An Ode to the Past Two Years of the Pandemic
Reflections on Running a Tech Accelerator Program in a Time of COVID
By Sibyl Chen
Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses from around the world including Berkeley SkyDeck, to dramatically alter the way they do business. Now as we emerge from an extraordinary period of time, I’d like to reflect on the resilience of the startup founders, advisors, and staff. Despite having to shift our entire program virtually with little warning and time, I bore witness to a generation of startup founders who were forced to adapt and adjust to the new normal. They accepted the reality of remote learning, virtual networking, Zoom meetings with investors, and the like.
SkyDeck is housed in the tallest building in Downtown Berkeley. Prior to the COVID pandemic, if you were in our office, you could feel the palpable buzz and energy. On any given day, there’d be some 80 to 150 founders running around our space. We were always hosting a multitude of events, from workshops and networking events to roundtable discussions and fireside chats. You could stroll around the office space and find yourself immersed in spontaneous conversations with founders about their latest developments. The level of energy and vibrancy in our office was incredible.
Then came the onset and spread of COVID in the U.S. which by the middle of March 2020, threw businesses from around the world into a tailspin. I remember the last day our office was open before it wasn’t. There was so much uncertainty surrounding the severity of COVID. I remember being in the office with the team and our collective decision to shift work remotely until further notice. We left our workspaces as if we’d come back the next day, but as the global pandemic developed, reality set in and we came to the sobering realization that it would be some time before we were going to be back in the office together again. Because we were gearing up for a new batch of startups, we had to quickly figure out how our program would proceed.
The absence of community
Over the past two years, three batches of startups have come through our program, with the first two being 100% virtual. Migrating the educational components of our program ended up being the easy part. Everything was on Zoom. The hard part was creating a sense of community.
During this time, we tried so many different things to build camaraderie and rapport. In spite of hosting virtual escape rooms and startup trivia, and trying every creative hack under the sun, we realized a real sense of community was one thing we could not easily replicate online. At the end of the day, we could not fully recreate for our founders the joy of standing at the kitchen water cooler, sipping coffee, while trading notes with fellow founders on an upcoming product launch or the challenge of finding the right hire. The exchange of ideas and thoughts in person, the real life interaction, the eye contact, the handshakes, the smiles… all of those little things lead to lifelong friendships. That was nearly impossible to create online.
The silver lining of COVID
The silver lining is that during this period, we learned about how much more efficient certain types of programming can be when delivered virtually. I am sheepish to say I was closed off to the idea of virtual events prior to COVID and insisted on hosting all programing in-person. Now that I have had two years of running a remote program, of course, I see things very differently.
With many of our advisors working remotely during COVID, it was much easier for our vast network of 415+ people to actively participate via Zoom. Without having to commute, say, an hour and a half from Palo Alto to Berkeley or wherever they were coming from, our advisors and mentors could more easily offer office hours to founders or engage in networking sessions. My goal has always been to ensure founders can access a wide range of expertise led to the expansion of the number of advisors and mentors we invited to our network. Previously, we only accepted those physically based in the Bay Area but after COVID-19, I started welcoming advisors from all over the country and even from outside the United States.
Our policy used to be that startups part of our accelerator program had to stay in the Bay Area for the entire duration of the program and work in-person at our office. For many, the extraordinary expense of living in the Bay Area and leaving family behind have been points of concern. During this period, however, we’ve migrated to hybrid programming. With the current cohort, we’ve designated three specific periods where founders would come to SkyDeck. This gives them the best of both worlds, as they are presented the chance to work with a top accelerator without completely uprooting themselves and leaving their families and current teams behind for an extended period of time.
Prior to the pandemic, we held internship fairs at the UC Berkeley campus, where we fit about 300 students in our reserved space — all packed like sardines. Despite this, it was such a great experience seeing excited students chatting with equally excited founders. Once the pandemic began, I realized we needed to keep the momentum going. In April of 2020, we had our first virtual internship fair that had 750 Cal students sign-up to attend. In 2020 alone, 1700 Berkeley students attended one or more of our three recruiting fairs and we matched 600 students to startups. At our recent internship fairs in 2021, there were consistently 1800+ attendees and nearly 800 students found internships.
In retrospect, never in a million years did I imagine a virtual recruiting fair would be tremendously more productive than an in-person event, but will we be conducting all future internship fairs virtually? 100%.
And yet, I cannot help but reminisce over those days where we packed 300 students into a room together, or the experience of being able to sit down with founders and feel their palpable excitement about their product and their frustration from dealing with the difficulties of being a founder. Those moments carry such real emotions that you just cannot experience virtually. I’m tired of seeing faces on a screen without being able to embrace the empathy and emotional connection that comes with in-person interactions. After all, the human essence can never be adequately captured in a Zoom call.
Looking toward the future
As we speed forward in 2022, I would be remiss not to give a special shout-out to our phenomenal network of advisors and mentors, who in the absence of engaging networking events and roundtable discussions, still demonstrated significant resilience and commitment in supporting our founders. I feel extremely grateful for our community and look forward to seeing everyone in-person at SkyDeck events in the near future.
For almost two years, our office has been sparsely occupied. As I’m writing this blog, I am sitting in the unusually quiet SkyDeck office. I’ve only been here a handful of times since March of 2020 and the silence is jarring; our space is missing its usual euphony of passionate, diverse voices from all over the world. What makes our accelerator special is our ability to bring people from all over the world together and build lasting relationships. So, on that front, I cannot wait to officially throw our doors open to Batch 14 startups on May 2nd. We will have 130+ startups back in-person in the SkyDeck penthouse which has an insane 360 degree view of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. That day our office will be abuzz again and packed with smiling founders standing shoulder to shoulder, chatting with one another, exchanging phone numbers, making plans to have lunch… that is what every orientation day was like before and will be like, again.
There will be many lifelong friendships that will spawn from that cohort. I look forward to that day.
***Note: If you are a startup founder looking for community and camaraderie, consider applying to SkyDeck’s Batch 14 program before March 6, 2022. skydeck.berkeley.edu/apply
Sibyl Chen is the Senior Director of Program at Berkeley SkyDeck, UC Berkeley’s premier tech accelerator. Learn more at skydeck.berkeley.edu