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The Silicon Valley Maymester class stands under a "Google" sign on the Google campus. Their tour guide speaks about a large dinosaur skeleton – a T Rex – that is a focal point of the campus tour.

A visit to Google’s iconic Mountain View campus was one of over a dozen UNC alumni-led learning and networking experiences during students' time in Silicon Valley.

In the “Silicon Revolution” Maymester course, undergraduate students with a passion for entrepreneurship learn from Carolina alumni who have made their mark in the Bay Area.

On a breezy May morning in downtown Palo Alto, California, 16 Tar Heels climbed onto a shuttle bus to begin a whirlwind tour through a global hub of technology and innovation: Silicon Valley.

Despite some lingering jet lag from the flight out of Raleigh-Durham International, the students chatted excitedly about the week’s schedule, an itinerary with the power to turn heads. 

The class, “Silicon Revolution,” is an Honors Carolina Maymester course — an intensive three-week seminar offered in collaboration with the College’s Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship. Led by Jim Leloudis, professor of history, the class begins in Chapel Hill with extensive readings about Silicon Valley’s ties to the rise of the modern research university.

“We examine the post-war years and the emergence of the federal government as a primary funder of research,” said Leloudis, who is also the Peter T. Grauer Associate Dean for Honors Carolina. “All of that sets the stage for the emergence of Silicon Valley as a distinctive ecosystem of innovation.”

The students then travel to the Bay Area for site visits and conversations with alumni and other friends of UNC in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Oakland and San Jose. This year’s hosts included Tar Heels at Google, Morgan Stanley, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and private equity firm Parthenon Capital, to name just a few of the 17 destinations over seven days.

Students gather around a lecturer in front of a floor-to-ceiling fresco in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
UNC alumna Michelle Barger, head of conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, contextualizes the wall-to-wall mural “Pan American Unity” by Diego Rivera during a class visit.

Many of the hosts have been invested in the course since Leloudis and Anne Collins, senior associate dean for development in the College, conceived it in 2015. 

The goal of “Silicon Revolution,” Leloudis and Collins said, is threefold: to strengthen relationships with UNC alumni in the Bay Area, to build a network for students seeking to move to the West Coast after graduation and to introduce students to the Bay Area and a wide range of career paths.

“Alumni in the Bay Area — like Carolina alumni anywhere in the world — are so generous with their time and their counsel,” Leloudis said. “We are deeply grateful for their willingness to lend a hand to the next generation of Tar Heels.” That is also true for alumni who support Honors Carolina and the Shuford program. Their gifts fund scholarships that make the Maymester experience affordable for students who otherwise could not participate. 

Two students capture the Golden Gate Bridge (not seen in the photo) from a balcony over the bay. Behind them is a dramatic cliff scape.
The Bay Area provides an unmatched locale for the “Silicon Revolution” course. Here, students Zavion Woldu (left) and Siri Dronavalli capture the sights of Baker Beach and South Bay in San Francisco.

Chuck Robbins ’87, chief executive officer of Cisco, has been a longtime host of Silicon Valley site visits. 

This year, after an in-depth tour of Cisco’s San Jose headquarters, students joined Robbins in the boardroom, which was adorned in Carolina blue for the occasion. The class asked questions about Robbins’ time at UNC, his philosophy as a leader of a Fortune 500 company, his best and most challenging days at work and more. 

T’nya Savage, a junior studying management and society in the sociology department, said the Cisco visit was her favorite of the week. 

“It’s so cool knowing that [Robbins] is a Carolina alumnus,” said Savage. “He was very down-to-earth, and to see that he upholds that while leading over 80,000 employees — and still makes the time to meet with 16 students — was inspiring.” 

The class experience has solidified her goal to start her own business one day, ideally in the health care industry. 

“I want to be a leader. I want to go after my own entrepreneurial efforts,” said Savage, who also is pursuing minors in commercial real estate and entrepreneurship. 

Students, teachers and entrepreneurs post together for a group photo.
Erik Moore (front center) welcomed students to his venture capital firm, Base Ventures, in Berkeley. He and co-founder Kirby Harris (back row, far left) shared that they are far more interested in entrepreneurs’ ability to fail, learn and grow than their ability to succeed the first time.

Entrepreneurship is a key element of the class. Through the close partnership with the Shuford Program, students with a special interest in startups and business innovation make up nearly half of the course’s enrollment. 

“Entrepreneurship is where IQ meets EQ — emotional intelligence,” said Bernard Bell, the Shuford Program’s executive director. Bell is passionate about introducing students to the skills that are essential to creating a successful business. He has joined the Bay Area excursion every year since 2017.

“It is a life-changing experience” for these students, said Bell, especially for those who have never traveled outside North Carolina or been exposed to ventures on the scale of those in Silicon Valley.

Five students gather around  an exhibit that features computer components.
Alongside site visits across the Bay Area, students visited the Computer History Museum (pictured) and experienced site-seeing in downtown San Francisco during their week in California.

“We understand that if you can meet the individual who is doing what you’d like to do, it normalizes what you previously thought was out of reach,” he added.

Startups, private equity and venture capital are in many instances still white, male-dominated spaces. To help inspire the next generation of diverse innovators, Bell emphasized the importance of meeting with UNC alumni who have broken through this barrier.

These lessons resonated deeply with students. 

“My favorite visit was with Robin Richards Donohoe,” said Xavier Crump, a history and economics double major with a minor in entrepreneurship. 

Richards Donohoe ’87 was a founder and managing director of the Draper International and Draper Richards Funds before turning her sights to philanthropy. In addition to supporting early-stage, high-impact social enterprises through the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, she also supports the intersection of entrepreneurship and social impact at Carolina through the Richards Donohoe Social Entrepreneur-in-Residence Fund. Established in 2012, the fund supports faculty with industry experience working with nonprofit organizations. 

Richards Donohoe invited the students to her home for her talk on the importance of using a Carolina education to make positive change in the world. 

“She possessed such a breadth of knowledge,” said Crump. “Her ‘never give up’ attitude — it was amazing.” 

Students sit on couches and chairs around a living room as they listen to a lecture in the home of UNC alumna Robin Richards Donohoe.
Robin Richards Donohoe shared her perspective as a woman in Silicon Valley’s venture capital market and emphasized the importance of developing skills like learning how to build a network and creating meaningful relationships, in business and in life.

Throughout the week, students enjoyed breakfasts and dinners with alumni across industries, walked Stanford’s campus, visited museums and experienced a final day of sightseeing around San Francisco before they returned to North Carolina. The course concluded with tours of Research Triangle Park and Innovate Carolina, full-circle experiences that brought lessons from the West Coast back to Chapel Hill. 

“One of the things that really resonated with me is the value of networking,” said Nolan Welch, a rising junior and chief operating officer of Chapel Thrill Escapes, a UNC student-run nonprofit that creates escape room experiences. 

A computer science and Spanish double major, Welch originally enrolled in the course with an interest in learning more about the technology industry. Now, after reflecting on the class, he said it was the opportunity to meet with professionals and learn the value of entrepreneurial skills that will stay with him. 

“This course has influenced me. I think that I’d like to come back for an MBA,” he said of his postgraduation plans, adding that he hopes to integrate his passion for natural language processing with his newfound perspective on entrepreneurship and business leadership. 

For Leloudis, Collins and Bell, this kind of feedback from students and Silicon Valley alumni is what invigorates them to return to “Silicon Revolution” year after year. 

“Being on this trip, it’s the spark,” said Bell of witnessing the students’ growth during the week. “It is just spectacular to see their transformation.”

Story and photos by Jess Abel 


Published in the Fall 2023 issue | Features

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