For Ashmeet Sidana, WG’03, education has been the key to his professional success. Growing up in rural India, his farming family lived in a mud house without running water. Today, Ashmeet is founder and chief engineer of the VC firm Engineering Capital in the Bay Area. “I went from living in a mud house to working at the cutting-edge of technology in Silicon Valley. I owe this transition to education in general and Wharton in particular,” he said.
With an undergraduate and master’s degree in computer science, Ashmeet started his career as an engineer at Hewlett Packard and Silicon Graphics and later founded his own software firm, Sidana Systems. After selling the startup for a “modest success,” he took time off for a trip to Mount Everest.
During his travels, he saw an advertisement for Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives, which at that time was opening a new campus in San Francisco. “As the CEO of my first startup, I was aware of what I didn’t know. I wanted to be an entrepreneur again and build a big company. I saw the MBA as ideal preparation. As a technologist, I also didn’t want to leave the amazing Silicon Valley ecosystem. The rigor of the full Wharton MBA with Wharton’s West Coast campus was a great option. I joined the very first Wharton San Francisco class,” he said.
Content, Contacts, Credibility, and Change
Ashmeet’s original plan was to start another company, but he ended up joining VMware when it was still a startup. As director of product management, he was responsible for the company’s flagship product — VMware ESX Server. After graduating from Wharton, Ashmeet revisited his plan for another startup.
Quoting from a friend, he said: “Wharton offers students four ‘Cs.’ You get Content from classes, Contacts from the network, Credibility from the credentials, and opportunities for Change.” Ashmeet wasn’t looking for a change in school, as his plan was to become a CEO at his own company. But he found it anyway.
“One of my mentors, who worked at Foundation Capital, knew I had graduated from Wharton. He introduced me to the firm, and they invited me to join as a junior partner,” Ashmeet recalled. “I wanted to try my hand at investing and see if I liked it. If not, I knew I could always go back to entrepreneurship.”
Transitioning to VC
It turned out that he liked VC. Soon, he was promoted to general partner and then managing partner. In 2014, he left Foundation Capital to launch his own firm, Engineering Capital, which specializes in early-stage funding for engineers with a technical insight. “We focus on software companies where there is still technical risk, before traditional VCs will invest. In other words, there is still a question whether a product can even be built.”
The seed-stage firm has raised two funds and has $80 million under management. Current portfolio companies include Menlo Security, Diamanti, Rubrik, Kentik, Nexla, Prismo Systems, SignalFx, vFunction, and YotaScale, and past exits such as Azure Power (NYSE IPO: AZRE) and Netsil (acquired by NTNX).
Ashmeet credits Wharton with helping him transition from technologist to venture capitalist. “If it weren’t for Wharton, I probably wouldn’t have been considered for the opportunity, and I certainly wouldn’t have understood or fully appreciated the opportunity. My Wharton education also broadened my perspective and prepared me to quickly accelerate onto a new path and become a good investor.”
Advice for Students
Ashmeet feels strongly about the value of his degree. He has invested in Wharton graduates such as Bipul Sinha, CEO of Rubrik, Saket Saurabh, CEO of Nexla, and Penn graduates such as Harjot Singh, CEO of Netsil (acquired by Nutanix). He often returns to the San Francisco campus and is a frequent guest on alumni panels.
During alumni career discussions, he’s often asked about his transition to VC. “I tell students that it’s an incredibly attractive field, but it’s also very specialized and takes a mixture of hard work, skill, experience, and luck. Those things all have to come together and it’s not for everyone. Most people also don’t realize VC has a high failure rate and it is not a path to instant riches. It’s a long and slow road in a very competitive industry.”
He advises students to ask themselves: “why will I be a good investor?” “Most people don’t have a good answer. They perceive it as a position of power, but that’s not a good answer. It’s not like Shark Tank where you sit in a comfortable chair with a parade of entrepreneurs pitching to you. If you want to be a VC, first you should understand the day-to-day work of a VC.”
Ashmeet tells students that “it requires a lot of work to generate returns over the long haul. Your time is spent on sourcing deals, evaluating people, helping portfolio companies, supporting the CEO, and dealing with messy board dynamics. Every day we have to say ‘no’ to earnest, hard-working, intelligent, well-educated entrepreneurs we meet and that can be emotionally draining.”
“However, when it’s the right career for you then it is very fulfilling. It’s hard to describe the feeling of watching your CEO take a company public, the same CEO you made a seed investment in just a few years ago. VC is intellectually stimulating, prestigious, and a lot of fun. I’m grateful to Wharton because my education helped me on this career path.”
— Meghan Laska
Posted: July 9, 2019