In undergrad startup class, students learn to build the future

When computer science students Jimmy Liu and Zuhayeer Musa arrived on campus last fall, they noticed plenty of resources for existing entrepreneurs like themselves. Yet they sensed confusion from students who aspired to be entrepreneurs about how to get started. There was no obvious entryway to Berkeley’s startup ecosystem. So they created one.

Zuhayeer Musa and Jimmy Liu, co-creators of the course “How to Build the Future.” (Photo by Mujahid Zaman)

Liu and Musa launched a startup class, a student-run DeCal called “How to Build the Future,” to encourage entrepreneurship by providing students with direct experience from well-known founders and professors. More than 130 students enrolled when the course debuted last spring, and the course is just as popular this fall. The students, from freshman to seniors, get a high-level introduction to the entrepreneurship scene at Berkeley and across the Bay Area from world-renowned entrepreneurs.

“At Stanford, we saw that they had a successful undergrad startup class,” Liu said. “We wanted to create the same at Berkeley. We want to make Cal a startup powerhouse.”

“How to Build the Future” is not the typical entrepreneurship class, where teams pitch their ideas to a class. Rather, the course gives students the inspiration, best practices and resources needed to quickly build a startup once they have an idea. The twice-weekly class hears from entrepreneurship luminaries on Tuesdays, and then on Thursdays from Berkeley professors with experience launching companies.

“We’re here to empower anyone in any major to take that first step towards entrepreneurship,” Musa. “When they have the right idea, students can then go from zero to one.”

The duo partnered with computer science professor Scott Shenker to launch the course. Shenker brings both practical experience and academic expertise; he sold his last company, Nicira Networks, to VMWare for $1.3 billion.

“’How to Build the Future’ helps bridge the gap between being a student on campus and being a student founder,” Shenker said. “Pairing bright students with entrepreneurship resources and world-class research is a winning formula for creating innovation and leaders that Berkeley is known for.“

Both Liu and Musa are passionate about startups. They co-founded a startup called Bash in high school. Liu is a leader with Cal Hacks. Musa is active with the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) Foundry, a technology incubator on campus.

“When Zuhayeer and I founded Bash, we wished we had known more about resources at Berkeley and lessons learned by past founders,” Liu said. “This is the class we wanted when we first started at Berkeley.”

The course also received supported from the office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, CITRIS and The House, a startup institute closely tied to the campus.

Students pack the room for a session of “How to Build the Future.”

This semester’s speakers include Phil Libin, founder of Evernote, Drew Houston from Dropbox, Jini Kim from Nuna Health, Kevin Hartz from Founders Fund and Matthew Prince from CloudFlare. The speaker list includes eight Berkeley alums who are coming back to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Last spring, speakers included billionaire founder/investor Vinod Khosla, Eventbrite founder Kevin Hartz, Oculus founder Jack McCauley and Twitch founder Justin Kan. All of the speakers’ talks are recorded and posted online.

Some students who took the course in the spring are moving their ideas to campus incubators and accelerators such as Free Ventures, The House, SkyDeck and CITRIS Foundry to refine their ideas.

Liu and Musa have a long-term goal of creating a Berkeley knowledge library from all the people who are speaking to the class so that students can apply these insights to their future ventures.

“Berkeley has amazing faculty and is a world leader in research. We think there is tremendous potential here to build great companies,” Liu said.