Day Two of ESTEEM in Silicon Valley: 3/10/20

Author: Sam Cowdery

On our second day in Silicon Valley, the weather alone had already convinced most of the ESTEEM cohort to find a way to stay in California, and with the added time change to ease the start to our morning, we packed into our vehicles and cara-(mini)-vanned over to Notre Dame’s California facility in Palo Alto.

Our speaker lineup for the day was absolutely stellar, and it seemed everyone was able to pull something inspiring from each one of the talks presented. 

Our first speaker of the day was Aisling MacRunnels, a marketing powerhouse with an incredible life story that ranged from bartending to landing a consulting job to becoming the CMO of Synack, a company that brings together the best ethical hackers in the world to improve cybersecurity within Fortune 500 companies. Her advice to the class was to “decide what you are going to be GREAT at, and be comfortable with your B’s and C’s elsewhere.” She also emphasized the importance of building roots and creating a support community where you work if we wanted to pursue an aggressive career path. I particularly enjoyed her take on leveraging a diverse range of interests to cultivate focus on the ones that really matter most to us.

Our next speaker was Ying Liu, a former operations director at Apple who is currently co-founder and CEO of Blue Lake Packaging, a company with a sustainability focus working to replace plastics with fiber alternatives. Her incredible positivity was inspiring and she described her career shifts as always looking for the next fun challenge and “connecting sparkles” (not dots). She encouraged the cohort to think two years ahead, to include family in that plan, and to only start a company we were truly passionate about. She managed to make everyone in the room smile, especially when she mentioned “home is where my shoes are” when describing how often she had moved around in her early career.

After a brief lunch and a trip to Salt and Straw ice cream down the block, we had the opportunity to listen to Gary Kirkham, the global co-head of TMT investment banking for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. His talk was incredibly timely considering the record-breaking effect the coronavirus was having on global markets that day and we were grateful he took the time to speak with us despite the massive number of calls his office was fielding. Gary gave an interesting perspective on the hesitant capital raising habits of entrepreneurs and was able to use the current crisis to highlight the importance of not underfunding a venture. His insight regarding capitalization was an interesting contrast to a previous HBS case on DropBox the class had covered, and it was a good reminder of the factors to consider when raising funding rounds at different stages of a company. 

The last speaker of the day was IDEO co-founder and Notre Dame class of ’75 grad Dennis Boyle. I personally had been looking forward to his talk for months and it did not disappoint in the least! Dennis shared story after story of how IDEO had used their method of empathic observation to design solutions for companies like Apple, NYU, the University of San Francisco, and many others. He also shared the importance of observing customer behavior instead of simply asking questions and to “never come to a meeting without a prototype.” At the end of his presentation, Dennis had our cohort participate in a short design thinking exercise focused on brining service solutions for the lower wage workers in the bay area. This effort produced a lot of interesting ideas such as zip-line commuting, underground hotels, creating new islands in the bay, and many others. Everyone spent time laughing together and sharing the joy of brainstorming crazy ideas and Dennis reminded us all that crazy ideas are exactly the kind that push technology and society forward.

By the time we made it back to the hotel, the group in my van had counted 89 Teslas, and although the day was certainly exciting and engaging, everyone felt ready for bed by the end.