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.
For Tsao, there was never a question of giving back to CED. He acknowledges the impact his experience had on his success. “It was invaluable to learn the theory behind how design is formed,” he explained. “How a user moves through a website is similar to how someone might walk through a building or a home. Design has to be done with intention.”
He continued, “Working on the start-up, there were a few nights of all-nighters, and while my partners — Haas grads — were complaining how hard it was, I’m saying, ‘This is nothing, we used to do these all the time at Wurster.’ Having that sort of mentality when trying to start a company is truly important. People give up all the time. Having that type of resiliency and persistence is not easy.”
In December of 2018, Tsao endowed the new CED Technology Assistance Fund with a gift of $500,000 payable over five years. The fund will be used to help subsidize computing and fabrication facilities fees, the costs of which are not covered by traditional financial aid.
The importance of Tsao’s gift cannot be underestimated. Technology access is a critical need in the College and a key pillar of its Strategic Plan. When the College – and its basic budgets – were established, the digital revolution had not yet touched the field; the budget was still based on a reliance on hand drawing. Providing CED students with safe, start-of-the-art, adequately staffed fabrication and computer lab facilities is a self-funded endeavor and without adequate campus support, the only way to finance these expenses has been through student fees. A patchwork of efforts has enabled the College itself to partially subsidize fees with its own discretionary non-state funds, but it doesn’t fill the gap.
“Charging students these fees is wrong,” avowed CED Dean Jennifer Wolch. “It hits lower-income students the hardest, many of whom are from underrepresented groups. While we’re trying to work with the administration on solutions, gifts like Shawn’s are hugely important to be able to support our students.”
Tsao’s personal experience made it easy for him to empathize with students’ burden. “It reminded of a time when I was really struggling to pay for all my materials — trying to get my project together even though I couldn’t really afford everything I required. I took on a job with Cal Football to subsidize the materials, software, and hardware I needed.”
He added, “For someone, especially an underprivileged student, to have to think about the cost of getting materials in order to have a solid project — that sucks. If you don’t have what you need, it can affect your grade. And a bad grade can have an impact when starting your career.”
Reflecting back on his CED experience, Tsao emphasized that it wasn’t just learning design that was important; there were life lessons as well. “You meet a lot of people from different cultures and social status as an architecture student or a student of Berkeley. You realize that some things you thought were a right are actually a privilege. I had a great experience at CED. I’ve been fortunate financially and I want to make sure that the students at Berkeley are taken care of.”