Rhonda Shrader says that the best founders “do not expect to have everything wrapped up in a nice bow”

Patrick Chung
6 min readJun 1, 2022


Xfund advisor Rhonda Shrader has spent much of her career founding and leading biotech, health tech, and retail startups. Now, she’s living out her passion for supporting entrepreneurs at the University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business.

Rhonda is the Executive Director of the Berkeley Haas Entrepreneurship Program and the National Science Foundation’s Bay Area I-Corps. She’s also an alumna of Haas herself and teaches a graduate-level course on lean startups.

Here, Rhonda shares her thoughts on teaching “the fundamentals,” what makes Berkeley founders special, and why it’s ok if you don’t have that one great idea yet.

Tell us how you connected with Xfund.

The first year I arrived at Haas, we had changed our business plan competition to the UC Launch Accelerator, open not just to Berkeley and Haas, but to everyone with a UC affiliation. Instead of just having a “beauty pageant” of teams pitching, we created an accelerator where teams received training for three months. For our big demo day, somebody suggested we get Patrick for a judge. He answered the call. He showed up, he was wonderful, and I got to know him by hearing his feedback. I was like, “Whoa, we’ve got to have more of that!”

What made you want to come on board as an Xfund advisor?

It was an easy yes. Jadyn, Brandon, and Patrick all embodied what is one of the most important values to me: reciprocity. When students come screaming into my office, “I need a mentor! You’ve got to fix me up with a mentor!” often the first question I have is, “Who have you mentored lately?”

Reciprocity is super important to me, and Xfund really walks the walk when it comes to that. If I have a student that I’d like them to meet, whether or not I think the fund is going to be interested, they always say yes. They do their darnedest to help them get the resources or advice they need right then.

How is the Entrepreneurship Program supporting entrepreneurial thinking at Haas?

When I came on campus seven and a half years ago, I saw lots of really great programs around entrepreneurship, but there was a lot of duplication and disconnection.

So, with every program that I’ve supported or had a hand in, I’ve tried to build a pipeline to eliminate duplication and bring the campus together, because that’s how we really shine. A business student works with a student from chemistry, or engineers work with master of translational medicine students. We’re trying to support entrepreneurial thinking in both our co-curricular options and curriculum in a couple different ways.

Number one is by establishing a pipeline, so that students not only learn the skills they need, but they also know where they need to go next, instead of just kind of spinning around and worrying, “Oh, should I go apply to this or that or that?” They know, “To get the next skillset, I need to do X.”

I’ve also integrated it into a class I started with one of my colleagues called Lean Transfer. We have our classic Steve Blank Lean Launchpad curriculum, where the students bring their own ideas and work on those for a semester, while they learn the Lean Startup methodology.

One thing I realized pretty early on is that not every student has that one great idea. Not every student has found that big problem they want to solve. But there’s a surfeit of technologies on our campus that could be solving those problems, and could be, if they were pulled out of the labs, that next great idea. So, I work with the faculty across Berkeley, UCSF, Berkeley Lab, and NASA. We take IP that researchers are curious about commercializing and use that as the basis to teach multi-disciplinary student teams the Lean Startup process.

You’ll have master of translational medicine students working with physics PhD students and MBAs, and they’re all learning the process together, which is really cool, because nobody is an expert. They’re all searching for answers. That’s really the way that we’ve tried to bring that kind of entrepreneurial magic, just by teaching those basic skills at every touchpoint.

How is Haas connecting with the broader venture and founder community in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley?

One of our programs that I love the most is called Mentor Hours. Students can sign up for mentoring sessions with entrepreneurs and investors, and receive super valuable connections and guidance.

It’s also a great way for entrepreneurs and VCs to give back — and it doesn’t have to be an enormous time suck. Literally, if you commit to offering two hours a year, in four 30-minute slots, that’s a great way to feel connected.

What do you think is special about the innovators and founders that come out of Berkeley?

Berkeley is for people who are scrappy. These are people who do not expect to have everything wrapped up in a nice bow. They know that when they come to Berkeley, it might not be an easy path. They’ll be challenged. But that’s the kind of thing that builds resilience early. It builds confidence early. I just think people here are scrappier, and that’s a healthy dynamic to have across the campus.

You’re also the Director of the Bay Area Node of the NSF I-Corps. What does that program offer?

We have a class, Introduction to Lean Startup. A lot of students, faculty members, and researchers don’t have access to our semester-long classes, but they’re very happy to spend three evenings learning the basics of the Lean process. We offer that every month.

Not everybody has that great idea when they’re a student. We’ve had amazing teams of engineers who’ve worked in the world for a few years. They were like, “Aha! Now I know what problem I need to solve,” and they came back and did I-Corps, and the rest is history.

You’ve been on the founding teams of several startups. How do those experiences inform your current work?

I was fortunate as an undergrad to work with a professor who turned an idea into a company. Instead of going off to medical school, I really got the startup bug. I realized, why should I go to school, when I can start helping people right now? I’d never thought that before — I’d never thought about business. I’d always been this geeky little science nerd.

That experience informs my work now, because I know that undergrads can do it, I know that grad students can do it. I just love working with students so much.

What do you think students who are interested in entrepreneurship need most from their university?

They need training in those basic skills. Students sometimes think, “Oh, I need to have this genius idea to really make an impact on the world.” But what they really need is to find a problem they’re passionate about. They need to learn the skills to test hypotheses with customers, eliminate bias, and hear what they don’t want to hear.

The best thing we can do is train them in those basics, because whether or not they become an entrepreneur, these skills will make them a better consultant, banker, or product manager, or researcher and professor. It just makes you better, when you can see the world through the customer’s perspective.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

That there’s something different every five minutes. It’s just never boring. I’m exhausted at night, but in the morning, I can’t wait to get out of bed and see what came in on email overnight, because it’s usually going to be something cool.

What advice do you have for founders?

Focus on the fundamentals. Focus on finding that problem to solve and learning the skills to do so. Let all this other talk about valuation and SPACs and this and that float on by. Focus on what you need to focus on: the fundamentals.



Patrick Chung

An established venture capital investor, Patrick Chung serves as managing general partner at Xfund.