The door to the auditorium was locked, and the class had already begun. Right by the door surrounded by a sea of confused Berkeley students, Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning leaned against the wall and chatted as they all waited for a janitor to open the door.
Tarpenning was back in his alma mater (and mine, full disclosure) two weeks ago to give a talk at the How to Build The Future DeCal, where students run and facilitate classes. In front of over 100 student entrepreneurs hoping to become the next Tesla, Tarpenning dished out his experience starting Tesla and answering questions.
There are dozens of DeCal classes at UC Berkeley every semester, and dozens more classes in the Bay Area focused on entrepreneurship. The How to Build The Future stands out for just how many A-list Silicon Valley celebrities come to talk and teach on behalf of the class.
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And the best part is that the classes are free for anyone to audit (although space is limited) and the DeCal puts up videos and notes for students and the general public (albeit they are a bit slow on uploading them in time) at thefuture.build.
Berkeley is coming off its spring break, and so far the speakers have primarily been founders of startups that even the most tech-phobic San Franciscans may have heard of, like Jason Wang of Caviar, Tarpenning of Tesla and Jack McCauley of Oculus. Most of the founders are graduates of Berkeley, which adds a public school ethos to this DeCal.
In the next month, the DeCal has prominent venture capitalists like Josh Elman of Greylock Partners, and Vinod Khosla — famous outside tech circles as that billionaire fighting public access at Martins Beach by Half Moon Bay. They aren’t Mark Zuckerberg or Musk, but these speakers are critical figures who have shaped a large part of Silicon Valley as we know it.
Until this DeCal, A-list entrepreneurial classes in Silicon Valley have been reserved for private settings, whether it be at a private tech convention or a closed-setting class at Stanford. This DeCal democratizes the know-how to students and non-students alike. “When we came on campus, this was the class we very much wanted to take,” said freshman Jimmy Liu, who is one of the five student organizers.
When I graduated in Berkeley in 2014, the startup scene in Berkeley was just beginning to bloom, with campus accelerators starting to encourage students to pursue their own startup idea. Now, a quick look around the campus shows how much it has grown. For example, the old Copy Central building right across from campus has been turned into a Berkeley-centric venture capital fund called The House Fund.
With new centers and programs for entrepreneurship, Berkeley is trying to keep up with Stanford as the premier Silicon Valley talent pipeline. Considering its geography, being right across the Bay, it makes sense. But should a public university like Berkeley even encourage entrepreneurship, considering the moral and ethical questions many raised about Silicon Valley?
Perhaps I’m putting too much pressure on five kids trying to create something cool. But one encouraging fact I found when speaking to Liu and fellow organizer Zuhayeer Musa was that they were intent on promoting diversity in who takes their class. Despite an overwhelmingly male percentage, 30 percent of students in the DeCal are women and a variety of non-STEM majors are represented in the class.
The DeCal is going to continue and grow, the student organizers assure me. Their top guy to book next semester? Y Combinator founder Sam Altman — a Stanford alumnus.
I attended a panel about the balance of power between journalism and tech platforms last week. Considering Facebook and Google siphons the lion’s share of advertising revenue from publishers, I hoped we would be able to call out the platforms for its role in atrophying the journalism industry at the event.
I was wrong. As the Facebook vice president in the panel served up one platitude after another, the journalism professors and editors on the panel offered little pushback or good ideas. As a young journalist trying to float above this sinking ship, it was one of the most depressing things I’ve seen in relation to my career.
Two of the solutions offered were Facebook providing more platforms for outlets to better advertise their subscriptions or donations and having platforms donate $100 million for investigative journalism across all 50 state capitols.
But here’s the thing: Facebook is now the dealer in a drug crisis, offering crap (Instant Articles, fake news) at an extortionate price. These solutions are like asking the drug dealer to build drug addiction clinics as they sell more drugs. In a buyer-seller market quite like this, there is no balance of power to discuss.
The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at email@example.com.
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