This is the fourth story in a Re/code Special Series about the Los Angeles tech scene. In these LA Stories, we’ll take you behind the scenes of a playful, powerful and potentially game-changing tech boom taking place across the Southland.
Brendon Ghaderi was a nerdy, code-loving kid in a town without a lot of those.
“It was just so mentally stimulating, and it didn’t matter I was the only one,” said Ghaderi. “And then I got to USC.”
At the University of Southern California — a school historically known for its film school, as well as its partying — Ghaderi found a tight-knit entrepreneur community. Which is something that might not have been there two years ago.
In Silicon Valley, Stanford functions almost like a teaching incubator that educates, then funds young entrepreneurs. Los Angeles graduates more engineers than anywhere else in the country. But by the time they graduate, their peers at Stanford may have already founded companies.
And then there’s the problem of those graduates leaving: Between 2008 and 2012, almost 54 percent of engineers from UCLA relocated upon graduation, according to a Los Angeles mayor’s report, presumably heading up north.
Professors and students at USC have gathered together to change that trend. Professor Ashish Soni, who teaches engineering, founded the Viterbi Student Innovation Institute and a “startup garage” incubator last year. This fall, he’ll be launching a yearlong program for computer science graduate and undergraduate students to build a startup under his guidance.
But it has been a struggle to get students thinking about entrepreneurship, he said. There are structural issues — lack of venture capital in the region means that there’s even less available for high-risk seed investing in undergraduates.
And there are the cultural issues.
When Disney Interactive president James Pitaro joined the LA Mayor’s Council for Innovation, he volunteered to work on the connective tissue between universities and business: “Full disclosure, it was challenging,” he said. “I’d walk into these meetings, and 300 people would sign up, and I’d show up and there’s 25 sleepy-eyed, hungover freshmen. I was like, ‘come on.'”
“Cal Tech and USC are better than Stanford,” Yves Bergquist, a data scientist, said one night at 41 Ocean, a private nightclub popular among tech workers. “The only problem with Cal Tech engineers is they don’t want to build a photo app, they want to send a rover to Mars.”
That’s not a problem, per se. But it means that engineering students tend to graduate and join large companies, rather than set off on their own to build apps.
And it’s changing.
When Sara Clayton got to USC, she looked online for women in tech groups and couldn’t find anything.
“I figured there had to be more girls like me out there,” she said. “And there were.”
She started Girls in Tech USC in the fall of 2012 under the mentorship of USC Information Technology professor Trina Gregory and media analytics lecturer Dana Chinn. Today Girls in Tech USC has 30 regular members who gather for talks with local entrepreneurs, like Julie Uhrman, founder of video-game microconsole Ouya.
Clayton, now a rising senior, said she’s seen the whole tech culture on campus shift.
“In my mobile app development class, everyone wants their app in the app store. And now there’s HackSC,” she said. “It wasn’t like this when I got here as a Freshman.”
When I met up with Ghaderi for coffee at the engineering school, USC’s lawnmowers were out in full force. And there is lawn everywhere at USC. We had to move a few times to get away from them. Eventually, we gave up and just shouted at each other, sitting in the sun at a campus coffee shop.
Ghaderi, who will be a junior in the fall, has been a technical co-founder for hire, and he’s already on his second app. When he arrived at USC, some guys commissioned him to build an app in which people could rate their past hookups. In one week, he got 10,000 download requests based on the logo alone, but the Apple store didn’t approve it. Next, a friend introduced him to entrepreneur and Eventbrite alum Michael Berman, who wanted to do a Snapchat-meets-Tinder app called Flock (walk into a bar, take a picture of you with a friend, and chat with other people nearby; everything disappears in an hour or so).
Ghaderi talked about his startup advisers in terms of their drive times.
“Andrew Jacobson from Zoom is an investor in Flock,” Ghaderi said. “Which is 12.4 miles away, so 15 minutes in no traffic, or an hour and 10 minutes in traffic.”
What does he want to do after graduation?
“Graduate?” he said. “Hopefully, I drop out.”
Has he found community at USC?
“I was worried you’d ask that,” he said. “I have. We have a frat.”
An entrepreneur frat?
“Pretty much,” he said, a bit sheepishly. “But you probably shouldn’t see it.”
Of course, I get to see it. Walking to the Zeta Beta Tau house, we passed the red-brick engineering buildings and vegan food carts and football practice fields. We passed a long row of gorgeous sorority houses and decrepit, ramshackle frat houses with benches strewn on porches.
He said that students called this route “the red carpet.” He pointed out along the way where other entrepreneurs lived in other houses. When we got to his house, I was expecting the frat to be a pile of boards and tarps, but the brothers of ZBT somehow managed to locate in a former sorority house. It was bright white, with columns, a green door and an American flag out front.
What’s interesting about ZBT isn’t any particular company the group is producing — and no doubt there are entrepreneur pockets in other apartments and houses around campus. What’s interesting is that there is a cultural shift happening on campus — suddenly, being an entrepreneur is mainstream, where a house full of frat guys at USC say their goal is to drop out and start companies.
That day, Ghaderi and his 150 entrepreneurial Greeks were preparing for a charity party. They had trucked in sand and covered their front lawn in a foot of it. One young man was shoveling it to be flat, like a beach. Others had set up a volleyball net that extended from the frat door out to the red carpet.
We went upstairs and sat around in Ghaderi’s suite, which he shares with a couple of other guys. They had a “retro” N64 with their house game in it (Super Smash Brothers). Otherwise, it was standard frat decor: House flag, “Godfather” poster, headphones everywhere.
They do ZBT Entrepreneur dinners here — sometimes at California Pizza Kitchen or Panda Express, but last time at Capital Grille. Hanging out on the couch, some of the guys started gossiping about an article they had seen on TechCrunch. The house cat, Mangus, pawed around one of the bunk beds, looking for attention.
Benjamin Goldberg, 19, said he got a summer internship at Admitsee.
“In a frat, you have such great networking opportunities, because you live in a house with 60 other people,” Goldberg said. “And we know what’s going on in Silicon Valley. We keep up.”
Ghaderi said he’s chosen the frat because of the entrepreneurial focus.
“It’s helpful that we can talk to each other,” Ghaderi said.
Indeed — and there is a lot to talk to about. Jorge Adler is working on a mobile app for students to get into the USC campus scene. Elvis Xu has an advertising startup, and worked at Scopely, a mobile entertainment network. Chris Nicolas is making levitating lamps.
“I’m not creating an app, though. I’m not a coder. We’re using magnets,” said Nicolas, a finance major who is planning to learn C++ this summer.
Ghaderi had just gone up to Silicon Valley for the Facebook developers’ day, and he had tried his first oyster.
Would he move up there?
“Maybe,” he said. “Do you think I have to?”