The Gift of Transformation

The Gift of Transformation

Kevin Chou, BS 02, and his wife, Dr. Connie Chen, donate up to $25 million to Berkeley-Haas to inspire student entrepreneurs and young philanthropists

By Krysten Crawford

Kevin Chou has long loved video games. In high school, he was a world-ranked StarCraft player. But he never imagined his hobby could catapult him into a career—until he came to UC Berkeley. Chou, 36, is co-founder of Kabam, a successful San Francisco-based mobile-game company that earlier this year sold the majority of its assets to South Korea’s Netmarble Games Corp. According to the Wall Street Journal, the deal was estimated at $800 million. Chou’s willingness to take risks and embrace unexpected partnerships landed him on Fortune magazine’s annual “40 Under 40” list of the business world’s most influential young leaders. With his sights now set on starting another company and being a serial entrepreneur, Chou is someone the business world will certainly follow. He graduated with a BS from Haas in 2002 and credits his experiences at Berkeley, specifically Haas, for his journey from small-time gamer to big-time entrepreneur.

In March, Chou and his wife, Dr. Connie Chen, a UCSF- and Stanford-trained physician and co-founder of the digital health startup Vida Health, announced a gift of up to $25 million to Haas to support student entrepreneurs and provide a world-class education to students of all backgrounds. The donation marks the largest personal gift by an alum under age 40 in UC Berkeley history. In recognition of this gift, the school will name its new state-of-the-art academic building, which is due to open in the fall, Connie & Kevin Chou Hall. Recently, Chou and Chen sat down with BerkeleyHaas to discuss what motivates their philanthropy, their hopes for Haas, and the power of giving back early in life.

What’s your first memory of your time at Berkeley?

KEVIN: Right before I started at Cal, my father was laid off from a job he had worked his entire career. We didn’t know how we were going to pay for my education. During one of our visits to Cal, we walked into the financial aid office in Sproul Plaza and found somebody who helped rework my entire financial aid package, which was absolutely critical in terms of helping me pay for my education. To discover this institution really cares about individual students was a very positive and wonderful initial experience for me.

We believe Berkeley’s diverse student body is one of its greatest assets and that this new building will bring together students of all backgrounds. We also hope our story will help inspire all students—particularly minorities, women, and those from under-resourced backgrounds—that anything is possible.

—Kevin Chou, BS 02

Can you describe how early experiences at Berkeley shaped you?

KEVIN: My parents immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan right before I was born, and I grew up in a small town north of Los Angeles where we were perhaps one of five Asian families. My life was very different after moving to Berkeley, specifically because of the incredible diversity along multiple vectors at Cal. I’ll always remember going to the first Cal football game of the season my freshman year, standing the entire game, learning all the different fight songs, and feeling part of this community with people from all around the world coming together within this institution. I got exposed to so many different worldviews. It all led me to ultimately found Kabam.

What led you to Haas?

KEVIN: When I came to Cal, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I didn’t even know what the word entrepreneur meant. People I knew in my hometown aspired to be a doctor or a lawyer. Initially, I took classes that put me on three different paths: I was always fond of math, so I was thinking of computer science or finance, but history always called to me as well. As I met more and more people who went to Haas, I started to learn about investment banking, venture capital, and private equity. Learning about those fields and, specifically, how they were married to the overall technology space in Silicon Valley, was really exciting to me and ultimately focused my attention on Haas.

What motivated the two of you to give back to Haas?

KEVIN: Berkeley and the Haas School played such an important part in my life and in helping me to pick my career direction. I signed the university’s Founder’s Pledge, which is a commitment that graduates make to give back at some future point in recognition of an education and experience that was transformative. For me, the Founder’s Pledge speaks to the principle of going Beyond Yourself in terms of how to think about my community, the world I live in, and the ability to give back to it when I can.

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Dean Rich Lyons, BS 82, talks with Kevin Chou and Connie Chen. The couple donated to the new building in part to give students of all backgrounds access to the physical space necessary for meaningful collaborations.

CONNIE: With my medical degree from UCSF and Kevin’s from Berkeley, we both really believe that public universities like the University of California have a unique role to play in providing a world-class education to students of all economic, social, and cultural backgrounds. We believe that level of diversity is so important in terms of shaping future leaders. We’re excited about bringing together students of all backgrounds—not just business students—to formulate ideas that will improve the world.

What impact do you think this new building will have on the school?

CONNIE: We live in a very interdisciplinary world and we believe that physical space absolutely does shape an educational experience. One of the things we’re excited about with this building is that it’s designed for collaboration with big, open spaces. We think students will just naturally congregate there and coalesce into groups that will foster lifelong connections that people will leverage down the line, whether they are starting a company or a social movement.

KEVIN: I loved the group learning experience I went through at Haas. It’s so important to prepare people for the real world and also helped tremendously with starting Kabam. I’m really proud that at Kabam, we always thought about the culture and about group dynamics. But when I had team assignments at Haas, it was always very difficult to find the space to get together and collaborate. My class groups would cram into the library or spread out on the lawn when the weather was good. I’m excited about a building that provides a modern higher education through shared learning spaces.

HAAS_Illustration_2016_FINAL

You have both been entrepreneurs. Can you describe how you started your own companies?

KEVIN: In high school I started to take computer parts and reassemble them into computers that I then resold. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up on the Michael Dell trajectory, but it gave me a taste of the entrepreneurial bug. Then, when I came to Cal in 1998, everyone was excited about the dot-com industry—about Amazon, Yahoo!, Pets.com, AOL, and so forth. At Cal, I was surrounded by all of these amazing technology financing services, whether on the banking or venture capital side of the equation. Being proficient at math I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to go through the Haas program and have a career in finance related to technology.’

building map

A Cohesive Community
Connie & Kevin Chou Hall will be devoted entirely to student learning and interaction—no administrative offices will be housed inside. The cutting-edge facilities will allow classroom and digital learning to work together to foster community and provide a world-class education. Located on the northern edge of the Haas campus, the building creates a quad around the Robert G. O’Donnell Courtyard. Learn more »

What happened next?

KEVIN: When I graduated in 2002, the dot-com boom had started to unravel. I was blessed to have gone first into investment banking and then venture capital, but it was during the down cycle when people were not excited about the technology industry anymore. I was still captivated by it and became part of this small community of people who would meet in cafes or at someone’s house just to talk about big ideas. Nobody was getting on the cover of magazines back then, so it was just a group of people doing really cool stuff that they were passionate about. It was my experience in investment banking and venture capital and meeting other entrepreneurs that was a really fun and exciting part of my career. Ultimately, I got enough confidence and exposure to co-found what eventually became Kabam.

“We are thrilled to support UC Berkeley’s commitment as a university in the public trust to educate our next generation of global leaders.”

—Dr. Connie Chen

What did it mean to sell Kabam?

KEVIN: It’s been an incredible journey for over 10 years. I’ve learned a lifetime’s worth through this experience of founding the company as CEO and taking it all the way to the finish line. It’s a career achievement I know I’ll be proud of the rest of my life. But the most meaningful part of this journey has been the amazing people I’ve been fortunate to work with over the last 10 years. It’s been one of the most rewarding parts of my career to see people at Kabam learn, grow, and now lead, whether they are still at Kabam or have gone off to work on the next chapter of their career.

Connie, you are a physician by training. How did you start Vida Health?

CONNIE: To build Vida, we needed to bring together a team with expertise spanning consumer products, health care, big data, and engineering. We live in an incredibly complex world where the biggest challenges—like health care inequities—require diverse insights and expertise to be solved. To this end, we hope the new building will catalyze interdisciplinary friendships early on in students’ lives.

Why health care?

CONNIE: Many people are scared away from health care due to perceived regulatory complexity. The reality is that the health of our nation—both the health of our people (literally) and the health of our economy—are dependent upon our ability to deliver high-quality, equitable care while reining in costs. This is an enormously challenging problem that will require both technology and business-model innovation, which Cal, being a world-class research institution with a world class business school, surrounded by some of the world’s best hospitals, is uniquely positioned to tackle.

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Dr. Connie Chen and Kevin Chou, BS 02, at the March 2 event officially naming Connie & Kevin Chou Hall.

Being in your mid-30s, what does it mean to you to be giving back in a big way?

KEVIN: I think it’s really important for entrepreneurs to give back early in their careers because it’s not just money that can help students in the next generation— it’s also time, energy, and experience. I’m excited to be able to do this at this point in my career because I get to spend time with students and with Haas professors and other administrators, collaborating and helping them think about the new student space and the program going forward.

CONNIE: As a physician, I’m reminded every day that life is short and precious. We should do all we can to make an impact whenever we can.

With such busy lives, how do you balance the personal and professional?

CONNIE: We are so lucky to live in the Bay Area. We love the outdoors so we spend a lot of time hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter, usually with our two senior dogs, Porkchop and Katsu, whom we adopted from an amazing shelter in San Francisco that finds homes for old dogs.

KEVIN: As much as we travel or have late-night meetings, we always try to have dinner together four or five times a week.

CONNIE: Since we’ve both been entrepreneurs, we really understand what the other is going through—both the highs and the lows. Our shared experience has certainly strengthened our relationship.

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Kevin Chou, BS 02, and Dr. Connie Chen stand in front of Connie & Kevin Chou Hall during the earlier days of its construction. Berkeley-Haas is naming the new academic building after the couple in recognition of their transformative gift.
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