The Covid-19 pandemic brought a series of unique educational challenges, especially when it comes to face-to-face instruction and internships. For some students, those challenges are opportunities to break down barriers and open (virtual) doors.
That was the mindset of Brian Li ’22, who is majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in entrepreneurship, in August 2020 when he founded Rocket Fuel Ventures, the first venture capital student organization at Stevens Institute of Technology. On April 23-24, 2021, the Rocket Fuel Ventures team – which includes founding members Wallis Toscarelli ’22, Cole Felsher ’22, Jon Samuel ’21, Jocelyn Ragukonis ’22 and Bryan Kyritz ’22 – hosted a successful international undergraduate venture summit.
Launching a Venture Capital Organization
Rocket Fuel Ventures is a part of [email protected], an undergraduate entrepreneurship program – sometimes called an incubator – directed by Mukund Iyengar, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Iyengar also serves as the faculty chair for Rocket Fuel Ventures, which Li says brings collaborative energy to the student organization.
“I really saw a niche at Stevens. There were a lot of investment funds within publicly traded companies as well as Launchpad, but there wasn't something in between that dealt with both technology and finance and really fostered cross-disciplinary interactions between engineering and business students at Stevens,” explained Li. The student also credits his mentor Michael Beutner, venture associate at Lockheed Martin Ventures, with helping inspire him to start Rocket Fuel Ventures.
The new student-led organization provides undergraduate students an eight-week educational course and the opportunity to hear venture capital speakers at Stevens. At the end of the series, the Rocket Fuel Ventures cohort provides analysis recommendations to Launchpad, advising on which student-proposed startups the accelerator should fund.
Once the student organization kicked off at Stevens, the leadership team set their sights on an even bigger goal: an international conference. Li noticed that venture capital student organizations – like his own – were beginning to pop up at a wide range of schools, suggesting that undergraduate students all over the world and from all backgrounds are hungry for venture capital education and opportunities.
“One of the reasons we had this conference is that we wanted to break the idea of venture capital being a very secretive industry in which you need all the connections and all the prestige,” Li explained. “We wanted to show that venture capital can be accessible to anyone.”
Leveraging virtual space to bring undergraduate students together is where Rocket Fuel Ventures shines, so the team began organizing a virtual conference, arranging speakers from top venture capital firms, such as Bessemer Venture Partners, Lux Capital, Global Silicon Valley and Lerer Hippeau. Some of those firms were initial investors in well-known companies like LinkedIn, Yelp, Twitch, Blue Apron, Casper and Allbirds.
Once Rocket Fuel Ventures landed those high-profile speakers, the summit really took off. The event brought together over 400 registered attendees from more than 30 universities and 25 countries. As an extra boon, the breakout session hosted by Stevens had the biggest turnout.
“To have that big of a reception just shows that we were able to create something that really resonated with students and really gave exposure to both our members as well as the Stevens community,” noted Li.
Making Venture Capital Accessible at Stevens
Li says Stevens is a great environment for this level of accessible collaboration because the school’s strong engineering and business schools foster interdisciplinarity – and because Stevens draws students from all over the globe. That means student organizations like Rocket Fuel Ventures reflect the real world and benefit from a wide range of experiences and perspectives.
Another important feature is the unwavering encouragement of the administration and faculty. “President Farvardin and Mukund have been fantastic in terms of helping me out and fostering this idea,” said Li. “They've been really supportive 100% of the time.”
It’s provided Li with leadership experience he will take with him when he leaves Stevens, when he hopes to continue working in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, helping founders bring the “spark” of a product or an idea into reality.
“For me, running a meeting or organization was something that was completely out of my comfort zone,” said Li. “So, it gave me an amazing opportunity to learn and grow as a leader – and I think it really gave a lot of the founding members opportunities to grow as a team and work together.”
Applications are open for the next Rocket Fuel Ventures program, giving undergraduate Stevens students the opportunity to work with the entire Rocket Fuel Ventures team:
Brian Li, Founder, Managing Partner — mechanical engineering
Wallis Toscarelli, Partner — quantitative finance
Cole Felsher, Partner — finance
Jon Samuel, Partner — business and technology
Jocelyn Ragukonis, Advisory Board — computer engineering
Bryan Kyritz, Advisory Board — computer engineering
Justin Murray ’22, Advisory Board — business and technology
Frank Pinnola ’22, Advisory Board — computer engineering
Adam Latif ’22, Recruitment — mechanical engineering
Chelsea Braithwaite ‘21, Secretary — biology
Mark Kanevsky ‘21 — business and technology
Alexis McKelvey ’23 — quantitative finance
David Ioffe ‘23 — civil engineering
Eda Erdemci ’23 — quantitative finance
Gabe Toltus ‘22 — quantitative finance
Jordan Simon ‘23 — quantitative finance
Nina Caldarone ’22 — quantitative finance
Madison DeJong ‘22 — biomedical engineering