Stanford startup ORCA looks to make entrepreneurship more accessible to students

May 10, 2022, 8:53 p.m.

Charlie Wehan ’21 was taking classes at Stanford and iterating on product ideas when he found that identifying teammates for his class project proved to be difficult. When he received access to a Google spreadsheet of students and their ideas for a Management Sciences & Engineering class, he wondered why all students didn’t have access to a similar network.

Wehan built on this experience to co-found The ORCA Network — an online platform that connects early-stage startup founders to a peer network — along with Arda Bulut ‘21.

Through ORCA, users can find like-minded students to join their team, ideas to collaborate on, mentors to learn from and investors to partner with. 

ORCA currently has over one thousand members on Stanford’s campus, according to Bulut. With its recent expansion to five peer institutions, including Brown University, Columbia University, University of California Berkeley, University of Virginia and Rhode Island School of Design, its membership is expected to grow.

Wehan and Bulut began building ORCA when they were sent home due to COVID-19 in the middle of their junior year. As quarantine put Stanford soccer on pause, the former teammates decided to put their extra time towards building ORCA, which they eventually launched during their senior year.

Upon graduation, both Wehan and Bulut played soccer professionally, continuing to work on ORCA every day after practice. With Wehan playing in the US and Bulut playing in Europe, ORCA got attention around the clock.

Though playing professional soccer had been a childhood dream, the two decided they wanted to be able to put more time towards their startup. In the summer of 2021, they each made the difficult decision to quit soccer and work on ORCA full time.

“The biggest factor for quitting was that soccer was pretty individual — I was doing everything for myself,” Wehan said. “But ORCA is a way we can have a tremendous impact in the world.”

Throughout the platform’s growth, impact has been top of mind for the ORCA founders.

“It’s a social network, but a purpose-driven one,” said Executive Director of the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy Brian Bartholomeusz Ph.D. ’85, who has been a mentor to Wehan and Bulut. “It has a lot of potential for social justice and sustainability; you could really tailor this and create something powerful.”

Associate professor Chuck Eesley, another mentor to Wehan and Bulut, echoed this sentiment, saying ORCA could provide a more level playing field for access to entrepreneurial opportunities among underrepresented communities.

Professors at the Graduate School of Business have already begun using ORCA in their classrooms. Eesley said that prior to ORCA, his students would look for teammates on a Google spreadsheet, which only “barely worked.”

“It became very helpful to say, ‘You can go to ORCA, create an account and post your initial idea on there,’” he said.

Head of Outreach Philip Bogdanov ’25 said he learned about ORCA when he talked to his soccer team about the same need Wehan had: finding a platform to network with other students.

The ORCA team plans to continue its expansion to other universities so that students can collaborate across campuses, Bogdanov said.

Wehan and Bulut’s goal is for ORCA to become the go-to platform for students with an idea. They’re hoping to become a part of innovative solutions to “tomorrow’s biggest problems.”

“If we can play a part in fostering the growth of even one idea that could change the world… that would be rewarding,” Bulut said.

Sarah Raza is a staff writer for the News section. She is a junior from Michigan studying International Relations and Human Rights, and she loves to talk about her cat. Contact Sarah at sraza 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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