Reunion Alumni Spotlight

Ryan Petersen

CEO and Founder of Flexport

The complexities of freight forwarding- the process of shipping goods from manufacturer to a final point of distribution, is something Class of 2002 alumnus, Ryan Petersen is all too familiar with, having worked in international trade since he was in high school. For instance, when it comes to shipping, one company might handle the storage, while another company handles the actual shipping, and another handles the ground transportation. On top of that, the shipment must be cleared through customs, a process which has its own complexities and has traditionally been handled through a mass of paper forms, spreadsheets, and emails.

To help simplify the user experience of freight forwarding, Ryan founded the startup company, Flexport, which offers real-time visibility of shipments through a web-based application, as well as customs and logistics expertise. Backed by investment firms Google Ventures and Bloomberg BETA (just to name a few), Flexport has also received much acclaim from Y Combinator co-founder, Paul Graham. In celebration of his 15th reunion and serving as his reunion committee’s Honorary Co-Chair, Ryan took time from his very busy schedule to share a few memories on his time as an undergraduate student at Cal and how it shaped who he is today.

Although he graduated with a B.A. in Economics, Ryan’s passion lay largely in learning and speaking foreign languages. Having learned Spanish in high school, he worked hard on increasing his fluency in Spanish at Cal through lower division courses and utilized it fully as a barista at Free Speech Cafe, where he was the only native English speaking member on his team. As an undergrad, he also tackled Portuguese through a semester-long intensive class intended for Spanish speakers and took advantage of using his acquired language skills in the Brazil and Chile study abroad programs. After Cal, he had yet another opportunity to learn a new language. While working in global trade with his brother he decided to move to China where he learned and practiced speaking Chinese daily.  “I became obsessed with learning Chinese” Ryan recalled, as it fit into his line of work. “I like meeting people from different parts of the world, different cultures and trying to figure out what’s going on inside their head” he said, as he reflected on one of the reasons for why he took many language courses, but never majored in the subject.

In addition to studying Spanish and Portuguese, Ryan also recalled a course taught by economics professor, Edward Miguel, on African economic development as one of his highlights at Cal. This course made a lasting impression on him and inspired the work he does today. “The subject was fascinating”, he said, “He (Professor Miguel) was of the belief that trade is a key way to lift people out of poverty and my life’s work is about making trade easier for people and people all over the world to engage in.”

Since graduating, Ryan largely stays in touch with Cal through friend, classmate, and fellow entrepreneur, George Strompolos, whom he met freshman year living in Unit 2 and lived with off-campus his junior and senior year (he also recalls befriending not-then-famous, Chris Pine in the same dorm and didn’t realize he was a Hollywood film actor until he saw him in the movies years later). In the years since, Faculty Glade on campus has a new special meaning to him as that is the place where he married his best friend and his cousin to each other. 

When asked what advice he might have for current students and recent graduates, Ryan suggested current students take advantage of studying abroad. “You learn more that way than from any school and Cal has such good programs,” he said, “and it’s worth going to another country to learn their language.” For recent graduates, Ryan was hesitant to give advice. “I never listened to other people’s advice,” he recalls, “Before I started my second company, I was given advice and did the exact opposite and it worked brilliantly…But if you are listening to someone, you want to make sure you’re listening to the content of what they’re saying and not from an argument of authority…and judge it for yourself first rather than take people’s advice simply because they’re rich or famous.”

In photo: Ryan officiates the wedding of his friend, Jonathan Colby ’02, at Faculty Glade on the Berkeley campus