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Angel Fund expands into the Rocky Mountains

by Jennifer Johnson,

Mudd Building

If you’re searching for a finance class, Willamette MBA’s Angel Fund isn’t for you. But if you want to learn how to think like an entrepreneur, this is your best bet. 

The class is the first in the nation that gives students a seat at the investing table. While some courses have venture capitalists visit the class, Willamette students invest money in startups. 

“It’s the epitome of experiential learning. It’s not just about finance, it’s about design, strategy, marketing, supply chains — it requires that students integrate their entire MBA,” said Rob Wiltbank, course founder and CEO of Galois in Portland. “I don’t know of any other program in the country doing the early-stage stuff that we’re doing.” 

And now it’s expanding. New investing opportunities in Denver and Salt Lake City will be available to students this fall thanks to a gift from Chris Labbe MBA ’07 and his wife, Tiffanie. In the future, Willamette alumni will also be able to invest in student deals via AngelList. 

For the class, pairs of students travel monthly to Pasadena, Portland, San Diego and Seattle, where they sit among investors, evaluate start-up pitches and present their findings afterward to the other students. Hundreds of deals researched by students result in only one or two investments, up to a total $100,000 per year. 

Colin Schilling ’10, MBA ’12, co-founder and CEO of Schilling Cider, said direct access to entrepreneur professors like Wiltbank and real investing makes the class a game-changer. You get to see firsthand how businesses become a reality, he said. 

“In other classes, your experience is always academic — it’s not real, it’s only theoretical,” he said. “This is a good way to get hands-on experience that confirms your viewpoint on the world versus people just talking about it.” 

Student decisions have been more than strong. Early investments in companies like financial services company Zapproved and Thrive Causemetics gained returns significantly higher than the industry average of 20 percent. “We’re essentially on house money and we still have 10 investments ongoing,” said Wiltbank.  

Not limited by geography or theme, students choose from the best selection that year, whether it’s environmentally-friendly adhesives or toys that keep kids moving, said faculty manager and Associate Professor of Strategic Management Bill Forster. 

In 2020, it was Carlsmed. The Carlsbad, California company uses imaging and 3D printing to design personalized spinal implants, transforming the standard procedure surgeons use today — a trial-and-error approach inserting pre-made discs. 

Guided by an entrepreneurial methodology, students judged the startup’s affordable loss, how well it stewarded its resources and its milestone progress before making their decision. Their strategy is to create the future as opposed to predict it, said Wiltbank. 

“I’m not interested in creating students who work for Nike,” he said. “I’m much more interested in creating Nike.”  

Graduate success speaks for itself. Himalaya Rao-Potlapally MBA ’19, founded Black Founders Matter, while Nick Cottle MBA ’10, is currently the chief operating officer and cofounder of Trapdoor Creative in Utah. Una Japundza MBA ’15 founded prompt’d. 

Students often stay in touch with professors long after the class and even start businesses with them. Other graduates, like Schilling, continue to expand and grow: Schilling Cider is the second largest producer of cider nationwide and now sells merchandise, food and non-alcoholic beverages.

“We just want to be the best company we can possibly be,” he said. “The only way to do that is to reevaluate on a relatively constant basis and consider the new variables coming in.” 

About Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management

Based in Salem, Oregon, we are the premier private university in the Pacific Northwest — the only university in the country that appears on both the US News Best National Liberal Arts Colleges list and the Forbes and Businessweek best business schools lists. With unique proximity to our state's capitol, we are a national leader in civic engagement, delivering an “Only at Willamette” education.

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