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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Carolina West

For his Silicon Revolution class, professor James Leloudis tapped into a sprawling Tar Heel network in California’s Silicon Valley

Thompson Paine (far left) made sure the students all got new Quizlet t-shirts.

When Tar Heel Jennifer Lloyd Halsey arrived in California two decades ago, she didn’t know anyone. Now she routinely has 150 people coming to her Menlo Park home to watch Carolina games.

“That is one of the beautiful things that’s emerged is this community of people who, over 20 years, through sports, have come together over and over and over again in casual settings,” Halsey told students visiting the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the Maymester class called Silicon Revolution. More than a business network, they are her friends.

More than 10,000 Carolina alumni live in California, the most in any state west of Georgia. This Carolina-California connection is what made it possible for history professor James Leloudis to create his Silicon Revolution course three years ago. The three-week Maymester class includes class time and assignments, but its key component is the week students spend in Silicon Valley, meeting with and learning from successful Carolina alumni.

On development trips to California for Honors Carolina, Leloudis had seen how eager these transplanted Tar Heels were to reconnect with the University and how willing they were to help today’s undergraduates. The 16 students made 16 stops over the week, and at each stop, at least one Tar Heel was there to greet them.

Robin Donohoe talked to the members of the Silicon Revolution class in her home, which has a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s also part of the culture of this institution. There is a real value here placed on Carolina people helping Carolina people, opening doors for one another,” Leloudis said.

The class visited tech giants like Apple, Google, Cisco, Tesla and Airbnb as well as a biopharma company, tech startups and venture capital firms. They played with green screen technology at Cisco, took a tour of the Tesla car manufacturing plant, had lunch at Apple, explored the quirky conference rooms at Airbnb (modeled after actual Airbnb listings) and visited venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in their homes.

“People went beyond anything we would have asked for,” Leloudis said. “We got into places where most people don’t get to go. People opened doors for them that aren’t ordinarily opened.”

Another way that generous alumni opened doors was by providing financial support so that money was not a barrier to any student who wanted to take the course – which required an extra $1,000+ fee and roundtrip airfare to California.

“Because of them, there was never a student standing on the outside looking in,” Leloudis said.

You can get there from here

Leloudis made sure that his students knew the history of the Santa Clara Valley’s transformation from fruit orchards to computer technology after World War II.

But Silicon Valley is also history in the making, and Leloudis wanted to show his students they could be part of it. They met Tar Heels who came west on a career path of twists and turns or sometimes by accident.

“One of the most important lessons from the course students derive is from meeting highly successful people who have lived very zig-zaggy lives,” he said. “Not a single person followed a straight line.”

Take Damien Weiss, partner in the law firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich and Rosati in Palo Alto. He started with a degree in business from Kenan-Flagler Business School, then went to law school in Michigan after striking out in 25 job interviews.

After getting his law degree, he interviewed for a job at his current law firm. He had intended to apply for a position in Austin, Texas. But at the last minute, he expressed his interest in Palo Alto instead.

“I wish I could say I had the foresight to know I’d do well in Silicon Valley, but it was a total accident,” he said. “Keep your mind open to experiences that are new and different because they can change your life in a positive and really dramatic way.”

Neil Golson, now in partner development at Tesla, worked for Coca-Cola in Shanghai. Entrepreneur Glenna Patton, founder of Sicksports, a sports media company targeted at millennials, spent eight years in marketing for MTV in Europe. Venture philanthropist Robin Donohoe worked in Paris and Atlanta before she came to California.

But first, they all spent time in Chapel Hill.

Their stories allow the students to say, “they were Carolina undergraduates just like I am,” Leloudis said. “It expands the students’ sense of their own capacity and what they can achieve.”

Sam Trachtenberg, vice president of operations at AdRoll, “learned a ton in the process” of his college education. “It just gave me that confidence and the experience, meeting people from all over the world.”

OK to fail

Students who take honors classes need at least a B average, so the Silicon Revolution students are high achievers. But from the California Tar Heels, “they heard about the importance of failure and the kind of judgments people make when you fail,” Leloudis said.

Steven Goldby, partner in Venrock, has seen plenty of failures in his work as a venture capitalist. He doesn’t rule anyone out because of a past failure, but he does look carefully at why an individual failed. “One of the really positive things about the culture in Silicon Valley is it is tolerant of failure, but it is not tolerant of a lack of candor,” he said.

Glenna Patton led the students through a branding exercise.

Goldby reminded students how fortunate they were to be in the Honors Carolina program. “You’re now among a very chosen group of people and you’re surrounded by talent. That’s a very rare experience,” he said.

It’s that shared Carolina experience that is the first step in connecting students with successful alumni. “There’s a huge, vibrant Tar Heel community here in California, in San Francisco,” Trachtenberg said. Light blue was particularly evident at Final Four time, when many West Coast alumni jumped at the chance to see the Tar Heels in (relatively) nearby Phoenix.

Trachtenberg was one of them, proudly showing off his 2017 National Championship confetti to the visiting students. “Even if we didn’t have basketball, those bonds still exist,” he told them. “You’re still connected. That’s pretty cool.”

Relationships established during the Silicon Revolution class already have led to internships and job opportunities for students, Leloudis said.

Thompson Paine, vice president for operations and business development at Quizlet, was particularly enthusiastic about meeting with the young Tar Heels.

“Every time a UNC student reaches out to me, I respond. Every time, without fail,” he told them. “I love UNC so much. I loved my time there, and if anyone’s reaching out to me for a job here, I will always talk to them.”