Atusa beams with pride as she walks across the stage with two friends at the 2022 Haas MBA Commencement. All three are wearing caps, gowns, and Berkeley blue and gold sashes.

Making a measured pivot to venture capital

By Jenny Clare

In her second year in the Evening & Weekend MBA program, Atusa Sadeghi, MBA 22, started thinking about leaving a legacy. She did... a seven-figure legacy. No, not a donation, but as co-founder of a venture capital fund that represents “Cal students investing in Cal students.”

She and classmates Kevin Chang and Dogakan Toka, both MBA 22, came up with the idea when they realized the high number of unicorns (start-ups valued at more than $1 billion) incubated at UC Berkeley. “We knew so many people who wanted to invest, but students don’t have much disposable income. Only by creating a fund could we have an impact and attract the attention of founders,” she said. Chang and Sadeghi, assisted by Kurt Beyer, who taught their Entrepreneurship class, formed Courtyard Ventures as a limited liability company. Its name honors the spot on campus where countless connections have been made among Haas students. Today, the fund has nearly 200 investors, and Kevin is the managing partner, guiding the work of Haas students who serve as partners and associates.

Atusa, who initially trained and worked as a professional mechanical engineer in the mining industry, knew an MBA would eventually be part of her professional journey. “As much as I loved being on the technical design and operations side, I was always fascinated by the details of how a project was sourced, planned, and developed.” Working at the Canadian engineering and construction management firm SNC-Lavalin gave Atusa experience in the complete life cycle of several multi-million-dollar projects, and she met industry leaders who remain her mentors.

But, after six years, she knew that “to become a more well-rounded engineer, I needed to work onsite as a permanent field employee. I wanted to work alongside the construction and operation team to learn first-hand what the gaps are in our design, the pain points we engineers, who typically work from the home office, don’t see.” Her next stop was at JDS Energy & Mining, a smaller firm that allowed her to experience the entrepreneurial side of project management and engineering consulting as the engineering manager overseeing the design and commissioning of a gold mine and bauxite mine in Guyana. There, she was part of ”a lean team. We worked long hours in harsh environments, but we enjoyed every minute of it. The company culture promoted innovative thinking and collaboration across disciplines and functions.”

Atusa Sadeghi on a bus on her way to work onsite at a mine in Guyana

When she applied and was accepted at Berkeley Haas, she also jumped at the opportunity to work at Shell USA. This was not only another step along the path to blending her business acumen and engineering skills, it was a leap toward her goal of becoming an integral contributor in the climate tech space, specifically, mining-related technologies. As a technology director in Shell USA’s Mining and Decarbonization sector, she concentrates on identifying start-ups with innovative technology that can reduce inefficiencies and improve sustainability in mining operations.

Still eager to add direct VC investing to her toolbox, Atusa parlayed a 10-week MBA internship at Blue Bear Capital into a relationship that has endured after graduation. Atusa was introduced to the firm, which invests in high-growth technology companies across the energy, infrastructure, and climate industries, at an on-campus event. “I was so impressed with Carolin Funk, a Blue Bear partner. We had so many similarities. She is what I want to be,” Atusa said.

During her internship, Atusa created a market map and an investment thesis for companies exploring for base and precious metals, battery minerals, and rare earth elements—one of today’s hottest mining sectors. Now employed part-time as a senior venture associate, she continues to work with the deal team, exploring new opportunities while closely supporting existing portfolio companies.

As co-president of the Haas Venture Capital Club in her second year, Atusa further embraced her passion for leaving a legacy. She and her co-president “shook things up” by creating a stronger student VC community, strengthening relationships with Haas alumni, and promoting collaboration with nearby business schools. “The VC world is small. It is based on strong, deep relationships. We are certain to work with each other as well later in our careers. Why not start building those relationships while we’re still students?” she reasoned.

Atusa also participated in the Venture Capital Investment Competition where her team represented Berkeley at the global finals. She was recognized with a Cheit Award for outstanding teaching as the graduate student instructor in Kurt Beyer’s Entrepreneurship class. “For a VC, knowing how entrepreneurs think is critical. Kurt had great insights into that mindset as an entrepreneur himself,” Atusa said. She also represented Berkeley as the 2021 recipient of the Financial Woman of San Francisco Scholarship.

Atusa Sadeghi and friends pose for a group photo at graduation

Describing herself as a “crazy networker,” Atusa quickly found a community at Berkeley Haas. “Arriving as an international student, I had no connections here, but it was so easy to form strong bonds with my classmates and students in the other MBA programs. I felt welcomed right away. As clichéd as it sounds, I have to say, some of my strongest friendships have formed during my time at Haas.”

It was hearing about her classmates’ personal and professional journeys in classes like Leadership Communication that gave Atusa the confidence to tell her own story and take pride in it. She has come a long way from being a young female engineer who was actively discouraged from going to remote mining locations to the tenacious, self-assured, and astute professional intent on building a long-term career in a role where she can “pour all of my passion, experience, and skills into creating a more sustainable future.”

Atusa agrees with one of her favorite professors, Lucas Davis, “who taught our Energy Environmental Marketing class, that ‘ strategy setting and decision making rely on having a good understanding of how markets work, including environmental policies and climate change.’ Today we are building novel solutions with a better understanding of our global climate market. This makes my job, as a technical ESG VC enthusiast so much more exciting.”

Interested in making your own career pivot? An MBA from a top business school can help you grow your network and leadership skills so you can take the next step toward a fulfilling career.

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Posted on August 11, 2022
Themes: Entrepreneurship  |  Finance
Jenny Clare
Jenny is Senior Associate Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA Programs for Working Professionals. She hopes these blog posts provide you with useful insights into the Berkeley MBA experience and answer questions you may have about the MBA in general.