Shaping tech leaders
In a new course, alumni superstars share their startup savvy with aspiring entrepreneurs.
By Hannah Jackson ’24
Ram Fish leads a class at Sears think[box] in February.
A dozen students sit around a large conference table on an upper floor of Sears think[box]. At the front of the table, an alumnus leans back in his chair and opens the class with this observation: “In entrepreneurship, you need to fall in love with the problem, not the solution.”
Students instantly look intrigued, as they’re always focused on solutions in the classroom. But this isn’t your typical class. It’s being taught by Ram Fish ‘95, MS ’95, a technology entrepreneur and Silicon Valley success story who is helping to pioneer a new kind of course at Case Western Reserve University.
The class, “Technology Management and the Startup Trek,” is designed to bring together students interested in entrepreneurship with alumni who can share firsthand experience and insight. Also known as VEAL 333, the course is a partnership between the Case School of Engineering, the Veale Institute for Entrepreneurship and Post-Graduate Planning and Experiential Education.
It was designed by Fish and Michael Goldberg, the executive director of the Veale Institute and an associate professor and entrepreneurship specialist at the Weatherhead School of Management. Goldberg said he saw a chance to connect students with opportunities in the tech industry and to strengthen student-alumni ties.
The debut class offered some unusual features, including an all-expenses- paid trip to Silicon Valley, where Fish and Goldberg introduced the students to other founders and technology innovators — many of them Case alumni.
“We have amazing alums. They want to do more with our great students,” Goldberg said.
The course is like no other offered at Case, as it offers a view of startups and tech giants from people who succeeded in the field.
After earning two computer engineering degrees at Case, Fish went on to lead digital health strategy at Samsung, where he helped to build Simband, the world’s leading platform for wearable health sensors. He also played influential roles at Apple, Nokia, and Openwave.
Today, Fish lives in Menlo Park, California, where he runs his latest startup, 19Labs, a company seeking to bring state-of-the-art emergency medical care to remote corners of the globe.
In the seminar sessions, Fish and Goldberg invited students to discuss the highs and lows of startup culture, engage in conversations with industry experts – often via Zoom – and research current companies and their employees.
Fish’s background in the mobile phone industry allowed him to bring in speakers like Lisa Waits, who was Nokia’s Chief Counsel when the company fought for survival in a digital world being disrupted by Samsung and Apple. She discussed with the students why Nokia was unable to sustain its success and what that means for future mobile startups.
“Why did they fail?” Fish asked, encouraging students to look at the background of the CEO and his or her willingness to take risks. “The pace of your decision-making is absolutely critical.”
A dozen students from across Case’s academic schools were selected for the pilot course. They met several times in person and via Zoom before flying off to visit Silicon Valley March 23-26.
Fish and Goldberg arranged tours of innovative companies and introduced students to Case alumni working in the San Francisco Bay area. Fish had even bought the students personalized hoodies, conversation starters to wear when they met engineers and executives from companies like Salesforce, Oracle, Apartment List, Airbnb, Netflix, GoPro, and Meta/Facebook.
The networking opportunities may be the class’s most rewarding feature, Fish believes.
“I want to help students get recruited,” he said. “That’s half the battle of the tech industry, so Michael and I are leveraging our networks to create the best experience for our students.”
He added that he enjoys the discussions with Case students and that he’s always wanted to teach, so he’s thankful that his alma mater made that possible.
“When I went to Case, the idea of going off and starting a company anywhere outside of the Midwest was not something kids thought about,” he said. “This bubble of ambition was what people’s minds were set on. But there’s so much more that you can do once you realize there are no limits and other possibilities. I want to open students’ minds to these possibilities.”
Goldberg said Fish’s real-world experience complements faculty knowledge, which makes the class dynamic in a way that students haven’t experienced before.
“I want to help students get recruited. That’s half the battle of the tech industry.”
Students of VEAL 333 couldn’t agree more.
Max Pennington, a senior studying chemical engineering, took the class to learn how to lead a tech company. He has his own startup, CLEANR, which works to minimize microplastic pollution through smart filters on washing machines.
“Mr. Fish not only listens and answers our questions during class through the seminar, but he has been willing to take time out of his day to listen to our personal questions for advice with our own companies,” Pennington said. “It is not very often that you get the opportunity to pick the brain of people with as much experience as he has, and this is another great reason to take the class.”
Ishaan Gupta, a third-year computer science major, said the field trip to Silicon Valley added a special dimension.
“This trek just took my understanding of startups, product design, and entrepreneurship to just another level,” he said.
Megan Nellis agrees. She’s a fourth-year student majoring in chemical engineering.
“The Silicon Valley Trek and the VEAL 333 class are hands-down one of my favorite and most valuable experiences from CWRU,” she wrote afterward. “I was able to network with so many successful CWRU alumni I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise. I learned invaluable lessons from their experiences that have inspired me to continue to pursue my career in entrepreneurship and to dream even bigger.”
VEAL 333 will continue this fall, with Fish again teaching the course. Goldberg plans to package the class into the new Veale-Snyder Fellows program at the Veale Institute, then open the course to more students and more alumni instructors.
That will provide more alumni with the opportunity to share their expertise with Case students hungry to learn. For more information on VEAL 333 and future classes, email Michael.Goldberg@case.edu.
Ram Fish ‘95, MS ’95
Alex Yakubovich ’07, a Workday executive and co-founder of Scout RFP and ONOSYS, talks with students in Silicon Valley.
Students of VEAL 333 outside the offices of Oracle in San Francisco.