In this special interview series, we are proud to highlight the incredible members of the ANTrepreneur Center External (ACE) Committee and discuss their entrepreneurial experiences, their reasons for joining the ACE, and their best advice for budding student entrepreneurs.
This article’s featured ACE member is Elvin Kay, President of the Sapphire Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports social entrepreneurship, education, and health initiatives across Southern California. Elvin began his career at UBS in Ultra High Net Private Wealth Management, where he spearheaded inflows of $100 million in net new assets. Subsequently, he worked at Apple and Amazon, where he oversaw cross-functional teams spanning multiple divisions. Pursuing his passion for entrepreneurship, Elvin has also created and invested in companies with notable exits in the food services and finance.
Elvin received his bachelor’s degree from and is currently pursuing his Executive MBA at UC Irvine. In support of the Anteater community, Elvin serves as a board member for the UCI Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (BCIE), is on the Advisory Board for the Hub @ UCI, is one of the UCI ANTrepreneur Center’s Founder’s Circle members, and the newest member of the ANTrepreneur Center’s ACE Committee.
To introduce himself, Elvin recently met with Ryan Foland, Director of the ANTrepreneur Center, to share his professional insights and offer his best advice for aspiring student entrepreneurs.
Ryan: Ahoy, Elvin! Thank you for sitting down with me today. To kick off our conversation, can you share how you got started on your entrepreneurial journey?
Elvin: Thanks Ryan; I’m excited to be here. My journey began with my first job in corporate banking. Fortunately, I achieved enough success to take my initial leap into entrepreneurship. Along the way, I’ve encountered my fair share of failures. However, I’ve viewed each setback as an opportunity to learn from my mistakes and apply that knowledge to my next venture.
In between those failures, I went back to work to rebuild my finances, which allowed me to take additional shots at entrepreneurship. While pivoting is often an important aspect of running a company, I found myself pivoting between entire industries. I navigated through education, apparel, restaurants, and equity markets, with each step representing a new challenge. Eventually, my journey led to success in the last two industries.
Ryan: I really appreciate your philosophy of treating failures as learning experiences. This is a mindset that I think is really important for entrepreneurs to develop early on in their journeys. Are there any failures that stick out as a particularly important lesson for you?
Elvin: It was my very first venture—an education company. With zero prior experience, I dove into entrepreneurship, believing that my success in corporate banking would translate into building successful companies. In hindsight, this was a rather naive mindset. One could argue that ego is the enemy of the human mind. At that time, I lacked the mental capacity to see beyond my ethnocentric perspective. It took the train derailing in the form of failure for me to truly gain clarity.
I think having a mentor to offer guidance, instead of embarking on my own, would’ve saved me a lot of grief during this time. I strongly recommend dedicating time to networking and seeking out a mentor. As they say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Finding a trusted mentor can offer that invaluable ounce of prevention.
For students, the ANTrepreneur Center offers many great opportunities to receive mentorship. Not only do they offer one-on-one coaching with experienced Venture Consultants, but they also host many events that allow student entrepreneurs to network and connect with industry experts. Even if one doesn’t have access to a mentor in close proximity, there are online resources available to bridge that gap.
Ryan: Speaking of the importance of mentorship, you’ve recently joined our Founder’s Circle and our ACE Committee. Does your support stem from a desire to mentor young entrepreneurs?
Elvin: Absolutely; my commitment to the ANTrepreneur Center as well as the Beall Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship stems from my three core values that serve as my guiding principles: positivity, accountability, and generosity. My vision statement revolves around treating others as I wish to be treated and hoping to inspire others to promote positivity.
Both my undergraduate and graduate studies took place at UC Irvine, and my experiences on campus transformed my life. Most importantly, it’s where I had the fortune of meeting my wife. She is my better half and has supported me from the very beginning. I’m so grateful for all the opportunities that UC Irvine has offered me, so it’s the first thing I think about when giving back.
The ANTrepreneur Center’s mission aligns with my core values and my vision statement, making it the perfect platform for me to give back by sharing my experiences and offering support to the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Ryan: I and the entire UC Irvine community are truly grateful for your support. Looking back over your time as a student, meeting your wife is obviously the main highlight. But what were some of the other experiences that impacted your life?
Elvin: I think joining as many organizations as possible had a positive impact on my professional development and helped me fill in gaps in my emotional intelligence. Joining a fraternity, performing with a dance crew, and participating as a SPOP staffer were diverse and non-adjacent experiences that stood out early in shaping my personal and professional growth.
I consider political savvy and peer relationships important career competencies, and joining campus organizations helped me build these skills. Getting involved with campus organizations is a valuable decision because it helps you get exposure to more people. It was through meeting various individuals, making observations, and interacting with others that I gained daily practice in the soft skills that prepared me for the future.
Ryan: There’s also something to be said about seeking out organizations that can broaden your horizons and push you out of your comfort zone. During your talk at the UCI New Venture Competition kickoff, you emphasized the power of embracing the unknown in college. How did this mindset impact your time at UCI?
Elvin: People often gravitate towards what is safe and comfortable, and I was no exception. As a student, one particular fear I had was public speaking. This fear prevented me from trying new things, narrowing the scope of opportunities available to me. During my third year as an undergrad, I decided to address my Achilles’ heel head-on. I auditioned for a hip-hop dance team on campus, even though I had no prior dance experience and was scared of being in front of an audience. Fortunately, I made it onto the team, and over the following year, we performed more than 50 times across Southern California. This experience bolstered my confidence and re-wired how I approached being in front of people.
This is all to say that embracing the unknown and pushing your boundaries is how you grow, both as an entrepreneur and as a person. By repeatedly placing myself in high-pressure and uncomfortable situations, I slowly but steadily broke free from the shackles of hesitation and doubt and was able to become a stronger version of myself.
Ryan: That’s a great lesson that I think will resonate with a lot of our students who are questioning how they can reach the next stage of their development. What would you say to a student who is looking to push themselves to the next level?
Elvin: It all comes down to our “why.” When we find ourselves continually swimming upstream against formidable odds, it can be an isolating journey. Having a rock-solid purpose becomes the blue flame that propels us forward.
I also want to emphasize the importance of taking risks and pushing yourself when you are a young entrepreneur. It’s critical to acknowledge that your 20s and 30s offer a limited window of opportunity. As we grow older, our risk tolerance tends to decrease due to accumulating fixed costs and responsibilities like dependents. When you are young, you have the flexibility to recover and pursue a traditional career path if things don’t go as planned. And, if things do work out, you will be happy that you took those risks early on. Either way, taking that leap of faith will always result in irreplaceable learning experiences that you can apply to your future career and help you find success.
Ryan: Awesome advice! Do you have any other suggestions for student entrepreneurs?
Elvin: Looking ahead, technology will push all industries to evolve, and it’s critical that entrepreneurs be aware and adapt to these changes. However, softer skills like communication, executive presence, social awareness, and public speaking will continue to transcend time. I suggest that young entrepreneurs start honing these skills now, as they will remain relevant throughout their careers.
I also recommend enrolling in an entrepreneurship class at UC Irvine, seeking out mentors, and actively networking as much as possible. When it comes to networking, I want to emphasize the importance of personalized follow-up. I recommend that after meeting someone in person, take diligent notes about the shared conversation, set up a calendar reminder to reconnect after a few months, and lightly circle back using the previous conversation as an opener. After each interaction, keep a record and plan for another conversation down the line. The effort you put into crafting a personalized message can make a significant difference when creating meaningful relationships.
Ryan: Thanks for sharing these great insights, and thank you for sitting down with me today, Elvin. As we wrap up this conversation, what’s one message you’d like to send to current and future students about pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams?
Elvin: Thank you for having me, Ryan; I really appreciate this opportunity to talk in more depth with you! The message I’d like to convey is that alone we go fast, but together we go far.
Entrepreneurship begins the day we decide we’re passionate about it. You do not have to create a company to start acquiring knowledge, forge relationships, and build skill sets. Everyone can start now by meeting people, upholding relationships, and finding ways to add value to people’s lives without asking for anything in return. Surround yourself with people that inspire you. You never know; one day when you decide to take the leap of entrepreneurial faith, you might be reaching out to them for advice or partnership!
As Nelson Mandela said, “Character is how you treat those who can do nothing for you.”
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 and how it can support your entrepreneurial journey, 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.