneurial.

He and fellow entrepreneur Charles Huang '93, an Asian Studies & Economics alum and the co-founder of Guitar Hero, created a UC Berkeley course called Entrepreneurship for All, offered through the Division of Arts & Humanities (course no.: HUM 120). “I wanted to give students tools — the constructs, the frameworks, the language — to go about solving a problem and then scaling the solution.”

Raka Ray, Dean of the Social Sciences Division at UC Berkeley, says that Umair Khan is a role model of what philanthropy can be.

“He had a vision about how anyone could be an entrepreneur and he put in his own time and energy (as did the amazing Charles Huang) to make it happen. What is remarkable about Umair, though, is that he has unstintingly given his time to students of Berkeley while having no prior connection to the university. I am grateful that his belief in the power of education for all has found a perfect match in the wonder that is Berkeley's students! I hope many thousands of people beyond Berkeley learn from their online course.”

His second motivation, he says, was to bring more women and minorities into the fold. That was one of the reasons they decided to scale the course and offer it as a professional certificate course on EdX, “The Silicon Valley Insiders’ Guide to Entrepreneurship: Launch, Fund, Scale Your Startup.” We discussed these courses and how Umair became involved with the UC Berkeley community.

Tell me more about HUM 120 and how you designed it.

HUM 120 is a startup. A good startup creates products that are desirable, viable, and feasible. So we structured HUM 120 as weekly, one-hour lectures accompanied by one-hour guest lectures. Over the years, we have had folks like YouTube founder Steve Chen, Rotten Tomatoes co-founder Patrick Lee, Ahmed Khaishgi of Squaretrade, Chegg founder Osman Rashid and many others. I was learning so much myself because these are world-class entrepreneurs; these kids probably don't know how lucky they are to get access to these amazing entrepreneurs.

To the structured lectures and the renowned guest speakers, we added hands-on startup building. So students propose their startup ideas, and the best 15-20 become final group projects. Next, the founders get their classmates onto their team. We don’t help with that: it's just like startup life in Silicon Valley where no one is spoon-feeding you how to put your team together. After getting their teams in place, they get cranking on doing research, making a prototype, and creating an investor presentation for our end-of-term “Shark Tank.” This is their final exam, where our students’ startups (each with 5-6 entrepreneurs) make a pitch to Silicon Valley investors who grill them on their idea, go-to-market strategy, business model, etc.

One of your students has said that you have made a tangible impact on how they see the world and approach their work. Is that your goal in your teaching?

For me, entrepreneurship is very much a mindset. Here in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, we think of entrepreneurs as people who behave and look a certain way. But someone with a small business anywhere in the world can be an entrepreneur. I want my students to be entrepreneurs: To see a problem as an opportunity and start to think how we can fill that gap and solve that problem. Whether they started or joined a startup, a big company, a governmental organization or a university, the urge to solve a problem is like a splinter in your brain that you can't rest until you've done something about it. And as you start to shape a solution, you also start to persuade others around you toward your vision.

What is some gratifying feedback you received from a student?

In the summer of 2020 I got this email from a former student from Belgrade who just graduated with a theater major. He had one of the best ideas. He took my class the last semester that he was here in Berkeley, and he said, "I genuinely believe that your class may have been the most useful college class I ever took. In fact, I wish I had a chance to take it sooner because it could have possibly changed my entire college trajectory" And after several hellish months of COVID life, it was incredible to read those lines. I told him to never forget that — regardless of his major and career — he had the natural instinct of an entrepreneur and a well-honed startup mindset. And that the world needs entrepreneurial Berkeley theater grads MUCH more than lawyers, engineers, or accountants.

Do you see more women or more men in your classes?

When I entered MIT as an undergrad, 36% of my entering class, roughly, were women. Now it's closer to 49%. But women's representation in tech is disproportionately low. Less than 10% of startups that are funded here in Silicon Valley (which is where the majority of startups are funded) have women founders. Minorities are in the single digits. But 50% of the population is women, so then how is it that women are not represented? The ceiling's been broken somewhat by people of color, particularly East Asians, South Asians and Middle Easterners. But for women, it's abysmal. Last year, of the 18 startup projects in our class, 75% had women founders. So Charles and I were very happy with that.

What pitches do you see more often? Do you encourage your students to poke holes in their friends’ ideas?

Most students tend to solve problems for students and young adults. For example, they want to solve student housing or food issues. People tend to think about what's around us and what is a problem or a need for them, which is the right way to do it. Otherwise, you are like a management consultant type who says: “Okay, the petroleum industry, which I don't really care about, has an interesting opportunity, so let’s do a startup to exploit it.” To me, that's not an authentic way to embark on the startup journey.

I also tell students to always follow the “no jerk” rule and apply it to everyone you work with. It takes courage to choose the right people. On the flip side, if you are going to critique somebody's idea, you mustn’t be a jerk about it. We take the best ideas pitched during the class and give it back to the students to critique and find holes in them, but through constructive feedback.

How did the idea come about for the online course that you and Charles Huang created?

As we said, our course, HUM 120 is itself a startup. What does any startup want? A startup wants to scale. Our dream was always that, if we got this right, could we then get it to other folks — men, women, everybody, all over America, all over the world?

You don't want to scale before you've got your pilot going, your first minimum viable product. And it took us two to three years to get it right here in Berkeley, so now it’s on to the rest of the world.

Did you have an ideal student in mind when you designed the online course?

My ideal student is someone with a big itch to solve a problem and some ideas on how to do that. They don't need to be looking to do their own startup, but they need to be open to "startup thinking." And if your academic background is non-tech, so much the better.

In our class, we define the entrepreneur as an ethical persuader. You start by persuading yourself that you're solving a real, substantial problem and that you have a solution (or a part of it). Then you persuade people to join your crazy dream as team members. Then you go to people who've been there, done that, who can be your advisors. Then you persuade investors. Most importantly, you persuade users and customers, and eventually, you persuade partners and strategic investors, and so on.

This is the entrepreneurial journey. You start with the idea, but then you have to be brutally honest with yourself every step of the way. To paraphrase Charles Dickens: All the swindlers in the world are nothing to the self-swindler. Brutal honesty and small, measurable steps towards big goals, that is the foundation. You should have a grand vision and big dreams, but take small steps and iterate. Is it working? Is it not working? Be brutally honest. If your users and data persuade you that it's working then you can go persuade everybody else.

Quite naturally then, one of the main themes (and required reading) in our class is The Lean Startup, which was written here at Berkeley by Eric Ries.

What brought you to teaching, and what do you love most about it?

My first job was as a high school teacher. I was 17 teaching 15-year-olds. This is back in Karachi, Pakistan. And 30 years later, I'm back teaching. I suppose it is my calling. All the other stuff seems sort of like accidental detours along the way. Teaching to me is theater: you are performing for a live audience. And I love moments where you can feel that connection with your audience, where an idea, a story, a sentence truly resonates with a student. 

What is your Berkeley audience like?

I am learning so much from teaching these kids, who are so ridiculously overqualified. Charles and I always look around and say, “What were we doing at 16, 17?” These guys have already done this. They look at problems from very unique vantage points. And the feedback they'll give to other people's pitches is genuinely illustrative. At Berkeley, you're the best of the best. It’s the number-one ranked public university in the world. And Berkeley gives access that small private institutions just can't to students from all walks of life. Minorities, continuing education, concurrent enrollment, international students — there couldn't be a better audience for this course.

We have a student from San Rafael, and she wants to open this healthy Mexican/Hispanic grocery store and restaurant, and it's a perfectly good startup idea. She would never have had the tools if it wasn't for Berkeley and HUM 120.

How did your partnership start with Charles Huang?

I joke that I like to “collect” good people, and then I find random reasons and excuses to work with them. Charles and I had met to collaborate on an educational gaming startup, and within a couple of meetings I could tell this guy is salt of the earth — the humblest, nicest, most thoughtful guy. When I pitched him the UC Berkeley course idea, it turned out not only that he thought this would be good for Berkeley, but both his daughters were going to college there at that time. So he was happy for any excuse for him to come and hang at campus. But in all seriousness, he loved what this would do for the Berkeley students, and particularly, the vision of women and minorities actually getting access to this sort of network and knowledge.

How do you manage doing this on top of the many ventures you manage?

As I tell my students, it's all about the people. At Mentors Fund, I came up with the original concept, an investing platform that looks like an angel fund, but is not. It is a committed seed fund, but with 60+ partners in it, which gives it extensive deal flow. With Folio3, my software company, which is now about 800-plus people, I got a very good friend of mine from college to come in and become my partner. I actually made him CEO, and I'm a very active chairman. But again, that gives me flexibility to do other stuff. And my wife’s restaurant, Zareen's: she is the entrepreneur. I'm just the CTO, the Chief Tasting Officer. But again, when you can leverage great people, it's not just about delegation, it's about shared ownership. Entrepreneurship is a very lonely and very painful journey. I don’t recommend doing it alone.

What roles have your family played in shaping your entrepreneurial journey?

My dad was a CPA who worked at a big stable company, so I think I reacted by wanting to do something riskier.

Before I went out on my first venture, I was at Intel and didn't have my green card yet. I had two kids already and we couldn't afford to buy a house. But I didn’t want the cubicle existence. And my wife, Zareen, was fine with me taking that risk. She had a steady job while I was doing all my risky stuff, and I had my ups and downs, and she supported me both emotionally and financially. And it went both ways: When Zareen decided to start her own restaurant, some people raised an eyebrow because it wasn’t a white-collar job. You're in grease and making kebabs and getting sweaty. Our close friends supported Zareen, but the others were skeptical. I loved her venture and was very supportive. Our kids were very supportive, and I think that’s what really matters. You need that person in your life who can support you and say, “Go take your shot.”

Umair Khan

Umair Khan

Umair is founding partner at Mentors Fund, a Silicon Valley based venture fund. He is a visiting professor at UC Berkeley where he teaches entrepreneurship at the College of Letters and Science.  He is founder and chairman of Folio3, a global software design firm, and a Henry Crown Fellow at the Aspen Institute. He is also the author of College Application Hacked and frequently conducts workshops on the college admissions process. Previously, Umair co-founded Clickmarks Inc., a mobile middleware company acquired by Semotus in 2005. Umair started his career at Intel Corporation. He holds over 20 industry patents. Umair received his BS in Mathematics and an MS in Computer Engineering, both from MIT.