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The Matchmaker of Silicon Valley
The Matchmaker of Silicon Valley

Dee Dee Mendoza connects alumni entrepreneurs with students, faculty, and their fellow alumni, which often leads to gifts. Learn how she does it —and how you can, too.

By Ken Budd


Lawrence Luk

Dee Dee Mendoza works in development, but she thinks like an entrepreneur. As managing director for West Coast advancement for Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, she teams with alumni volunteers to host the Dartmouth Entrepreneurs Forum in San Francisco, an annual event for networking, sharing ideas, and learning from speakers such as PayPal Chairman John Donahoe (Class of '82). Before that, she was a senior director focusing on innovator engagement at the University of California, Berkeley, where she and her team developed the Berkeley Founders' Pledge, a commitment by alumni entrepreneurs to make a gift when their startup is acquired or goes public. Since its 2014 launch, 234 entrepreneurs have taken the pledge, creating a gift pipeline estimated at $15 million over the next three years.

"Every day you find alumni entrepreneurs who are suddenly doing well, and you find yourself behind in the cultivation process," says Mendoza, who will be presenting about inspiring philanthropy from entrepreneurs at the CASE District VII conference in San Diego in March 2017. "So we designed ways to connect our on-campus assets to those who need them—and we put development officers in the middle of those interactions."

A recent survey from the Entrepreneurs' Organization, a global network of more than 10,000 business owners, found that 81.6 percent of respondents were interested in starting a new business. With entrepreneurship on the rise, Currents asked Mendoza for her insights on building relationships between entrepreneurs and institutions and what she's learned from working with more than 500 company founders.

What do alumni entrepreneurs want from their alma mater?

They want recruiting for their startups. They want mentorship—to both mentor students and to get information back to their own companies. They want networking—with their peers, for their own fundraising, for advice. They want visibility for their products and services among the alumni population and the public if possible. And they want special experiences. One thing we did at Berkeley was to celebrate innovators at a football game. We had an event beforehand, and we brought them onto the field during a timeout. They want to be part of a community.

What are the keys to engaging entrepreneurs?

Offer value and be direct. These two things are essential. To offer value, you have to understand entrepreneurs' needs and match them with the institution's resources. But that means you need to know the landscape of your institution. How do entrepreneurs connect for recruiting? How do they connect for mentorship? Are there ways to showcase their products and services? I had a guy at Berkeley who had just started a company. We brought him to the Berkeley Innovators Product Show. It was an event for 25 startups founded by Cal alumni to showcase their products and services to the university's buyers. We were not giving any preferential treatment, but we were offering insights into working with the university. After he came to the event, he joined the Founders' Pledge. One day he called me and said, "Oh, man, this company just bought my startup. We've been acquired. I'm so excited to make my gift to the Founder's Pledge."

So something like the product show—which offers value—can lead to bigger things.

What's the best way to communicate with entrepreneurs?

I use email and social media outlets like LinkedIn, Twitter, and AngelList (a website focused on startups). If you see good news about alumni entrepreneurs, tweet them directly and say, "Hey, I saw this about your company, congratulations. Awesome news, Cal alum!" It's a short, direct way of communicating. If you're celebrating their company, or showing that you know what they are doing, that's a point for you.

Your focus is on Silicon Valley, but what about smaller, non-tech entrepreneurs—such as someone opening a bakery. Do the same strategies apply?

Absolutely. Small-scale entrepreneurs aren't likely to need help recruiting, but they still value visibility and networking that help them build connections and special experiences that bring them closer to the institution.

How important is LinkedIn?

Countless relationships begin on LinkedIn and Twitter. In your personal profile, be specific about how you've worked with entrepreneurs, industry, or startups—or with the populations they care about. Give your alumni a chance to imagine how you might be helpful to each other. Use it as a platform to help them gain visibility. Connect with your alumni, make referrals, and ask for referrals.

Make the exchange with an alumni entrepreneur more authentic, and find nuggets of value for both parties. One way is simply to be more open with information—LinkedIn is a great way to do this—and be candid about who's in your network. I once was chatting with an executive at a newly public company. In making small talk, I mentioned another alumna I was connecting with and briefly described her work and accomplishments. The executive looped in two other company leaders who asked to meet this other alumna. I was confused by their sudden interest, but they were hiring for a C-level role and thought her experience was spot-on. The institution got a big reputational boost because I brought these executives a lead, however accidentally.

What doesn't work with entrepreneurs?

Hourlong meetings. These are busy people. I'll usually ask for a brief meeting and specify 20 or 30 minutes. I've abandoned requests for lunch and outside-the-office coffee meetings—they just don't have the time. I almost never send snail mail, and I try a digital approach before a phone call. I don't push alumni events, unless there's a specific reason for them to be there. 

You said that entrepreneurs are interested in things such as visibility and recruiting. Are some of those easier to deliver than others?

Recruiting is more challenging. You need someone who speaks both languages—the startup language and the development or alumni relations language—and can translate between the two.

Startups come in different stages. You have a seed stage startup, which is very young—it's typically under 10 individuals. Then you have companies with Series C funding that have gotten hundreds of millions of dollars. If you know the differences between those types of companies, and the industries they are in, you can better direct entrepreneurs to your on-campus resources. A seed stage company, for example, probably won't need a large box of undergraduate resumes. They are more likely to need a graduate student, someone who is more advanced, who can help them build the company.

It seems like there is a strong interest in  mentoring. Why is mentoring so important?

Startups are hard. There's usually no road map. If universities can provide mentorship, they become valuable to that individual. I had a guy who is a serial entrepreneur—he's done it a few times. I asked him, "Who do you need to talk to? Who would be valuable?" He said, "Somebody who's taken a company from $10 million to $100 million. That's the kind of information that I can use." We looked through our network, found some names, and put him in touch with them.

For alumni on the other side of the mentoring relationship, what is the benefit?

They've earned their stripes, and it is a point of pride for them to give back. They'll often say, "When I was at school, we didn't have this." The opportunity for them to give back to the next generation is powerful. Some of them have become investors, so they want to see what's coming out of universities, and they want to talk with other entrepreneurs.

What are some of your favorite moments working with entrepreneurs?

We connected a technology executive with a computer science student who was the first in her family to attend college. They developed a strong relationship, and the executive offered resources, connections, and perspective as this young woman learned how to network, approach interviews, evaluate opportunities, and navigate issues facing women in technology. Thanks in part to this mentorship, she landed a highly competitive full-time position at a top tech company. 

So students benefit from these relationships as well.

Definitely. A founder requested research help on a startup idea. I sent an email to a student group and got a handful of interested folks. The alumnus connected with one of them, and they worked together on a couple of projects over the next few months, offering the student invaluable experience.

How do you think institutions will work with entrepreneurs in the future?

I think we are going to see a new kind of alumni relations, which would be entrepreneurial relations. As development folks, we touch all of the different populations in an entrepreneurial ecosystem. In a two-week period this month, I talked to two investors on the Forbes Midas List (of top tech investors), five Kauffman fellows (working at investment firms), at least a half dozen entrepreneurs, a few students, and a faculty member. Who else does that? If you have an advancement officer who understands the different worlds and can broker connections that bring real value, you start a positive cycle that reverberates throughout the institution.

About the Author Ken Budd Ken Budd

Ken Budd is a former editor in chief of Currents. His writing credits include The New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and The Washington Post. He is the author of The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem.




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