Logo: University of Southern California

Leadership of the Mind

In his “The Art and Adventure of a Startup” class, Ashish Soni helps students cultivate the cognitive, emotional and leadership skills necessary to succeed as future CEO’s of startup ventures.
By: Stephanie Shimada
November 21, 2013 —


Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation's Ashish Soni and Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byer's Mike Abbott

Every journey towards launching a successful startup is unique. There is no formulaic process that can be employed to ensure success, nor a textbook business strategy that can improve the odds. Even a startup venture with a groundbreaking product cannot guarantee its livelihood and success. As a result, less than 10 percent of new products succeed and only about 2 percent of all startups go public.

In light of this plethora of variables and uncertainty, how can aspiring entrepreneurs successfully navigate the startup environment? USC faculty and startup guru Ashish Soni believes that the best chance of improving your odds is through the leadership of the mind. In his new “The Art and Adventure of a Startup Class,” students are learning how to cultivate their cognitive and emotional abilities, which he hopes will give them the resilience and strength to overcome any unique challenge they may face.

“Some of the core requirements or skills to build to be a successful entrepreneur are to learn how to be resilient, persuasion and to learn how to manage themselves and manage their teams,” Soni, executive director of digital innovation and founding director of the Viterbi Student Institute for Innovation (VSI2), said. “This course complements the technical skills that students get at the school.”

Teaching alongside Soni are Mark Stevens, a USC trustee and venture capitalist who formerly served as partner at Sequoia Capital, and Mike Abbott, a Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers general partner, who played an advisory role in the recently inaugurated USC Viterbi Startup Garage.

Soni’s new class is the latest in the line of his startup ventures at USC, which includes the recently launched Startup Garage that offers financial support, mentoring and other strategic resources to a group of USC students and alumni over a 12-week period. Through these ventures, Soni and USC Viterbi hope to lead the way to the creations of major engineering-led, high-tech enterprises in Los Angeles.

USC Trustee Mark Stevens

The class runs from Aug. 30 through Dec. 13 and has 30 juniors and seniors. The students applied for the coveted spots, resulting in a highly engaged, innovative and entrepreneurship-minded group of students.

Additionally, the class is interdisciplinary, with half of the students from USC Viterbi, and the other half from a diversity of schools within USC, including the Marshall School of Business and Annenberg School of Communication. Soni designed it this way because he believes students benefit from exposure to different viewpoints and perspectives.

“Engineers approach problems in one way, but it’s better from a learning perspective to see things from other dimensions as well,” Soni said.

While standard entrepreneurial classes teach the technical, “nuts and bolts” of a business, Soni’s class focuses on the students themselves. Through interactive discussions, guest lectures and a real-world project that requires students to create and basically launch their own startup ventures, Soni helps students become strong, trusted leaders who can successfully drive a business.

“I would like to see the students understand how to gather resources for a startup, the importance of timely and efficient product development, and the importance of cultivating the mindset and leadership skills of an entrepreneur,” Stevens said. “I would like the students to comprehend that Startup Success = High IQ/EQ + Determination + Passion + Luck.”

To cultivate the mindset of an entrepreneur, Soni takes his students through questionnaires, which help them assess and identify where they can improve cognitively and emotionally. In a recent class, for instance, Soni asked his students to log their time from three different dimensions: 1) how they’re spending their time, 2) their energy levels, and 3) their attention levels. Through this, Soni hopes they will find when “their brains are most on fire” so that they can best utilize their time and increase their productivity.

“A part of high engagement is knowing when you function best,” Soni said in a recent class. “Knowing your own styles and what works best for you is extremely important in being efficient… It is important to know how to manage your time, attention and energy because everything is going to feed off of you as CEO.”

And just as every startup is unique, every entrepreneur is unique. The class design focuses on helping students identify their abilities, and how they can use these skills to navigate their individual startup environments.

“This class is focused more on personal skills: cultivating who you are as an entrepreneur, and improving your strengths and limiting your weaknesses,” said Awadi Rathugamage, a VSI2 fellow and senior studying aerospace engineering who just participated in the Viterbi Startup Garage with his company Scholasphere, a common application platform for scholarships. “It is helping you become a more complete entrepreneur.”

Mark Stevens

Perhaps most helpful for the students is learning from Soni, who Rathugamage and Christian Vanderwall, also a VSI2 fellow, describe as bringing three key benefits to the class: knowledge, coaching and connections.

“Ashish has an infinite wealth of expertise. He knows a lot about every aspect of startups,” Rathugamage said. “He is very tough on us, in a good way. Very straightforward – he won’t candy coat it.”

This class also goes beyond classroom learning by having students bring their venture ideas into the “real world.” For instance, Rathugamage and Vanderwall are working on launching their startup Scholasphere, an online platform that will serve as a one-stop shop for students looking for scholarships and was a product of this past summer’s first-ever Startup Garage. As part of their project, they are working with providers to secure scholarships for their platform.

Additionally, the professional connections and opportunity to work alongside renowned entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have set the class apart from the other classes, entrepreneurial or otherwise, that they have taken, according to Vanderwall and Rathugamage.

“One of the advantages of a USC education are these kinds of connections that you might not otherwise get to make,” Vanderwall, a senior studying computer science and business administration, said.

Rathgugamage chimes in that his company’s Twitter following increased after working with Kleiner Perkins’s Abbott, who led the building of the firm’s social media site. This type of platform can also serve as a platform to help aspiring entrepreneurs build their companies.

And it seems that the professors benefit from this course, too. Through it, Soni, Stevens and Abbott have successfully shared their passion to mentor and coach the next generation of entrepreneurs.

“It is important that Viterbi students develop an appreciation for what it takes to start a young company from scratch,” Stevens said. “Many Viterbi students possess a strong entrepreneurial bent that will hopefully result in many great companies and products in the future.”