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Rejecting Wall Street, Grads Become Entrepreneurs Instead

Evelyn M. Rusli |The New York Times
Tuesday, 3 May 2011 | 12:03 PM ET

Kimball Thomas and Davis Smith, co-founders of the e-commerce site Baby.com.br, had just six hours in Brazil to pitch to prospective investors and recruit a promising executive for the chief operating officer role.

Woman using laptop in internet cafe
Howard Kingsnorth | Photodisc | Getty Images
Woman using laptop in internet cafe

With little time left after a four-hour meeting with Monashees Capital, the prospective candidate, In Hsieh, agreed to drive the entrepreneurs back to the airport for his interview, braving the city’s notoriously congested roads as he answered their questions.

Mr. Thomas and Mr. Smith, who are cousins, made their evening flight, and Mr. Smith got home in time for his final exam at business school.

“Between my redeye flights, I didn’t have time to study,” Mr. Smith said. “But I realized, the whole reason I went back to school was to build a business like this.”

Mr. Smith, who attends the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and Mr. Thomas, of Harvard Business School, are part of a growing number of business school students rejecting traditional postgraduate paths like investment banking, hedge funds and consulting. It’s a trend that is accelerating in the wake of the financial crisis as Wall Street loses its luster and Silicon Valley shines with a new crop of multibillion-dollar start-ups.

At Harvard, some of Mr. Thomas’s classmates are applying their entrepreneurial ambitions to technology ventures. Kevin Nazemi, a former Microsoft product manager, started Done, a personal productivity service, last year. Daniel Gulati, a student who helped Mr. Thomas draft his early investor presentations, founded the retail site Fashionstake.com with a fellow classmate, Vivian Weng. Graduates from the class of 2010 started 30 to 40 businesses last year, a 50 percent increase from the previous year, said William A. Sahlman, a professor of entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School.

“The level of entrepreneurship activity here, and I presume at other schools, is up dramatically over the last two years,” said Dr. Sahlman.

Baby.com.br is the second start-up for Mr. Thomas, 31, and Mr. Smith, 32. In 2004, the students started PoolTables.com, with about $20,000 scraped together from friends and family. The venture — which taught them the basics, like how to coordinate with vendors in China and how to run an e-commerce site — was profitable in its first year.

Now, the two are tackling a broader, if more complicated market.

Mr. Thomas and Mr. Smith got the idea for Baby.com.br after Mr. Thomas tried to find diapers for his son, Jack, during a family trip to Rio de Janeiro last year. He had to visit three stores to find a package of Pampers in the right size. Struck by the lack of high-quality baby care goods, Mr. Thomas saw an opportunity in Brazil’s fast-growing market, where more than three million babies are born every year, according to data from the World Bank.

The start-up follows a similar strategy to Quidsi, the owner of Diapers.com. That site, also co-founded by a Wharton graduate, has attracted more than a million parents in the United States with free shipping on goods for their children. Earlier this year, the e-commerce giant Amazon.com snapped up Quidsi for $545 million.

“We actually see a lot more potential for e-commerce in Brazil,” said Mr. Thomas, the start-up’s co-chief executive. “E-commerce there is so much more nascent.”

Even so, they face more challenges than with their previous site, including a different regulatory and tax regime than in the United States. In Brazil, the payment processing system is also more fragmented. The plan is to start the service in July, but Mr. Thomas says they may have to push it back.

Investors, inside the school and out, have taken notice. In late April, Baby.com.br was named one of the top three winners for the Harvard’s annual Business Plan Contest, which came with a $25,000 cash prize. The award is on top of the $3 million that Mr. Thomas and Mr. Smith raised in February. That fund-raising effort, which valued the company at $5.6 million, included several well-known venture capitalists, including Monashees Capital and Ron Conway of SV Angel, who has stakes in Twitter and Zynga.

“Harvard carries some distinction, you can catch some people’s eyes,” said Mr. Thomas, referring to prospective investors. “On the margin, if they can, they get back to you.”

The contest is part of a broader effort by the school to foster innovation. Last year, budding entrepreneurs at Harvard formed the Startup Tribe, a student group. The organization, which has more than 150 members, persuaded Harvard to start the Minimum Viable Product Fund, a $50,000 fund for new start-ups. The program distributes awards of roughly $5,000 apiece to promising teams, including the nine winners announced in March.

“We’re a scrappy, adaptive community” said Andrew Rosenthal, a member of the Startup Tribe. The group has been gaining traction, because of a confluence of factors. “We have a new dean, an active network of recent graduates, who are providing mentorship, and there’s a strong demand for a student-run community,” he said.

The school is also planning to open in the fall the Harvard Innovation Lab, a student center for start-ups, where founders can work with peers and Harvard’s entrepreneurs-in-residence.

Of course, business school can also be a significant hurdle for passionate founders. Mr. Thomas admits that his grades probably suffered last semester, as he struggled to juggle his classes with investor and client meetings in Brazil, San Francisco and New York.

For the moment, he’s catching his breath. Mr. Thomas, who is graduating this month, finished school on Friday.

“I’m quite relieved that classes are over,” he said. “I have a trip to Brazil next week.”

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