Mike Levinthal, a famous venture capitalist from Silicon Valley, changed the lives of BYU Sandbox entrepreneurship students by striving to inspire them to develop curiosity, motivation and lasting relationships.
Levinthal said he grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley where he studied mechanical engineering at Stanford University both as an undergrad, master’s and MBA student. He began his career as a venture capitalist at New Enterprise Associates, one of the largest venture capital firms in the world, according to their website.
There, he met Kathy Schlein, a successful businesswoman from Short Hills, New Jersey. Schlein studied at Harvard and was among those who worked on the original Apple Macintosh. Schlein said she invited Levinthal, per a request from her father, to join her on a long bike ride, but it did not end the way she had planned.
“He almost killed me in a bike accident by hitting the brakes too hard when I was trailing behind him,” Schlein said. “I got severely hurt in the back from my bike skidding across the highway, and I was lucky I didn’t get killed.”
Schlein said they parted ways for two years, leaving her with a bike that looked like a “Pringle potato chip.” It was not until after her dad suggested Levinthal might want to talk to her after their first tragic incident that they once again reconnected.
“After I graduated from business school, we ended up biking every single day for four years,” Schlein said. “We would bike hundreds of miles a week together.”
Schlein said after those four years, they started dating and got married five months later. She said she always bikes at least 50 meters ahead of him and never lets him get too close.
“Mike is one of the most intellectually curious people in the world,” Schlein said. “He just has to dig in. He’s got to see it, he’s got to touch it, he’s got to be immersed.”
Schlein said it was his curiosity that led Levinthal to BYU, and more specifically, to Chris Crittenden from Midway, Utah, the managing director of the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and founder of the BYU Sandbox Program.
Levinthal said he started a program at Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley called the Mayfield Fellows to help students make connections, get hired for internships at Silicon Valley companies and learn from each other.
He said after 20 years of serving there, he was inspired to do something similar at BYU when he moved to Park City, Utah — but with a different twist.
The Sandbox program is where students spend two semesters working in teams to build and launch a tech software product, according to the Sandbox website. Crittenden said he had the idea to carve out a similar set of students from Sandbox and give them opportunities to connect, learn, network and go on a study abroad trip with the help of Levinthal.
“One of my big goals for Sandbox is how we can build a tighter cohort and community,” Crittenden said. “And a study abroad is a great way to do that.”
Crittenden said after putting their heads together and with their combined creativity, the “Levinthal Fellowship” was born.
Levinthal explained how he taught a special entrepreneurship class based on literature as a part of the fellowship where successful founders of start-up companies came and visited with the students about their experiences.
“If you asked anyone how I was from January through April last year, they would say that I was the happiest they had seen me,” Levinthal said. “All I would do is talk about it.”
BYU design student Kaylee Olvera said she has participated in Sandbox for two years and had the opportunity to be a part of the Levinthal Fellowship.
“It was cool to take the principles from the books (we read in the class), and relate them to business,” Olvera said. “I was able to look at these books and relate them to entrepreneurship, design or even my life.”
Schlein said the experience for both the students and Levinthal has been tremendous in every regard.
“Mike always wants to push the envelope and is kind of unique,” Schlein said. “You have a Jewish man who was educated and grew up on the West Coast, never really left a five mile radius, and wants to shed light in a new way where students can walk away saying it was very meaningful.”
Levinthal himself said he signed the BYU Honor Code and even got a beard card to be in compliance with BYU campus rules.
“He’s genuine about it,” Schlein said. “People don’t do things like that, especially at 68.”
Crittenden said it was neat to have someone like Levinthal who is an outsider come and expand the culture of BYU with his new perspective and vast network.
“Mike comes from a totally different community, both religiously and professionally,” Crittenden said. “He’s so respectful of our faith and what we believe.”
Crittenden said he remembered Levinthal specifically asking not to schedule the class on a Monday night because he knew that was a special day for Latter-day Saints.
“When do you have someone who’s a practicing Jew come and teach a (BYU) class?” Crittenden said. “He’s probably the only one.”
Olvera said her connection to Levinthal was much deeper than a “LinkedIn relationship.”
“You could tell he valued others because he had a real relationship with every single person that he brought (to the class),” Olvera said. “He’s not just a professor — he’s your friend, and your mentor.”
Levinthal said his family always found ways to give back to the community while growing up, and he has loved it ever since.
“I just feel privileged, so I want to give back to the community,” Levinthal said. “I’ve benefited a lot from living in Utah, and I like being close to universities and students. It just all converged.”
Crittenden said in addition to teaching the class, Levinthal donated money for the students in his class to attend the study abroad in Italy.
“I don’t know that I could have gone without Mike’s donation,” Olvera said. “Getting to explore the new culture of Italy and build a network of people and relationships was something I never could have imagined.”
Crittenden said he thinks the most meaningful donors to BYU are not the ones who give money, but the ones who give their time.
“Mike did give financially, but I would actually argue that Mike’s biggest contribution has been his time,” Crittenden said. “It’s the connections he’s made for students and the time they got to spend with them that meant the most.”