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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Silicon Revolution

History professor James Leloudis connects Carolina students and alums in a whirlwind tour of California’s Silicon Valley

Students in the Silicon Revolution class visited tech giants like Cisco, Apple and Google, where they posed with lawn statues representing the Google Android mobile operating system (the green robot) and the sweet code names for its different versions, from Cupcake to Nougat.

Talpha Everette, a junior from Wilmington, stood at the front of the private tour bus navigating early Monday morning commuter traffic on the highway from Palo Alto to San Francisco. Swaying slightly, she bent over her smartphone, reading notes from the screen aloud to her classmates. The first stop on the class’s jam-packed itinerary was AdRoll, and Everette’s assignment was to brief her fellow students on the company and the Carolina alumnus they were going to meet there, Sam Trachtenberg.

On the bus to visit the startup AdRoll in San Francisco, Talpha Everette briefs her fellow students on the company and the Carolina alumnus they are going to meet there, Sam Trachtenberg.

“Sam worked at Dolby, Ebay and Expressworks International before taking on the roll of senior director of operations at AdRoll,” she began. “AdRoll was founded in 2007, with a mission to ‘collect, analyze and act on customer data to deliver high performance marketing campaigns.’”

When the bus arrived in the industrial neighborhood that was AdRoll’s home, the students entered the building and followed an employee past  the pinball- and pingpong-equipped common room, a break room stocked with snacks, coffee and white wine on tap and a gallery featuring portraits of the startup’s six “spirit animals.”

In the conference room, a grinning Trachtenberg greeted the students with a recording of the Tar Heel fight song, holding high his souvenir confetti from the 2017 men’s basketball championship.

Welcome to Silicon Valley.

“The building is everything I imagined a Silicon Valley startup HQ to look like and more,” wrote Eric Li, a junior from Charlotte with a computer science major, on the class’s online forum page. “The culture, games, setup and people looked like [something] out of a TV show.”

The whirlwind California tour that was the highlight of the Maymester course called Silicon Revolution had launched. Like Silicon Valley itself, though, the seeming serendipity of the class had actually been years in the making.

Jackson Hill and Bryson Nager check out the latest Apple Watch at the company’s headquarters store in Cupertino, California.

‘This doesn’t happen overnight’

History professor James Leloudis came up with the idea for the Silicon Revolution class several years ago.

In the course of his development duties as associate dean for Honors Carolina and director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence, Leloudis connected with a vast and growing network of successful Carolina alumni in northern California.

“This doesn’t happen overnight,” he told students several times, describing how he often called on acquaintances from years past to form new bonds, reconnecting with alumni as they moved from one company to the next.

Leloudis set out to design a course that would allow some of the University’s best and brightest students to connect to this network, hearing from their own lips about the zigzagging and circuitous routes that led them there. 

At the same time, they would learn – through books, articles and writing assignments – the history of Silicon Valley and its importance as what he described as “the epicenter of a new knowledge economy.” And they would do all this in the compressed three-week schedule
of Maymester.

Access and welcome

“It’s an amazing group of people we’re going to meet,” Leloudis told his students on the first day of class in Chapel Hill. “It’s even more important to be active and engaged when we get out to Silicon Valley because the folks we’re going to spend time with, they’re going to expect conversation, and not just kind of passive listening.”

Brothers Edward and Ashby Wickham and Ian Nickel admire the latest Tesla model.

This third year of the Silicon Revolution offered students greater access, especially to the technology giants of the region, than ever before. The itinerary included lengthy visits to Apple, Google and Cisco as well as a tour of the Tesla auto manufacturing plant. They also toured AdRoll and Airbnb headquarters in San Francisco, provided user feedback for the online study-aid site Quizlet, learned about the launch of exciting new technology startups and services and got priceless insight into the region with attorneys, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.

But the visits were more than just access. They were warm welcomes from alumni eager to help their fellow Tar Heels. The students also got a taste (sometimes literally) of the northern California lifestyle in Palo Alto restaurants and at Fisherman’s Wharf and along the Embarcadero in San Francisco.

Robin Donohoe hosted the students in her San Francisco home, with its living room view of the Golden Gate Bridge, serving snacks while she described her work in venture philanthropy with the Draper Richard Kaplan Foundation.

Glenna Patton welcomed them to her home by hanging a Carolina banner from her second story before telling them her adventures with MTV in Europe and offering them cupcakes.

Among alumni sharing their insights with the students were Bernard Bell, right, the new director of the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship, and Jennifer Halsey, a professor of the practice in the same program.

At a sidewalk table of Gott’s Roadside in the noisy Embarcadero along San Francisco Bay, Jennifer Halsey joined the group for burgers and to share stories – and lessons learned  – from her days as the former senior vice president, strategy and business development for Varian Medical Systems.

Thomas Layton dropped by for an Italian dinner to talk about his experiences with Open Table and other ventures before heading home for his daughter’s 16th birthday. And Doug McKenzie scheduled quiet time in the Palo Alto library to discuss his firm, Radar Partners, and issues of diversity in Silicon Valley.

“Every time a Carolina student reaches out to me, if I can, I respond,” Thompson Paine, vice president of operations and business development at Quizlet, told the students.

History in the making

The students experienced widely varying workplace cultures, including the tightlipped security of Apple, the laid-back attitudes of the Googlers and the artsy, multicultural vibe at Airbnb, the online home-sharing site.

“While both of our tours today were excellent, I was struck by how very different the two companies were,” reflected Jackson Hill, a junior from Tampa, Florida, who is majoring in economics and history, on the day the group visited Apple in Cupertino and Google in Mountain View. “I am not even sure if I can type anything about Apple due to their secrecy and very strict set of rules, while Google was much more relaxed, and we could see a lawyer with his dog in our meeting.”

The class was small yet diverse, with students from small towns and big cities, tech savvy and not, corporate-minded and entrepreneurial, majoring in computer science, business, sociology, psychology and sustainable development.

But by the end of the week in California, all were at least considering working in Silicon Valley.

“Before today, I never considered working in Silicon Valley, and the first trip that we took to AdRoll changed my mind,” said Bryson Nager of Tryon, a junior majoring in computer science and mathematical decision sciences. “After hearing about all the opportunity in the Bay Area and the numerous benefits that come with Silicon Valley life, I am now considering living here.”

So was Everette, who is majoring in sustainable development with a minor in entrepreneurship and computer science. “I do see myself here,” she said on the last day of the trip, as the students enjoyed some precious free time in a seaside park near the Golden Gate Bridge. “It’s got a wonderful atmosphere. It’s a very unique location.”

Clearly, Leloudis was successful in that goal of the Silicon Revolution. But did the students grasp the importance of the history of the place, how it is, in fact, history in the making?

Edward Wickham, a business major from Charlotte, summed it up. “The Silicon Revolution has revolutionized not only the technology, but the way business is done.”