Logo: University of Southern California

Young Alumnus Q&A: Ali Fakhari on Entrepreneurship and the Future of Engineering and Business

By: Tiffanie Jan Lee
June 29, 2012 —

In the midst of a fresh cup of caffeine, Ali Fakhari disappears for a second and emerges with coffee ice cream. On the charge of being a caffeine fiend, Fakhari replies with defensive humor, “As an entrepreneur, you have to be. I was up till 3 a.m. last night. It’s typical, but you don’t realize it. You look back at the clock, and you’re like oh, it’s 3 a.m.” The 2002 USC Viterbi valedictorian has traveled a long way from his days postulating chemical equations and interning at Exxon, Mobil, and subsequently, Exxon-Mobil. An early turning point lead him to the world of business consultation, where he sharpened his business acumen in the prestigious Bain & Company global managing and consulting firm.

After pursuing an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, Fakhari has found success in managing an eclectic portfolio of ventures. As chief marketing officer of WikiLoan, Fakhari has an intense determination to bring the socially conscious peer-to-peer loan platform to all sectors of the world, and as a partner at Ivy Venture Capital, he offers consulting services to athletes and celebrities who seek to develop long-term sustainable business ventures. Make no mistake: he has no free time, and it’s no wonder why he’s constantly refueling.

As a student at heart, as well as a proud Trojan, Fakhari makes time. He is also heavily invested in education and often speaks at USC engineering outreach events. Though his time does not permit the pursuit of a Ph.D. and a traditional role as an educator, Fakhari relishes any potential capacity for academic outreach and mentorship. In fact, Fakhari was the mentor of one of the 2012 Maseeh Entrepreneurship Prize Compeition (MEPC) finalists, DropOff. In discussing his experience as one of Dean Yannis C. Yortos’ students, his post-grad experience, as well as his endeavors, Fakhari delved into much insight on the interdisciplinary relationship between engineering and business and its implications on entrepreneurship.

What were your initial plans as an undergraduate majoring in chemical engineering?

I thought I was going to be pre-med. I love math, science, [etc] and when I studied chemical engineering, I really thought that if I wanted to pursue medicine, all my credits would transfer over, so it sounded like an easy transition. I just knew I wanted to be in something pretty technical, and when I first got into chemical engineering, it was more of the petroleum side. I worked for three or four different summers with Exxon, then Mobil, then Exxon-Mobil when they merged, so I was doing everything from upstream—going out on a platform via helicopter looking at different oil fields on the coast of Santa Barbara—to refining. I saw the whole value chain up and down, and it was amazing.

What lead you to consider a career in business?

All my friends were business majors, [and] I was the only engineer. It was some of those friends who convinced me that, post engineering, I should try a little bit of other fields, and that’s how I got into the business world. I’d never heard of Bain before! At the end of my senior year I thought, ‘Okay, well, do I want to be doing this in the longer term? Is this something I really want to put all my passion and energy toward?’ I actually had a mentor at Exxon-Mobil who was a chemical engineer as well. He asked me, ‘Do you see yourself as a long-term engineer? The reason I ask this is because the career transition you can take from here is massive.’ He told me to read this autobiography by Jack Welsh. [Welsh] has done so many different things: he became CEO of General Electric and just crushed it. So, I thought to myself, I need more of a business background—some more acumen to get to that same point.

What was the transition like?

For me, the transition from engineering to the business consultation world was a tough one, but was the right decision. When I left my senior year, I turned down an Exxon-Mobil full-time position, and it was kind of a tough thing to do, but I ended up accepting the offer from Bain. It was probably the best short-term decision I’ve ever made because it enabled me to go to business school and to do so many different things that I wanted to do. But looking back, there’s nothing you can do wrong with an engineering background.

How often, and in what capacities, do you apply your engineering background to business?

[As an engineer], you learn how to solve different problems—difficult problems. You take the theory of learning and apply it to a practical problem that’s outside your realm. The background I use is all about critical thinking. I don’t think engineering and business are mutually exclusive because you can be a businessperson, yet still work in an engineering field. Not every businessperson knows what it means to be an engineer; you can’t do the reverse. The beauty of having the background and foundation in engineering is that you know the fundamentals, and you don’t have to relearn that; it’s a lot easier to learn business than it is to learn engineering. Probably 20% of my Harvard Business School classmates were engineers.

Can you expand upon the thinking process that you developed as an engineer?

I don’t think I’d be where I am if it wasn’t for the thought process that was evoked by many [engineering] courses. Dean Yortsos was teaching us one course on thermodynamics—talk about something you’ll never need to use unless you’re a chemical engineer! He told us, ‘Look, practically, you may not need this, but you will be able—by virtue of knowing how to solve these types of problems—to virtually solve any kind of problem. And this is Dean Yortsos whose been [teaching] this for years, but he sees the long term responsibilities that we have. It’s not just about this one problem, it’s about how to solve different kinds of problems, and that’s why I think he brings that entrepreneurial feel to the engineering school now. It’s not just about [working] for one specific company and doing that for the rest of your life. You really have the capacity to go in any number of different directions, whether it’s your own company or another company. That’s the part that keeps me excited: [engineering] is not stationary, it’s a very dynamic thing that changes over time.

What do you think contributes to this wellspring of young entrepreneurs?

[Within] a decade that question has started to come up a lot more. There’s a natural tendency for students, now, to want to solve these problems themselves, and I think that’s where the entrepreneurial spirit comes from: it’s self-driven [and asks], ‘How can I do this?’ Things like the MEPC foster that. I think that’s where the economy’s starting to head—where people are really starting to focus their energies on how they can use engineering skills to make an impact.

What is your concept of a curriculum that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship?

[USC Viterbi has] labs, but they’re practical for a specific subject. I think having an incubation portal is important, and I started seeing this even when I was leaving Harvard Business School. On campus, they recently built one of the largest incubators: the Harvard Innovation Lab. Students, in their own time or for credit, can go in and start building out ideas. And I think USC is the perfect place for that [model] because not only do we have tons of engineers who are solving practical problems already, [we] have entrepreneurs who’ve done this, and [we] have all the alumni who want to foster these new ideas as well. What does that mean from a business model perspective? The possibilities are massive.

And that’s where the cross-border between the business school and the engineering school has started to grey. I remember back when I was in school, [the schools] were so far ‘apart.’ I never walked onto the business school side of campus unless I had to. I wouldn’t have to do it. Now, you want to cross that border. It’s the same tool, but a completely different application. Harvard Business School is on the other side of the river, [away] from the undergrad campus and from the rest of the business and engineering programs. At USC, it’s on one huge block: doesn’t get better than that.

What are your thoughts on the argument of overhauling curriculum to accommodate entrepreneurship?

I don’t think that’s necessarily the goal. There needs to be a balance: for those who have a passion for [entrepreneurship]—they need to have the opportunity to pursue that passion—and for those who want to stay within engineering. We need engineers, but we also need people who develop businesses on top of those things. [Creating] opportunities will foster in itself growth among the students. And you’ll see the students asking for those very [opportunities]. I think Dean Yortsos has started to answer this. Now, there are so many different [opportunities] on campus: we used to call this “FOMO” at school, fear of missing out. There are so many things to do. When you don’t know [about] something, you almost feel like you missed out on something better. In reality, they are all good. It’s just [a matter of] where you want spend time and focus because you only have so much time. So, no FOMO: that’s the plan!

As one of the 2012 MEPC mentors, what do you consider to be an important element of successful entrepreneurship?

It’s drive. You’ve got to have to drive because it’s your own free time. You don’t get credit for it. But the ones who succeed and do really well, you can see they don’t do this for notoriety. They do this because it’s innate to them. They want to do this, and I respect that a lot. And that’s what it takes to be a good engineer. The drive that you have to innately possess is reflected in the idea that, ‘I’m going to take this leap without knowing where I’m going to land.’

What was it like being one of the dean’s students, and what is one of your favorite or poignant memories?

So many good times. There was a specific tool that Dean Yortsos was trying to fix. It was archaic. This machine was so old, and he said, ‘I need you to help me fix this.’ I had no idea what it was, and I had no idea how to fix it. I tried to look it up online: it doesn’t exist in a public domain. The company that actually manufactured it went out of the business. So, working with a couple of the grad students, we went out, found the right parts and eventually put this thing back in working order. For me, at that time, I was like, ‘I can’t believe it works!’ We were so happy. It taught me that little things have big impacts.

The story underscores problem solving at a practical level. Imagine [applying] that to business, imagine doing that for a much larger project. And it’s fulfilling. I think in any sort of school, in any sort of endeavor, if you don’t feel like you have goals that you are meeting or exceeding, you are not going to feel fulfilled. You are really saying, ‘These are my ambitions and my goals, and here is how I’m going to get there. I’m going be knocked down, I’m going to have terrible days, and I’m going to have great days. But I’m still moving forward.’ Your own acceleration is still going to be positive, and you are still going to grow.

What is the future you envision for yourself?

Ideally, I want to lead a technology company that’s mobile driven. I really want to foster a very mobile-centric technology that has an impact on people’s daily lives and can impact a large market. There are lots of ways to [unite] consumers and individuals. That’s a massive passion of mine. Technology has to have an impact on the people who are using it. If it’s not important in their daily lives, it’s just going be niche technology that you don’t want to use twice. I don’t want that. I really want to create something that we find value in.

Lastly, what is your advice for young Trojans?

Internships are great, and the job you get after school is fantastic. But the best training you get is using what you are learning while in school. USC is probably the most dynamic place. It’s a small enough campus, [but] with such a diverse population. You have incredible amounts of opportunities. We have all the resources: we have such a strong and loyal base of alumni, as well as professors who share that same passion. I’d love to see our school be the number one incubator for technologies across these different fields—for anything. I don’t see why it won’t happen. It’s just a matter of when it will happen.