From UVA Student to Technological Entrepreneur

Dan Laufer (Col ’06) and Ed Festa (Col ’02, Darden ’10) shared stories and advice from their respective careers in emerging technologies during last week’s Batten Expert Chats.

Ed Festa discovered that persistence was essential when first trying to break into the entertainment technology industry. “I reached out to everyone I could,” he told an online audience last week. “The frustration with networking is that you never know what’s going to be fruitful and what isn’t,” he said. “But I promise you, if you keep doing it, it will bear fruit.”

During that time, Festa said, he set up informational interviews with two University of Virginia graduates employed at Sony Pictures—and later reached out to them again when he saw a job posting at the company. But after an initial screening, the recruiter his connections had put him in touch with told Festa that Sony wanted to move in a different direction. Thinking that was the end of it, Festa wrote to the UVA alumni to thank them. 

But then, Festa said, “immediately one of them pinged me back and said, ‘send me your most recent resume’.” Before he knew it, Festa was talking directly with the hiring manager, and soon after he was offered the job.

The latest installment of Batten Expert Chats featured both Festa and Laufer, two technological entrepreneurs who have built careers on the West Coast. With experience working for Sony, NBC, and Fox, Festa recently created his own media consulting firm. Laufer, who co-founded the online apartment-finding service RentLingo, now heads growth and product marketing at the online neighborhood hub Nextdoor. The two alumni shared their paths to success while also taking questions and offering advice on pursuing a career in emerging technologies.

Both graduates highlighted the power of networking in their professional trajectories. “Find a UVA alum. Find somebody who has something in common with you,” Laufer said. “And then say, ‘I see this opening I’m really interested in, can we talk about it?’” Through taking that one step, he explained, “you’ve already proven that you can be proactive, that you’re interested in the company, and that you’re hungry for the role. You’ve already skipped about five steps [in the screening process].”

Although Festa found success in entertainment technology through the connections he fostered, he told participants that he finished his undergraduate degree with a very different goal in mind. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles in hopes of becoming an actor—but soon discovered the profession wasn’t a good fit. Still, he maintained his passion for entertainment and returned to UVA to obtain his MBA from the Darden School, where he wrote a case study on the founding of Hulu and generally devoted as much time as he could to studying the production side of the entertainment business. 

Laufer described his own path to the West Coast as a little less intentional. After graduating from UVA, he took a position at Bain Consulting in Atlanta. But his fiancee at the time (now his wife) was in the Navy; when she was stationed in San Diego, the couple moved to California.

“It can feel intimidating, coming to a job market outside of the core network of UVA,” Laufer said. However, the fact that fewer UVA alumni work on the West Coast can actually be an advantage to job seekers, he noted: “There’s an instant kinship there if a UVA alum reaches out to me. I don’t get that every day, so I’m almost always going to respond to that.”

In the world of emerging technologies especially, it pays to take a leap, the pair agreed. Laufer said that he’s happy he took the risk of founding his own company, even if it didn’t see the kind of success he initially hoped for. “The experience of building something from scratch was incredible. I still feel the applications in my job today,” he said. “When you’re an employee at a company, you can end up staying focused on one task and miss a lot of the impact you could have,” he added. But when you create your own technology start-up, Laufer explained, you have to constantly consider the larger picture of why your company exists and how it can best serve users.  

In response to a participant who wanted to know how students could best position themselves to succeed in industries “that haven’t been invented yet,” both Laufer and Festa stressed the importance of immersing oneself in the world of emerging technologies.

“Read everything you can,” Festa said. “Before I started at Sony, my resume was pretty terrible. It basically said, ‘unemployed actor and MBA’ and that’s it. But because I loved entertainment so much and I dove deep into the streaming side, I could talk knowledgeably in interviews, and the rest is history.”

That kind of immersive learning is even easier during quarantine. “You can play around on TikTok all day long right now and try to figure out, ‘Why is this so popular?’” Festa said. The pandemic has changed the job hunting process, but not as much as we might think, he added. “We all know that COVID will end eventually, so I wouldn’t think of it as too limiting a factor,” he said. “It shouldn’t prevent you from diving into these things.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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