Using Venture Capital to Positively Impact the World

Julian Cheng (MEM '15) discusses the potential of venture capitalism and his new role as executive-in-residence in Northwestern's Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program.

Julian Cheng (MEM '15) is an early-stage venture capitalist and founder of Gen 1 Capital, a deeply exciting, enriching, and rewarding role. An investor has to carefully evaluate whether startup leaders are ethical, if their technologies actually work and can disrupt pre-existing business models, and if they can produce outsized returns for investors.  

Cheng enjoys the process of identifying and supporting founders who are combining technological innovation, building new businesses, and positively influencing the future of health, work, education, and computing. He says the role of venture capital is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as startups can be more nimble to focus 100 percent of their efforts on solving today's unique challenges. 

"Venture capital investing has the unique opportunity to support founders to build breakthrough companies that better people's lives with technology, positively impact communities through economic development, and result in highly favorable financial returns for investors," Cheng said. "I enjoy mentoring and helping founders solve hard problems." 

During the winter quarter, Cheng brought that enjoyment back to Northwestern's Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program, where he is an executive-in-residence (EIR). During his two-year post, Cheng will mentor and advise student and faculty startups, particularly those in the early stages of development. Using his experiences in the venture capital industry, he will help develop business ideas, connect with possible customers, and potentially assist with obtaining funding. Cheng will also work with faculty and staff who are seeking to commercialize university technology and intellectual property.

"I love investing in the future of Northwestern, MEM, and our community," he said. "The in-class experience with outstanding MEM faculty and students constantly challenged me and encouraged my thirst for knowledge. MEM bridged between engineering, business, and entrepreneurship, which enabled me to start companies and move into venture capital. 

"The supportive faculty and rigorous curriculum helped to unlock my potential and catapult me to where I am today."

Cheng is scheduled to teach an entrepreneurship course for MEM students in the summer quarter. He holds a weekly discussion about venture capital investing for more than 30 students and career explorers through Gen 1 Capital's Next Gen Investors program, which seeks to make venture capital more diverse and accessible through training. He also leads a team that teaches students ages 7 to 18 the frameworks of entrepreneurship and innovation through his company's Next Gen Founders program, which aims to inspire kids to create, innovate, communicate, and build new things.  

Cheng hopes to use his experiences as a way to teach the MEM community about the incredible potential, but also the important responsibility, that comes with being a venture capitalist.

"Venture capital investing has the ability to create incredible financial returns, but we also need to help low-income and marginalized communities through education, technology, equity, and economic development," he said. "We each bear the responsibility to bring positive change in the world."

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