Asa V. Call Alumni Achievement Award honoree Mark Stevens, left, and USC President C. L. Max Nikias. Photo by Ron Murray

Ask USC Trustee Mark Stevens ’81, MS ’84 for the rules of success, and he’ll likely point out that he was never one to follow the rules. A visionary venture capitalist, Stevens skipped the corporate ladder and took his own calculated risks.

Stevens is the managing partner of S-Cubed Capital, his family’s investment company, and a special limited partner of the global venture capital firm Sequoia Capital. But he’ll be recognized in April for another facet of his work: his exceptional commitment to giving back and generously contributing his time, energy and dedication to USC.

The USC Alumni Association tapped him as this year’s recipient of the Asa V. Call Alumni Achievement Award, the university’s highest alumni honor. Previous honorees include Neil Armstrong MS ’70 and Frank Gehry ’54.

Stevens has promoted a culture of innovation at USC since his election to the Board of Trustees in 2001 and as a member of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Board of Councilors. In 2004, he and his wife, Mary, gave $22 million to establish the USC Stevens Center for Innovation, which is dedicated to translating innovative USC research into new products or services that benefit the public. They also support the education of USC’s student-athletes; the couple funded the Stevens Academic Center, a space in the John McKay Center that offers counseling, computer rooms and tutoring.

Stevens showed his entrepreneurial spirit at a young age. He enrolled at USC at 17 and double majored in electrical engineering and economics. As an undergraduate, he worked for Hughes Aircraft and had a full-time job waiting for him there following graduation. Much to the chagrin of family and friends, he opted instead for a position as a technical sales engineer at a small tech company that was relatively unknown at the time: Intel.

“I had an educated hunch that Intel’s microprocessors would transform society,” Stevens says of the multibillion-dollar microchip firm.

His words of wisdom for USC students hoping to make their mark in business? Embrace risk.

While working full time, he completed a master’s degree in computer engineering from USC Viterbi through the Distance Education Network. He left Intel after five years to earn an MBA at Harvard University, and then made yet another unexpected decision by accepting an offer from Sequoia Capital.

“Again my friends and family were scratching their heads. Today, everyone knows what a venture capitalist is, but back in 1989, for most people it was a mysterious corner of the investment world,” Stevens says. “I knew many companies had been backed by venture capitalists at that point, so I researched the top firms on the West Coast, and Sequoia happened to be looking for an associate with my type of experience. It was perfect timing.”

Stevens remembers that the first investment he recommended as an associate at Sequoia ended in failure. But the lessons he learned from that experience helped lead to his first major success as a venture capitalist: an investment in Nvidia, which has since become the world’s leading graphics technology company.

During his 22 years with Sequoia, he backed tech startups that grew into game-changing giants, including Google, Yahoo! and YouTube.

Stevens is excited about Los Angeles’ continued growth as a tech center and sees USC playing an important role in that development. He serves on the board of Second Spectrum, a sports analytics startup founded by USC Viterbi computer scientists.

His words of wisdom for USC students hoping to make their mark in business? Embrace risk.

“Don’t just fall into the accepted ways of building a career. Take gambles, but do so with forethought and after doing research and considering the long-range opportunities,” Stevens advises. “You have to possess a sustained willingness to work hard, remain true to your belief system and not look for shortcuts. Those are the keys to a healthy and successful career.”

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