The last two years in the world of startups have held many challenges. Chuck Isgar (MBA ’25) speaks with several new HBS students to learn about their experiences and how they have affected what these students might want to do next.
Many new RCs have only known one phenomenon in the world of startups: the proverbial up and to the right. That is, until a variety of macroeconomic conditions and other factors brought VC markets to a dramatic halt and startups were forced to realign priorities. According to data from Crunchbase, there was a 35% decrease in venture capital funding from 2021 to 2022. 2023 has been a similarly challenging year in both venture capital and the world of startups. Many startups have been forced to focus on efficiency, with full awareness that if they do not extend their company’s runway, it is an exceedingly challenging environment to raise follow-on funds. The result of this change in priorities means that the efforts of startups— including their scope of work, emphasis on profitability, and yes, team sizes— have been affected. A number of students in this year’s RC class have been in the crosshairs of this not-so-subtle switch in environment, both on the operating and investing side. And there have been some RCs who were in the categories of startups that did not face such challenges, which led to important lessons learned.
Steph Hay (MBA ’25) most recently found herself at Sourcegraph, a Series D-backed “Google for code search” which unfortunately had to undergo layoffs during her time at the company. Through this experience, she learned a valuable lesson: “be an expert in something.” Hay explained that your focus of expertise does not need to be the main focus of the company, but it should be something that you can do uniquely well, thus making you all the more indispensable to the team. Given her prior experience as an enterprise software and healthcare investor at B Capital Group, Hay also has a distinct perspective about picking a startup to join, especially for people who think they want an investing career after operating: “go towards a company in a space where you want to be an expert.” The rationale for this advice, according to Hay, is that it is easy to become pigeon holed into the space of the startup, whether it be consumer technology or enterprise software.
Abhishek Krishnan (HBS ’25) was serving as the Chief of Staff at Pixxel, a Bengaluru-based space data company which has raised $71M to date. Acting as an extension of the CEO and “intellectual thought partner,” Krishnan saw the value of solving a “long term problem:” the company was able to raise a Series B round of financing in early 2023, a time during which many other startups struggled to secure capital. As the world’s most advanced hyper spectral imaging satellite, Pixxel is developing important technology and their market timing is also just right, with the Indian government privatizing space technology in 2020, according to Krishnan. As for Krishnan, he wants to stay in technology and cannot imagine a return back to traditional industry, such as his old workplaces, Goldman Sachs and the Boston Consulting Group. Krishnan has learned one of the most important— if not the most important— lessons of how to enjoy your experience working at a startup: pick the right one.
In Mumbai, Sanchie Shroff (HBS ’25) most recently found herself at major global technology investor SoftBank. Chosen as one of the firm’s first hires in India, she joined at a unique time: July 2021. The venture capital market was continuing its meteoric rise and she saw companies asking for “unjustified valuations” in the pursuit of becoming a unicorn, which refers to a company with a valuation over $1 billion. At the time, paper valuations made a lot of sense to her. While the last 15 months have been a sharp contrast to her initial nine months at Softbank, she feels “privileged to see…the slower and more sane side of investing.” When the tech markets saw a meltdown, she switched gears from investing to being involved in portfolio work, which was an experience she enjoyed. She now wants to get to see the operational side of businesses as she believes she cannot be a great investor without learning operational tactics such as how to recruit people, how to launch effective marketing strategies, and how to lower customer acquisition cost.
It is not uncommon for incoming RCs to engage in a pre-MBA role to have an experience that shows something different than their prior role. After stints in Sao Paulo at Bain & Company and Wildlife Studios, Lucas Klegen (HBS ’25) joined Latin America-focused VC firm MAYA CAPITAL for a few months before the move to Boston (there is a case at HBS about MAYA CAPITAL written by Professor Robert F. White, Carla Larangeira, and Pedro Levindo). In this role, he did deep dives on potential deals, helped improve the firm's internal processes, and also wrote a sector study around consumer fintech opportunities in Brazil. Similarly to others, he encountered a pace of deal volume significantly slowed down from that of the VC peak in 2021. He will be continuing his work with MAYA CAPITAL as a scout “in order to help potential founders with great ambitions receive the necessary funding and support to make their ideas come to life.” While Klegen enjoys thinking from an investment lens, he is more likely considering a post-MBA career on the operating side of the table for a few years in order to garner more experience before becoming a founder himself.
Dalton Fogarty (MBA ’25) was at Deutsche Bank’s Singapore office on a great trajectory, but there was something inside him that wanted to look beyond the world of banking. During a time of self-isolation due to Covid-19 quarantine measures, Fogarty found he was asking himself: “how do you know when you should go out and… throw yourself into the entrepreneurial path?” He posed this question to a trusted friend which led to his role at Sydney-based Prezzee in Commercial Operations. He ultimately assumed the role of Head of Strategy, where he helped set the direction for the global electronic gift card company. As for his time at HBS, Fogarty plans to continue his startup passion through his work on a social venture currently in its early stages that focuses on providing “risk management services for impact investors in frontier markets.”
In another example of shifting companies, Allison Schwartz (HBS ’25) has seen quite a contrast across her work experiences before matriculating at HBS. She worked as a Data Scientist at Lyft from 2018 to 2021, during which she saw the data science team grow over four fold to more than 250. She was eager to start a data team herself, which she did at a Series C-backed fintech company. While there, she learned about the importance of thoughtful hiring at startups: adding too many people can add more strength, but also slow down velocity. As she talks to peers considering next steps, she has observed the following: “people are leaning towards one end of the spectrum or the other. Now is the time to either start my own company or to go back to big tech.”
It seems Schwartz’s sentiments are common in the current age of startups. No one knows what’s next for the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Regardless, it seems safe to say that RCs are enjoying the opportunity to reflect on their prior startup operating and investing experiences so they can most thoughtfully consider their next role, and for some, their plans to build as a student.
Chuck Isgar (MBA ’25) loves all things startups. Most recently, he served as the Chief of Staff at Scenery, a Series A-stage startup backed by investors such as Greylock. Previously, he was awarded a Schwarzman Scholarship, which provided him the opportunity to earn a Master in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Chuck co-founded and was the CEO of Intern From Home, a recruiting technology startup that served students from over 600 colleges and was featured in publications such as The New York Times. Chuck earned his bachelor’s from Brown University, where he served as the Co-President of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program. He loves to golf, cook, and go on long walks.