The 50 dark suits filed down the street, a solemn sight cast against a somber, rain-streaked sky.

But it wasn't a funeral procession. Instead, the group was part of the annual pilgrimage of MBA students to Silicon Valley.

At this time of year, students from the nation's elite East Coast business schools make their way West for exclusive meet-and-greets with powerhouse valley executives, venture capitalists and promising start-ups. Last week, the visitors were students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, razor-sharp and perfectly groomed. And they arrived

promptly for their 10 a.m. appointment at Mountain View start-up Flock.com, a social Web browser designed to make sharing photos and other material easy.

One small problem. They showed up before most of the employees — shaggy-haired "Flockers" in jeans and T-shirts in need of caffeine jolts — straggled in after late-night shifts. The "company dog" took the day off. Consider it an example of East meets West.

"Are they all in suits? Oh, poor guys," said Erikka Arone, the company's senior marketing director.

"They are trying to make a good impression," explained Paul Denning, the school's director of media relations, who accompanied the students. "I don't know if it does or not."

Aside from a few gentle jokes, the start-up workers could have cared less about the Brooks Brothers look. This is, after all, a culture whose dress code is whatever.

It was then down to business.


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Geoffrey Arone, Erikka's husband and Flock's co-founder and chief strategy officer — himself an MIT Sloan MBA alumni — gave a quick rundown on the ABCs of raising venture money, building a Web browser based on open-source software, the company's revenue model and the importance of creating "stickiness," or viral excitement, around your product.

Even in the new global tech world, where stars such as China and India are getting more and more attention, Silicon Valley is still the biggest draw for these MBA student "tech treks." This year, 85 MIT Sloan students came West, Denning said, and the valley tour is still the most popular, even as trips to China and India have been added.

"This is sort of the Athens of our time," first-year MBA student Justin Kulla said.

And it continues to attract top biz-school students. In addition to MIT business scholars, there were students from Columbia and Wharton business schools in the Bay Area this week.

In fact, a number of them bumped into each other during a little academic networking at the Blue Chalk Cafe in downtown Palo Alto last week.

"Silicon Valley has probably gained in luster," observed Tony Tzeng, a San Jose native and organizer of the Wharton West Coast trek. "Google, Yahoo and Cisco — they have pretty universal appeal. There is a lot of interest in these companies, especially companies like Google. It's a very glamorous place to work in the minds of a lot of MBA students."

Kenneth Morse, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center, said companies like YouTube, which some of the students visited, reveal the valley's innovative muscle is as strong as ever. The start-up, acquired by Google in the fall for $1.65 billion, built its technology first, "then they did a very intelligent job of building up their customer base," Morse observed. "The post-bubble reality is that a line of bull and a PowerPoint presentation is not enough."

For the students, company tours associated with schools like MIT, Harvard and Wharton open doors — and then some.

Erikka Arone recalled her valley tour as an MIT Sloan student in 2003 to Google. It was a networker's dream. "I went to the movies with Larry and he loaned me his camera for my wedding," she said. Larry, of course, was Google co-founder Larry Page.

In 2005, she and her husband decided to relocate Flock from Seattle to the valley because of its ecosystem of talent and the possibility for "serendipitous" moments, like the day members of the photo- and video-sharing service Photobucket happened upon Flock when they "cycled by on their blades and knocked on the window." The encounter led to a deal. 

"You can just feel the energy here," said MIT MBA student Elizabeth Willett of her first visit to the valley. "Everybody is excited about starting something — about doing the next great thing."

Willett, in fact, is thinking of moving to the area after graduating to work on her idea, an Internet service for elderly computer novices called newfogey.com. The collaborative ethos, she added, is different from the "cut-throat" environment of New York and Boston.

Saadiq Rodgers-King, a software engineer who worked as director of new media at Majorleaguebaseball.com before going to the MIT Sloan program, is also enticed by the valley. However, he wondered about the drawbacks of living in an "echo chamber" in which "all your friends are technologically forward," and the risk of believing they represent the general public's openness to new tech products.

By 11:30 a.m., the Flock office was abuzz with start-up activity. A group of engineers had recovered from the "shock" of seeing so many suits in their office and held a meeting by the giant bean bag "napping" chair. The company's "community ambassador" — Flock-speak for marketing employee — listened to Pearl Jam on his laptop.

"It's amazing to be in the middle of the action," said G. Antonio Sosa-Pascual, one of the student organizers of the MIT Sloan visit, before moving on to lunch with VC Matthew Trevithick of Venrock Associates at the elegant Sundeck restaurant in Menlo Park. No one, though, got funding for their incipient companies — yet.

This week, some 60 students from the Harvard Business School will pass through the valley, with stops at the likes of Google, Apple and Yahoo.

They won't, though, wear suits en masse, said trip organizer Kurt Krukenberg, who has worked for a couple of valley tech companies before.

"If you show up in a suit in a lot of the tech companies, it kills your credibility right away," he joked. "That's one of the things I learned."

John Boudreau can be reached at (408) 278-3496.