Entrepreneur's Perspective: Pomona College Alum Walter Rivera
This post is a follow up to my recent piece on ‘Next-Level Questions’ for building relationships with entrepreneurs. I look forward to doing more of these over time!
Pomona College grad Walter Rivera is Head of Sales and Partnerships at Funderful, a Boston-Based startup that’s building Facebook Messenger chatbots to help universities connect with alumni on social media. They pioneered their idea with Pomona, Georgetown, West Point, the University of La Verne, and Lewis & Clark College. The chatbots help alumni get information they need and feel even more connected to the university through the use of automation and artificial intelligence.
We initially connected over a conversation about fundraising broadly, and about our shared goal to support a diverse and vibrant higher ed entrepreneurship community. I find talking with entrepreneurs fascinating, and it helps me understand their journey. I can better serve them as a bridge to their alma mater, and as a philanthropic advisor.
Walter got involved in the startup community early in his time at Pomona. He co-founded Pomona Ventures, a student-run entrepreneurship club supporting campus entrepreneurs. His path as a budding VC took him around the world with prominent venture development initiatives like the Kairos Society and Techstars, but it was his experience at home in Pomona that clued him in to the entrepreneurial opportunity he’s now pursuing on the startup side.
Walter, you took a somewhat non-traditional path to your current role. We always hear about startup vets moving into venture capital (VC), but you went the other way around. How did that evolve?
I had the idea for Pomona Ventures, a group that could support student entrepreneurs with workshops, events and community, and brought it to the Advancement Office. They liked it and introduced me to the most prominent alums in Silicon Valley. We sat down with about 15 of them, and they loved the idea — and that was essentially the beginning for me.
I was part of the Kairos Society [an international student venture group] and eventually went to their Eastern European Summit, where even with the little network I had, I could make real progress. I was going back and forth between Pomona and Budapest, and moved to Budapest full time after graduation, where I started a micro-VC firm.
After working with the Disney Accelerator powered by Techstars in LA for a while, I began working on a nonprofit, in partnership with Pomona, that would support college students who had help from college access programs like I did. That’s how I realized how fundraising worked. Around that time I got introduced to the founder of Funderful, Raimonds Kulberg. Because I’d seen the inside of the fundraising process, I saw the opportunity and joined the team as a late founder.
What are you most excited about at Funderful right now?
Feeling that we’ve opened up a whole new channel for Higher Ed advancement — Facebook Messenger. It [using chatbots] is new even by Silicon Valley standards.
Higher education is usually 10–20 years behind the rest of the world technologically. What we’re doing is helping universities be at the forefront of this technology. We’re trying to eliminate emails in Higher Education, so that everyone can communicate with a common app — a messaging app. Over time, schools can then create very custom tailored, engagement pieces for every alum.
We’re about 10 people now. We just moved to Boston. It’s been one of the craziest adventures ever — coming into the company almost two years ago, going through the elite 500 Startups program in San Francisco, and making a pivot into what we’re working on now.
What keeps you up at night?
We’re very reliant on the Facebook. We‘re building our company based on their platform. Investors can be concerned about that, but Facebook is so big, how do you not leverage it? So we’re thinking very carefully about that as a small tech company, and making sure we understand how alumni connect. We think a lot about defensibility. We think about who we talk to, who we ask for help.
So do you worry about someone just copying your idea and technology?
No. You have to match our passion, and you have to match our execution, and the odds of finding the two together are very small.
I know it’s important to you to lift up the Latino community. How are you thinking about that?
There are a lot of programs for the Latino community in STEM, but fewer for the business side of things. They’re not about how to be a CEO, how to be a COO, how to be on the board of a Fortune 500 company. We’re making progress in getting Latinos into tech, but there’s not enough focus on getting people in the boardroom too. So this has been my driving force.
I’ve mentored a lot of young students. They would always talk about how they want to play basketball, for example, or be in the NFL. Realistically, they’re probably not going to be able to do that. But they should know that they still are able to work for the Dodgers, or work for the NFL Network. They can go into sales, they can go into marketing — there are so many different fields they could go into at these companies. A lot of minorities going to good institutions, may not know how to get these kinds of jobs and to lead teams and companies in these areas.
How can we get these students when they’re 14–15 years old and get them to start dreaming big? The goal I have is to take college access programs a step further and add a level of leadership and a level of entrepreneurship; to help educate the Latino community about all the pathways available to them.
Do you keep up with what’s happening at Pomona?
Yeah, Pomona and the Claremont Colleges are getting a lot more active in the startup world. There are a lot of younger alums who’ve been successful in startups, and are going back and trying to get involved. And when they go back, they find Pomona Ventures, the entrepreneurship club that wasn’t there when they were on campus — so that’s the group that they’re now attracted to.
Since I left, they’ve set up “Sage Tank” which is like Shark Tank for Pomona. They line up alumni investors and entrepreneurs as judges. It’s been really humbling to see this happening and great to see more and more alums getting involved.
You’ve given different forms of capital to Pomona , not just money— time, expertise, etc. Has that been fulfilling for you?
Yes! Pomona was actually the first beta tester of our new Facebook bot. We weren’t trying to sell it, but we were just testing it and is was more focused on questions like “Can you use it? Can you give us feedback?” It was a big help.
Do you let yourself think about what you might support if big things happen with Funderful?
Absolutely. I think about this idea of adding leadership and entrepreneurship on top of college access programs like the one that supported me at Pomona. My dream is to start a nonprofit that does this. I’d also want to help the community learn about philanthropy itself. Just teaching them about the basics — “What is annual giving?” for example — could help people give more effectively.
I’m also a big fan of student entrepreneurship, because you have nothing to lose. There does have to be a distinction between a college project and a company that’s started by a college student. But it’s a great way to understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur, and a good way to practice being on a budget for…a while!
We’ve talked a little about the pre-exit philanthropy work I’m exploring as well — also known as founders pledge programs. What are your thoughts on that?
Yeah, absolutely we’re already starting to think about how we give back and help others give back. A good friend of mine was talking about giving equity early as a way to support the college. In the end the company didn’t survive, but the feeling was there, so I think it’s something that every school should look into. Again, as long as there’s a distinction between a project and a company, it’s a great idea.
As a philanthropist, how do you respond to requests from the organizations you support?
I don’t read paper mail. I don’t respond to calls. I also don’t like to get mass email — but obviously I’m biased because I’m trying to get more people on Messenger! One area I have a slight issue with is crowdfunding. There’s research that shows that millennials want to know where their money’s going. But schools usually offer 50 different options and it’s overwhelming. It’s been hit or miss with a lot of institutions, so finding that balance is important.
How do see the role of the university in an entrepreneurial ecosystem?
Universities have to be leaders in their communities if that community is trying to be a startup hub. They should never try to be ‘Silicon Valley,’ but they can be leaders in creating startup hubs on campus — inviting startups to campus, hosting events, and really leading the way in connecting people.