As an architecture student at CED, Shawn Tsao fully expected to go into practice once he graduated in 2011. His journey seemed typical — an innate love of art and architecture, parents and teachers who nurtured his interest, acceptance into CED, and a senior-year internship with an architecture firm. But as happens with many CED grads, his path took a twist. And for that, future CED students will be grateful.
Perhaps it was Tsao’s initial attraction to Berkeley — the university and the food culture — that gave a hint of what was to come.
“I was leaning toward private schools with five-year programs,” Tsao explained. “But when I went to Cal Day and experienced the environment, talked with the speakers, and witnessed the other intangibles that Berkeley provides, I was captivated. Other architecture programs pigeonhole you into becoming an architect. But at Berkeley, you are forced to experience courses outside of architecture. It expands your knowledge.”
This breadth of experience proved useful. With a light load during his senior year, Tsao was accepted into the Y Combinator 2011 Summer cohort with three of his fellow Berkeley fraternity mates who had recently launched Munch On Me, a daily deals site for food. “They needed my design skills to help with the site UI and marketing materials. I also did a ton of sales since it was easy for me to sell a product when I was practiced selling my ideas during studio reviews.”
But it was the cost of satisfying a food craving that tipped the scales. “My partners and I have always been big-time foodies. At the time, we were located in the Financial District and the food choices were really limited. I tried to Task Rabbit a sandwich from Ike’s and it cost me $20 for delivery and took 2.5 hours. I thought, this was such a bad experience, I think we can do better.”
One year later the group launched Caviar, Inc. The curated food delivery service was acquired by Square in 2014 for a purported $90 million in stock. Tsao now currently serves as a founding partner and manager of the Umai Hospitality Group, a company investing in and operating “delightful food experiences”including Halal Guys and Bonchon West Coast franchises, and the venture fund Beluga Capital. The fund focuses on early-stage technology companies and has also invested in several UC Berkeley funds, including the House Fund, a Berkeley-based accelerator supporting start-ups founded by Berkeley alumni or current students.
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