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Engineer, Father, Philanthropist: Bhavin Shah

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Bhavin Shah

San Diego, Calif., Sep 20, 2016 - It was 1994, the Internet revolution was just getting started and California was on the forefront of innovation and technology. Bhavin Shah’s father and many of his friends had gone to UC Berkeley, but Shah chose to study computer science at UC San Diego. “I had friends that went through four years of undergraduate at other schools with very little contact with their professors. Once I saw the intimacy between the students and the engineering professors at UC San Diego, I knew that was the place for me.”

During his time at UC San Diego, Shah joined the Sally Ride EarthKAM project – a NASA educational outreach program that empowers middle school students, their teachers, and the general public to learn about Earth from the unique perspective of space. During Space Shuttle missions (periods when the Sally Ride EarthKAM camera is operational), middle school students around the country used EarthKAM’s software to request images of specific locations on Earth in order to learn more about earth science.

Shah highlights this program as one of the activities that gave him practical experience in computer science.  

“EarthKAM was like a real job,” said Shah. “We designed product, wrote code, and had our own customers. Those customers were middle school students. Like a real company, I was also able to see the direct impact of my effort. The deep impact we were having around the country was visceral every time we had a mission. But I also learned how much others depended on my work in a way that I never could have learned in the classroom. One morning, I was running a mock test with 16 schools. I had an idea about how to make the software run faster – in trying to implement it, I deleted an entire mission critical database. The entire test was scraped and we had to reschedule the test. I was devastated. Dr. Ride was not pleased.”

The experience fast-tracked Shah to maturity. “I was in a position to make mistakes without direct financial consequence,” said Shah. “I was lucky – not many students had the same opportunities to get hands-on experience that I did. I didn’t know it at the time, but the entire EarthKAM experience help me be a better prepared entrepreneur in many ways.”

This is the goal of Dean Albert P. Pisano’s new Experience Engineering initiative, which aims to provide student’s with hands-on engineering experience from Day 1.

Shah’s masters degree evolved from EarthKAM – he wanted to study the intersection of education and technology.

Shah credits Dr. Sally Ride for inspiring him to do so. Following in the footsteps of his brother, Shah chose to do a Masters degree at Stanford, where he could combine the practical experience he gained at UC San Diego with opportunities at Stanford.

After completing a hybrid Masters degree that encompassed computer science, education and business, Shah met the founders of Leapfrog and joined the company.

“My experience at Leapfrog was an amazing journey of developing innovative educational products and being on a winning team that grew to become one of the largest toy companies in the US along with a successful IPO in 2002,” said Shah. “After 5 years, I decided it was time to take my first entrepreneurial bet – I wanted to bring educational gameplay to the mass market. The idea was World of Warcraft meets education.”

Eventually, after several years Shah and the team of game professionals he had assembled realized that the vision was not going to work and the company had to pivot. It ended up developing traditional games, specifically games based on popular IP such as Marvel’s superhero franchise.

In 2011 he launched another company – Refresh.io, a platform that helps sales professionals learn about the people they are selling to. The company’s goal was to engender true connections between people by surfacing interesting commonalities in order to spark conversation. It was based on a trip he took with several world leaders to Afghanistan on a humanitarian mission in 2004. Those world leaders had dossiers about each other that would enable more productive and empathetic dialog. The app was featured several times by Apple and was gaining traction with professionals all over the country. Refresh.io was noticed by many large companies as the future of relationship management and eventually Refresh.io was acquired by LinkedIn in April 2015.

Shah calls himself a serial entrepreneur – after taking some time off to spend with his wife and two young children, Shah is now busy building an enterprise software company.

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Bhavin Shah and familly

When asked about work-life balance, Shah says he doesn’t believe in true balance. “It’s like a sport – you have to be extremely focused. No one would question Steph Curry’s extensive daily regiment to be at the top of his game. I think the same applies to the best entrepreneurs. ”

And now, Shah is looking to give back.

“I’ve hit a number of milestones in my career, and I want to have an enduring impact,” said Shah, whose father spends all of his time with philanthropic endeavors. “I want to inspire my own children to achieve their maximum potential. And then, when life is good to you, you give back.”

For Shah, giving to the Jacobs School is a way to re-connect with his passion – giving students access.

Student success is a product of one’s environment, he says. His generous philanthropy is providing the inaugural support for another of Dean Pisano’s strategic initiatives, the Student Success Initiative (SSI).

The Student Success Initiative is a comprehensive effort by the IDEA Student Center to support the academic success of undergraduate and graduate students at the Jacobs School. The initiative aims to increase retention and diversity.  

Specifically, Shah’s gift supported Diego Miranda, a freshman mechanical and aerospace engineering student, for seven weeks during the summer of 2016 to work on a research project connected to the theme of microrobotics in mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Olivia Graeve’s lab. “Without Dr. Shah’s generous support, I never would’ve discovered that I have a great love for research,” said Miranda. “I plan to do more of it.”

Shah says his professors at UC San Diego were dialed into the start-up scene, and growing up in a technology family gave him access to mentors and industry leaders that provide him with the best advice each time he needed it.

“A program like Student Success is critical in my opinion because it helps to bridge the gap for those that don't have a network of support they can leverage,” Shah said. “When I had a question in one of my math or engineering classes, I could always call my father for help. Student Success gives students the type of tutoring that everyone ought to have.”

When asked “why now” as it relates to his decision to make this kind of philanthropic gesture Shah remarked he wished he had done this sooner. “The idea of giving back in your early years doesn’t feel like a priority, however giving back at an early stage in life allows you to have a more enjoyable and potential enduring impact in a variety of ways.”

“Why the Jacobs School? There’s a better signal to noise ratio here,” said Shah. “If you want to see your contribution make a difference, give here. The leadership here will make sure it goes far. Every gift, no matter how small, makes an impact.” 

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Deborah Jude
UC San Diego Center for Microbiome Innovation
Phone: 858-534-8390
djude@ucsd.edu

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