Shivani Desai: Discovering venture capital through Bet On Entrepreneurship

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When Shivani Desai (W ‘25) first came to Penn as a freshman studying in the Wharton School of Business, she did not envision herself as an explorer in the entrepreneurship space.

Growing up in Metro Atlanta—the hub of mom-and-pop shops and startups—and having parents who run small businesses, Shivani felt a natural pull toward the world of innovation and business development since a young age. When she was deciding between colleges, she chose Wharton, hopeful that she will discover more of the excitement she had always felt for business.

However, a few months into living in the University’s competitive environment, she felt reluctant to identify herself as an entrepreneurship enthusiast. “I hear a lot of people talking about startup this and crypto that. I felt like I was behind everyone. I didn't know anything about that,” says Shivani. “I felt like I wasn’t qualified to be at [Penn Venture Lab].”

The feeling lingered, and Shivani chose to step away from the startup headspace at first, seeking to engage with the local community through getting involved with backstage operations and program planning at the Wharton administration. While working at the Wharton STEP network, she came across a flyer for the Bet on Entrepreneurship program, a Venture Lab programming aimed at providing First Generation and/or Lower Income first-years at Penn with an eight-week immersive placement experience at San Francisco-based charter venture capital firms.

The word “entrepreneurship” initially stumped Shivani’s desire to give this program a try. “Looking back, I wish I could tell myself that you are more than qualified—just like any other student at Penn—to apply and seek out opportunities,” she says. “I hope no applicants will limit themselves from applying because they think they are not good enough or that they don’t know enough.”

Therefore, when Shivani received her acceptance a few weeks after brewing up the courage to apply, she was beyond surprised. “It has been a life-changing journey since then,” says Shivani.

The first part of the Bet on Entrepreneurship program(BoE) involves a 6-week boot camp in the spring semester for the freshman cohort, taking place every Friday at Tangen Hall. This boot camp series gives the inaugural cohort opportunities to chat with Professors and industry leaders in the space of venture capital, laying the groundwork for the second part of the program which involves real-world training and experience at partner venture capital firms. In June, the cohort members arrived in San Francisco to begin their 8-week journey immersing in the local entrepreneurship and venture capital landscape. During this time, BoE members also have access to resources from the Wharton San Francisco campus, programming from Venture Lab, and networking opportunities with the wider alumni community on the West Coast.

Shivani expresses special gratitudes towards the people she met at Forerunner Venture, the BoE partner venture capital firm she worked at. “Words cannot describe how monumental my experience at Forerunner Venture was in shaping my confidence to learn more about and pursue Venture Capital.”

Her experience at Forerunner was in-depth, hands-on, and transformative. “From sitting in on deal meetings, to grabbing lunch with our Partners who took time out of their busy schedules to mentor us, I am truly grateful to everyone at Forerunner for trusting me and my fellow cohort member Adam to deliver actionable insights for both internal & external projects,” says Shivani.

In addition to the practical venture capital training, community-building is another crucial part of being in the BoE cohort. Although members were staffed on different projects across various firms, the entire cohort bonded over their shared interest in the startup headspace as well as the experience of living together at an extended-stay hotel. “It was such a fun experience that reminds me of the Suite Life of Zack and Cody…All of us were in our own little rooms amongst other guests traveling from all over the world,” says Shivani, for whom new friendships and great memories were made this past summer.

“We would just do as many things as possible as a group, from exploring Japantown to visiting the Golden Gate Bridge. Making the most of the experience is something BoE really encouraged,” she says.

Coming from a background that is extremely underrepresented in venture capital, Shivani hopes to encourage students in similar positions to reach out and leverage resources available to them within the University to expand their network. “Whether or not you end up participating in BoE, this is not the only way for you to break into venture,” she says. “Despite not having maybe the best connections growing up, you have the chance at Penn to build connections that could bring lasting impact to your lifelong journey.”

“There are so many resources, fellowships, and cool people to meet, as well as the research and startup side of things offered through Penn and Penn's network of faculty and alumni.” Shivani points to the recent Entrepreneurship Expo and the VIP-C program at Venture Lab as valuable opportunities to take advantage of for any undergraduates who may have a spark of interest in the startup and venture capital industries.

Now, entering her sophomore year, Shivani is excited to bridge her BoE experience with new learnings in the school year. “I'm super excited to apply all of the knowledge and connections that I gained and the memories that I made beyond,” she says. Moving forward, Shivani knows that venture capital is a potential future career path she hopes to pursue.