“I didn’t come to Berkeley Haas to get a job or a promotion. I came with high hopes of figuring my life out, building great relationships, and enjoying new experiences,” said Michael Firestone, MBA 21. He wasted no time in doing all three.
After several successful years as a managing and portfolio director at Fiduciary Trust Company International, Michael realized that the big investment firms didn’t align with his values, especially around sustainability and social impact. “I thought Haas would give me the platform,” he said, “and, worst case scenario, if it didn’t work out, an opportunity to pivot at the end of my MBA studies.”
Pivoting to entrepreneurship
Then, at WE Launch, the signature Evening & Weekend MBA student orientation weekend, Michael met his classmate Alyssa Farrelly. “We just clicked,” he recalled. They quickly teamed up to form Fire Capital Management, a boutique investment management company offering private wealth management and multi-family office services with an eye on sustainability to high-net worth individuals, families, and foundations. Relying on the array of resources and relationships he fostered at Haas, the firm’s assets under advisement grew from zero to more than $700 million in just under two years.
Two impact investing classes taught by Adair Morse, Impact Investing Landscape and Impact Investing Practicuum, shaped Michael’s thinking. “Investing for both profit and purpose has become popular in recent years, but in practice, an industry standard approach does not exist. She introduced me to tools and a framework that help us differentiate sustainability and impact to our clients,” he said. The class, Venture Capital & Private Equity, taught by Sean Foote and Terry Opendyk, introduced Michael to private market investing concepts that are essential for a firm handling multi-family office relationships. “Despite my experience and prior education, my exposure to venture capital was limited. Learning from passionate professors like Sean and Terry that are also successful industry professionals was invaluable,” he said.
Tapping into the Haas network
Classmates were equally important. When they realized what Michael was creating, many reached out to see how they could help. Some of those relationships led to discounted pricing for much-needed research and analysis tools, as well as valuable connections throughout the industry. Another classmate, Josh Sheil, joined the team as a strategy consultant while he waited to start a new position with Bain & Company.
Tapping into the brainpower and connections of his classmates and the broader Haas Alumni Network gave Michael an incredible boost, but the most meaningful support was much simpler. “At the end of my first year, I was feeling really overwhelmed, asking myself, ‘What have I done? Why did I think I could start a business and succeed as a student?,’” Michael recalled. “One day, out of the blue, my classmate Dana Zhang, told me that I was an inspiration to her and others. That encouragement came at just the right time, and it is so typical of the Haas Beyond Yourself mindset.”
Fire Capital also benefited from more organized sources of support on campus. “We wrote our first job description for Fire Capital when we posted for an undergraduate student intern at Cal. The results were terrific. The intern we hired built our blog and got us started on social media,” Michael said. Later, the firm partnered with Berkeley Innovative Solutions, “hiring” a team of student consultants to do market research to augment their long-term strategic growth plans. These Cal resources helped Fire Capital round out its strategies and tactics far beyond the capacities of a small shop led by MBA students.
Determined to remain a Student Always
As the firm continues to grow and Michael nears the end of his studies, he is determined to remain a Student Always. “Being aware of myself and the impact I have on others are lessons from Erica Peng’s class on Personal Communications and Interpersonal Dynamics that I cherish and will always continue to work on,” he said. Building strong and meaningful relationships was something Michael knew was essential to his success and Erica’s class, “gave him tools to connect with others at a deeper level."
“I’m incredibly grateful to Berkeley Haas for teaching me as much about myself as about the traditional MBA subjects. Those lessons and the friends I’ve made will be part of me forever.”