Google, Laser Focus and Cold-Emailing Ben Horowitz Rap Lyrics: A Wharton Profile of Roger Chen, WG16

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Many of you might not know who Roger Chen is, or would even recognize him if you saw him.  This is perhaps an unfortunate side effect of dedicating yourself to work, a project or an organization independent of the Wharton experience.  And yet, this fact, and the lack of public and consistent praise received from being integrated in the Wharton community, does not make any achievement less notable.  Additionally, a large value-proposition of our Wharton experience is the capacity to learn from our amazing classmates, build relationships and draw on our variety of experiences.  Alas, after meeting Roger, it was apparent that he had a story and professional experience that risked going unnoticed and failing to benefit the Wharton community. Everyone: meet Roger.

Originally from China, he moved to Canada when he was just an infant and later moved to the US with his family and settling in Michigan.  It was in Michigan he would get his first exposure to finance – and it was not a positive one.  During his high school summers, and later college summers, he interned for a mortgage bank, with increasing responsibility each summer. In 2007, he found himself in a dark, back room of the bank, with other bankers, approving bank loans.  He had a front row seat to the financial crisis, fueling his cynical and frustrated view of the finance world that drove him to the University of Michigan computer science department.

After graduating in 2010, he continued with his passion in developing value for his community and giving back.  These are his self-proclaimed “Obama-esque” years when he was a community organizer in Ann Arbor, before he was approached by Google who valued his computer science skills and reputation he had built as a community organizer.  From 2011-2014 he worked on Google Maps as a product manager, working on the integration of Waze to the rest of the Google Maps platform and products.

Not one to remain complacent and always in search for the next opportunity to create value, learn and grow personally, he turned his attention to the venture capital world.  With no prior experience in this realm (except for keying approvals for mortgages in a shadowy bank room), he had no meaningful connections or insights into the VC world. But, he knew that Andreessen Horowitz was among the most renowned firms.  What happens next starts a snowball reaction that illustrates beautifully that we all truly have the opportunity to do anything we want – you just have to be willing to grab it.

After some research, Roger found the standard email form for AH employees, discovered Ben Horowitz was a fan of rap and hip-hop music, and cold-emailed him.  Not only did he cold e-mail Mr. Horowitz, he e-mailed him referencing and quoting an entire verse from a DMX song.  It got the ball rolling and eventually led to a research consultant position, and later an investment associate position at Fontinalis Partners.

Those roles were pre-Wharton, yet led to connections that would yield his current role at Genacast Ventures, the seed fund of Comcast Ventures.  He’s worked full-time at Genacast Ventures as a principal since the middle of his first year, when he made the very deliberate decision to clearly identify his priorities and focus on nothing more than his goal – to make a real, tangible impact in the VC community.

In the course of our conversation, I took away a few key insights and important lessons that I thought were directly applicable to the majority of us.

  1. Don’t be shy.  Know your goals, and develop a strategy around how to achieve them, and never expect them to be served on a platter, but rather, expect that strategy to require hard work, and getting dirty (even if that means sending Ben Horowitz DMX song lyrics).
  2. Be a hard worker.  Be willing to outwork anyone.
  3. Explore and be willing to learn, but eventually pick a vertical you want to be an expert of, and do everything in your power to become that expert (in Roger’s case this was his knowledge of transportation).
  4. Understand that you are a brand.  Companies are hiring you to leverage that brand.  Specifically, Roger has taken steps in developing his personal brand by attempting to get ahead on the relatively new podcast medium with his podcast Supreme Clientele.

Certainly, these are lessons many of us have heard before, maybe in different words but similar principle, yet Roger personifies them, and adds a breath of life that serves a fresh perspective.  In 2014, Roger responded to the Quora question, “Should I accept my spot at a top business school or stay in an operating role at a fast-growing tech company?” with an optimistic view supporting the potential of an MBA degree.  Now, in 2016 and about to graduate from Wharton with his MBA, I asked him if he agreed with his younger self.  Simply, yes…as he says, “always look at all the facts and have a plan moving forward.”

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