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A full circle experience

When alumnus Michael Hilton thinks back to his time at UC Santa Cruz, he has nothing but positive memories. The strength of the educational programs, the welcoming and social environment, and the beautiful campus immediately drew him in.

UC Santa Cruz alumnus Michael Hilton

“I instantly fell in love with the campus and everything about the university,” Hilton said. “I had a great experience from freshman year on.”

He remains grateful for UCSC’s interdisciplinary, small liberal arts college approach as he was able to take a variety of classes outside of his math and computer science degree programs, which helped broaden his thinking on the ethics and social implications of emerging technology and set a precedent for his career in tech. 

Founding two companies before 30 

Hilton knows finding one’s path in industry doesn’t come easy. After graduating in 1986, he held several roles in Silicon Valley startups, consistently seeking the right role that would give him a sense of purpose. Joining Apple set that plan in motion. 

“Working for Apple was a career-defining experience for me. I got to work with some really phenomenal and legendary Silicon Valley people, who went on to have amazing successes,” Hilton said.

His positive experiences at Apple guided him to the decision to found his own company. At only 26 years old, Hilton and two of his closest friends founded Eshani Corporation, a software company that was sold to Symantec in 1993. Later that year, the three of them chased an even bigger dream by founding Concur Technologies, a pioneering service company in the travel and expense management industry. 

Although Concur was extremely successful, eventually selling to SAP for over $8 billion in 2014, Hilton and his co-founders were tested during their 20-year run by changes to business models and the fallout from the dot com crash. 

“The company fell on really hard times and we got written off for dead. But there was a core belief among the founders that we had a great business despite mistakes, and we were able to persevere,” Hilton explained. “I’m a huge believer that your true character and your best lessons in life come at your most adverse moments. When everything goes wrong, it’s the ultimate character test.”

After Concur sold, Hilton and his co-founders took their experience and expertise to a new industry. The three of them became the new leadership team for Accolade, a personalized health and benefit solutions company powered by data insights and technology to provide companies and their employees a more seamless and positive healthcare experience.

“I wanted to work for a company that was mission-oriented and can help improve the lives of people. We’re doing something really special for people who are really struggling to get through the healthcare system, helping them receive the benefits and value they deserve,” said Hilton, who has recently left his chief product officer position to become one of Accolade’s board of directors. 

Concur became the University of California Travel Center’s online booking tool in 2019, and earlier this year, the UC system adopted Accolade for UC Care, UC Health Savings Plan, and CORE healthcare member plans. 

Baskin Engineering Dean’s Council. From left to right: Joe Burton, Chief Executive Officer at Telesign; Laura Bushnell, Partner at King & Spaulding LLP; Michael Hilton, Board of Directors Member at Accolade; Alexander Wolf, Dean of the Baskin School of Engineering; Ahmed Hamdy, MD, Chief Executive Officer at Vincerx Pharma;
Brandon Allgood, Chief AI Office at Valo Health;
Ed Schulak, Chairman at EdenRoc Sciences (not pictured)

When asked how it feels to have his alma mater employ both of his companies’ platforms, he said, “It’s exciting. It’s almost like everything has come full circle.”

Looking ahead

Hilton reconnected with campus four years ago. His positive experience as a student is what ultimately led him back.

“One of my best memories of my college experience was the incredible beauty of UCSC, so it was wonderful to get the opportunity to come back,” Hilton said. “I’ve really enjoyed being a part of the engineering community at UCSC.”

Shortly after giving the Baskin Engineering 2019 commencement speech, Hilton deepened his relationship with the Baskin community by joining the Dean’s Council. As a member of the Dean’s Council, he and five other leading industry professionals lend their expansive technical and entrepreneurial expertise to Dean Alexander Wolf on important issues and initiatives.

“I’m really passionate about the work we’re doing in the Dean’s Council. It’s been a really enjoyable experience to discover new ways we can better position the school to better serve our students, so they have the right experiences needed to make a difference in the tech world.”

Hilton is a big proponent of an engineering education and preparing engineering students to think humanistically and critically on how they can innovate for social good. 

When asked what advice he has for the 25th class of Baskin Engineers graduating this spring, who are hoping to join the tech industry amid recent layoffs and uncertainty, Hilton said: “This is just a moment in time. Amazing rebirths usually happen out of challenging times because it forces people to rethink their goals. And adversity like this can create inspiration, so be prepared to think outside of the box.”

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