Reflecting on Experiential Learning: The Role of Immersions Conquering SV’s ‘Secret Sauce’

Two global entrepreneurs meet in a coffee shop in Berlin––one of them a local and the other from Beijing. They’re discussing the challenges they face in validating and globally scaling their young ventures in their respective geographies. They’re frustrated about the challenges they encounter in their respective ecosystems. I believe at some point they will go beyond merely talking about localized problems in Berlin and Beijing and consider how things are done in Silicon Valley, the mecca of modern entrepreneurship.

Both entrepreneurs have already heard or read about the perennial wisdoms and stories of the Valley by now. They know how funding is obtained, how products or services are market tested, how ventures often have to pivot once or twice before achieving their objectives (or folding), and how failed entrepreneurs readily move on to new ventures without being marginalized. And yet, these vicarious insights will be forever useless if they cannot be realized, applied in the entrepreneurs’ respective contexts. There is an enormous difference between being in and experiencing the Valley[1]. The former is an intellectually stimulating vacation. The latter can be a paradigm-shifting experience, if pursued correctly.

This is where our Silicon Valley Immersions program enters. We wanted to be the premier host for international entrepreneurs who desperately craved a real taste of the Valley. Our promise was to thoroughly immerse our visitors in the most developed ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship in the world. They would have access to the most dynamic lectures, visits, networking events, discussion panels, workshops, and projects––all tailored to the needs of selected international student cohorts[2]. As any other start-up, we agonized over both the quality and the scaling of these programs in all dimensions. Quality was paramount; to be measured by our students’ evaluation of their educational experience as well the program perceived value by our client relative to its price.

The promise is that we will learn faster, retain more information, and acquire new insights afforded by a multitude of customized experiences accommodating the individual learning styles of each one of us. 

Soon after our idea was born, we tested a theory Thomas Edison gave us a century ago: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” The inspiration was the perceived unmet need of business, science, and engineering students, managers, executives, entrepreneurs and angel investors to experience the Valley. The rest was hard work. Many of our friends in the Bay Area had organized, as a favor, a couple of visits for visitors from distant lands before. But we saw how these casual visits usually ended up being relatively mediocre experiences that were seldom worth repeating and unscalable. We knew we wanted to be able to receive several groups each month while also preserving the quality of the educational experience provided. From the outset we designed these immersions to be highly customizable to meet specific group needs and provide the most positive experiences possible. This would bring its own rewards, because we would benefit from the viral word of mouth of happy clients.

In a prior post, I wrote on possible disruptions that will impact the way we learn. As we dispose of linear, sequential teaching methodologies, we can welcome experiential, parallel-track learning supported by high doses of technology, interactive games, peer-to-peer learning, artificial intelligence training, always at a pace individualized for the student. The physical classroom will retain[3] a role but the concept of a classroom will require total reinvention. The teacher, too, will transform from an instructor and grader into more of an advisor and coach, retaining his/her relevance but also providing dramatically new experiences for the students. Classrooms are clearly no longer places with four walls and a roof. In our immersion programs every place became the classroom as we conducted the visits on the bus, the conference room of a VC or Law Firm, and even the sidewalks as we developed the most recent Palo Alto walking immersion[4].

In addition, the classroom experience will transform into an immersion experience to maximize the active learning of the participants. Our experience in developing these academic immersions at the University of San Francisco has been very rewarding. We have combined the most successful and dynamic lectures with site visits, tours, panels, workshops, networking events as well as team and/or individual projects. All together we packaged these learning goals in timeframes ranging from 3 days to 3 weeks depending on group objectives, learning goals, and other relevant criteria. Furthermore, we sandwiched the actual experiences here in the Bay Area with web videoconferences before and after the visit.

Key in developing the immersion themes it was decided to leverage the San Francisco Bay Area location advantage by focusing on those areas that have gained world-class recognition. Hence, the following immersions themes emerged:

  • Silicon Valley Immersion
  • Wine Business Innovation Immersion
  • US Hispanic Market Immersion
  • Clean Tech/Renewable Immersion
  • Biotechnology/Health Innovation Immersion
  • Hospitality/Tourism Immersion
  • New Philanthropy/Social Innovation Immersion

Having conducted over 100 such immersions with over 1,300 participants from all around the world and at all levels of experience, interest and group ages, we have learned that such successful immersion experiences are indeed possible, fun, and rewarding. Our students remind us of their personal and professional transformation as result of the immersion experiences we have provided. My team and I are convinced that this is indeed a very worthwhile endeavor! 

Until my next posting – Carlos B.

[1] In my posts I often use three terms, Silicon Valley (SV), the Valley, and the San Francisco Bay Area (SFBA), interchangeably.
[2] Historically we have designed these programs to be offered to closed groups of people with similar interests, backgrounds, and experiences. This was a clear strategic option opposed to open enrollment.
[3] Where possible, blending online educational programs with in-class ones will lead to improved educational experiences.

About Carlos S. Baradello

Investor, thought leader, university professor, and advisor in areas of corporate innovation, born global entrepreneurship and venture capital investing.
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1 Response to Reflecting on Experiential Learning: The Role of Immersions Conquering SV’s ‘Secret Sauce’

  1. Ashok Saraf says:

    Looking forward to your immersive immersions in this part of the world , may be next 100 ?

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