In this special interview series, we are proud to highlight the incredible members of the ANTrepreneur Center External Committee (ACE) and discuss their entrepreneurial experiences, their reasons for joining the ACE, and their best advice for burgeoning student entrepreneurs. 

This article’s featured ACE member is Luis Morales, SVP of Corporate Development at Merlin Acquisitions Corp. Luis spent 30 years in various corporate finance leadership roles, starting his career trading loan syndications and interest rate derivatives for Wachovia Bank before working as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers. He went on to serve as the SVP of Corporate Development at STEC, a pioneer in enterprise solid-state drive technology.

Luis went on to co-found a software startup in the big data analytics space and built some of the world’s first data processing engines that allowed for real-time analysis of terabyte-sized workloads. More recently, he joined a private equity group in Newport Beach composed of former CEOs making investments in private and public companies as well as commercial real estate. This eventually led Luis to become an advisor to startups looking to develop their business plans and execute their corporate strategies to achieve accelerated growth.

Luis received his undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Business and his MBA from the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University.

To share some of his professional experiences and offer advice to UCI student entrepreneurs, Luis recently sat down with Ryan Foland, Director of the ANTrepreneur Center, for an informative interview.

Ryan: Welcome Luis; it’s great to have you here! To get this started, can you explain how you got involved with entrepreneurship?

Luis: Hi Ryan, thanks for having me. To answer your question, for the better part of my career in corporate finance/investment banking, I helped entrepreneurs and business leaders scale their companies. At some point, decades in, I realized I wanted to create things myself, so I started a big data analytics company with a professor of computer science at UCI and the chief technology officer of a publicly-traded company here in Orange County. I then joined a private equity group that made investments in private companies. Once I had the taste of the startup life, I committed myself to it and began advising other startups in their endeavors. I quickly noticed that very few startups had access to senior-level corporate development expertise, and I felt I could add value to entrepreneurs, startups, and their ecosystems by filling that void. 

Ryan: It’s great that you saw this gap and dedicated yourself to closing it–it’s clear that you’re passionate about supporting new entrepreneurs. Is that one of the reasons why you decided to become an ACE Committee member?

Luis: Definitely. I enjoy helping teams flourish and working with the ANTrepreneur Center offers a great opportunity to use my experience to assist others and help them avoid the same mistakes I’ve made. I’m proud to say that I’m the inaugural member of the ACE Committee, and this responsibility is something I take very seriously because it’s an opportunity for me to give back in a meaningful way. 

As an ACE member, I’m excited to participate in as many different ways as I can and for as long as I see myself adding value. Given the growth of the activities at the ANTrepreneur Center, I hope my contributions increase over the foreseeable future. 

Ryan: We’ll definitely take you up on that! But I have to ask, why UCI? Is there something about the Anteater community or entrepreneurial ecosystem that makes you particularly invested in giving back to UCI?

Luis: In addition to serving on the ACE Committee, I’m also a member of the LatinX OC Alliance, which promotes access to opportunities and the advancement of Latinos in the local business community and directly at UCI. I’ve also worked with UCI professors and alumni and have hired many UCI students, so I have a strong affinity for the UCI community. 

UCI’s entrepreneurial profile seems to have a very strong social mission. I think this is very unique and positions it well for a lot of opportunities in the future. The old regimes of managing businesses exclusively for profits for the benefit of shareholders are dying; the new mission seems to be more driven by inclusion, social impact, and sustainability. I believe UCI can be at the center of that movement, and I’d love to be a part of this change.

Ryan: I know our student entrepreneurs will look forward to your support and professional insight. Speaking of professional experience, you’ve had an incredible career. Could you share a particularly memorable entrepreneurial experience and what you learned from it?

Luis: Landing our first million-dollar customer as a startup was an immense learning experience because it wasn’t just the culmination and validation of a lot of hard work, it also set us on a new course—which felt great for a second until we realized that closing the second deal is just as hard. The sooner you learn that revenue needs to be the hyper-focus in your entrepreneurial journey, the better off you’ll be. 

Ryan: Based on your experience, what other advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?

Luis: First, I’d say do your research. Coming up with an idea or solution is one thing, but the better versed you are regarding its potential, the more effective you will be at sharing your vision. So do your research, understand the market, and be ready for tough questions. 

I would also say go around people who say no. There will be plenty of them, but there are also people who are ready to believe in your ideas. Find your supporters; they are out there and they make all the difference

Ryan: It was great sitting down with you and picking your brain. Thanks for taking the time to share more about yourself and your expertise. To finish this off, what message would you like to convey to the UCI community about the importance of entrepreneurship and supporting student entrepreneurs?

Luis: Happy to help, Ryan! I think that it’s important for the community to understand that entrepreneurship is the pipeline of innovation. Whether you want to found a company, join a startup, invest in one, create opportunities for them, acquire one, or simply buy its products or services, your support is needed for the engine to run. So, get involved and make a difference.

Want to learn more about our ACE members? Stay tuned for the next installment of the “Meet the ANTrepreneur Center External Committee” interview series. For more information about the UCI ANTrepreneur Center, including programming, speaker series, Micro-Internships, funding, and more, visit our website. You can also learn more about our valuable collaborations with Blackstone LaunchPad, Tech Coast Angels, Tech Coast Venture Network, OC Startup Council, SoCal Celebrates Entrepreneurship, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and even Threads