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Bringing Miracles to Haas
Leo Helzel, MBA 68, and the Business School's First Forays into Entrepreneurship
Leo Helzel, MBA 68, has racked up a few firsts at Berkeley-Haas. He taught the business school’s first entrepreneurship class—almost by accident. He was the first chair of the Haas Board, which advises the dean. And he was the first and only Haas instructor to be honored with an “adjunct professor emeritus” title upon retirement in recognition of many years of service.
And all that is on top of enjoying three other satisfying careers as an accountant, lawyer, and entrepreneur —after flying as a navigator on Navy planes during World War II.
Helzel already had worked as an accountant and lawyer known for putting together deals when he began teaching international business at Berkeley’s business school in 1967. “I said as long as I have to spend a couple afternoons at the school, I might as well get an MBA,” says Helzel. “So at age 51, when I finished, I was probably the oldest MBA in the books.”
Then, in 1970, Dean Dick Holton, a friend of Helzel’s, came up with the idea of creating an entrepreneurship course—one of the first in the country —and asked a lawyer in Oakland to teach it. The weekend before the class began, the lawyer backed out due to a trial. Holton called Helzel on a Sunday to ask if he could teach “90 some odd students” the next day.
“There was no material at all—zero—so I invented a case called Miracle Goggles because you had to have a case. Edison Einstein was the protagonist. The goggles were shatter-proof and magnified 100 times. Of course, they never existed.”
Then Helzel turned to live cases, inviting entrepreneurs who he and Holton knew to tell their stories to his class. Interest in Silicon Valley was so intense that the course had to be moved to an auditorium.
“Silicon Valley was starting at that time,” says Helzel. “The innovation that was happening was so original that I was learning, too.” Helzel summarized his learning in a book titled A Goal is a Dream with a Deadline, whose proceeds he donates to Haas.
In the 1980s, Helzel established the Leo B. and Florence Helzel Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Then he worked with Holton on courting Howard Lester, founder of Williams-Sonoma, and Jerry Engel, then head of entrepreneurship at Ernst & Young and another friend of Helzel’s, to create the business school’s Lester Center for Entrepreneurship in 1991.
“The only thing I should be credited for is knowing people,” says Helzel modestly. “I’m a people person.”
A people person who has shown tremendous dedication to Haas for five decades. In 1996, Helzel and Adjunct Professor Noel Nellis, JD 66, developed an MBA course called Top Down Law that teaches business from the perspective of an entrepreneur who encounters legal problems. For the past 15 years, Helzel has been the sponsor of the Haas School’s Old Blues alumni lunch.
Why has he given so much back to Haas? “We all have gotten so much out of being involved with the school, and these experiences literally change who we are,” Helzel says. “We have a responsibility to keep it going.”