Columbia Business School Entrepreneurs A to Z

Our business founders and entrepreneurial leaders are proving that many startups don’t just succeed. They thrive.
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By Amanda Chalifoux and Simone Silverbush

A workplace nap pod. An impact accelerator for social ventures
 in Latin America. Lingerie made with 24-karat gold thread. A film about former gang members — produced by a marketing agency.

Here we celebrate the breadth of the Columbia Business School entrepreneurial community by spelling out some of the founders and disruptive leaders whose passion for the “magical process” of creating something from nothing (as put by Alex Dickinson ’95, whose fingerprint technology is in the iPhone 5S) is exemplified by the startups and business channels they are leading.

Each letter of the alphabet could stand for any number of Columbia entrepreneurial successes, so here we hope to introduce you to some new faces and names, celebrate these multitudinous paths — and maybe even inspire your own entrepreneurial spirit along the way.

Art Rentals: Working for a private equity fund in Manhattan, Nahema Mehta ’14 knew several friends with beautiful apartments but empty walls — and gallery owners and artists with artworks in storage. “A match made in heaven? I thought so,” says Mehta, whose Art Remba enables members — both individuals and businesses — to browse paintings and photographs from leading galleries online and borrow them for $50 to $700 
a month. (“Remba” means “to make beautiful” in Swahili).

The company insures, delivers, and installs each piece, which customers can rent to buy: 50 percent of their monthly fee goes toward the purchase price. “The idea is to democratize access to the exclusive art world, let novice collectors try works out before buying, and help galleries and artists earn extra cash,” says Mehta, who was named a Game Changer by Glamour magazine in June.

Baby Clothes, Recycled: When sleep-deprived parents find themselves with barely worn bibs and onesies their babies have already out-grown, it can be tempting to toss them. Enter Little Bean Sprout, cofounded by Karina Fedasz ’00 in 2013.

The company sells new and gently used children’s garments from high quality brands through a retail and resale approach; buyers have the option of selling these garments back to the site via a prepaid mailer once their little ones out-
grow them. Customers choose to receive either 15 percent of the original purchase price in store credits that can be used to buy other items on the site or 5 percent in PayPal cash back.

Credits can also be gifted to another parent or donated to charity. “Textile waste accounts for 15 percent of landfill waste,” says Fedasz. “We can do something about that by making it easy for parents to reduce, reuse, and recycle.”

Coding for Kids: “Like Legos for software” — that’s how cofounders Jocelyn Leavitt ’07 and Samantha John talk about their mobile app, Hopscotch, which invites kids — or anyone who wants to make software — to code their own animations, games, and apps. Problem solving and play are one and the same as users drag and drop blocks of code (no typing required) and then watch and share their creations. Kids who want to build custom apps can buy kits — sort of like virtual Legos kits — with instructions and digital assets.

Hopscotch has already racked up awards from the Children’s Technology Review, the Parent’s Choice Foundation, and NYC BigApps. In June, the startup was selected to work rent-free at Grand Central Tech, a new co-working space next to Grand Central Terminal. “We never could have envisioned this kind of explosive growth,” says Leavitt. “Learning to code is empowering the next generation of innovators.”

Design à la Française: When Emmanuelle Rio ’04 moved to London and started decorating her home, she pined for the chic, one-of-a-kind pieces she grew up with at her parents’ homes in Paris and the Fontainebleau countryside. No single high-end retailer offered a range of home accessories that satisfied her, while faraway specialist shops required time-consuming logistics. So in 2011, Rio left her career in banking to welcome interior designers and retail clients to Belgrave Place, a site offering unique interior décor pieces from around the world — like glass tumblers hand-painted by renowned Parisian artist Joy de Rohan-Chabot. “I wanted to create a world of interiors without borders,” says Rio. “A perfectly curated and refined offering of singular artists and craftsmen just a click away.”

Empowering Entrepreneurs: Entrepreneurs investing in entrepreneurs in the developing world — it’s a growing trend generating real results. Agora Partnerships, founded by Ben Powell ’05, is strengthening startups in Latin America that are addressing seemingly intractable social and environmental problems like employment for marginalized youth in rural Nicaragua. Agora has supported more than 67 entrepreneurs with its impact accelerator and has raised more than $13.7 million for participating startups. “We know that improving the quality and quantity of global entrepreneurship is essential, especially in our poorest communities,” Powell says.

Camilla Nestor ’02 takes a similarly integrated approach. As vice president of global programming for the Grameen Foundation, she leads a team that is equipping farmers in Africa, the Americas, and Asia with mobile tools that provide both agronomic information — insights into which crops grow best in certain areas, for example — and tailored financial products. “We’re putting tools directly into the hands of the poor so they can transform their lives,” Nestor says. “We’re small enough to be nimble and entrepreneurial and large enough to have significant impact and influence.”

Fund Firm Founders: When Peggy Woodford Forbes ’80 founded Woodford Capital Management in 1990, she knew she was a trailblazer — finance was very much still a men’s club — but she didn’t know she had made history until a client told her that she was the first African American woman to start an investment firm in the United States with a focus on growth equities. “I had never thought of that,” says Forbes. “What inspired me was wanting to start a firm of my own."

It’s a value Forbes, now retired, instilled in her daughters, Maya
 and China, who remember their mother’s graduation from Columbia Business School — “it made an indelible impression on them,” says Forbes. Last January Maya’s Infinitely Polar Bear, a film inspired by her parents, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival featuring a song written and performed by China (the lead singer of Pink Martini), with Forbes’s granddaughter playing a leading role. “I’m very excited
by their accomplishments,” says Forbes. “As a mother I’ve always wanted my daughters to own what they do to the extent that they can.”

Grandmentor: Seniors often have free time. Grade-school students, particularly those from low-income families, often need extra help. Grandmentor makes a mutually beneficial match, pairing 
them up to read
 and discuss
 picture books
 via free video-conferencing that students access at their schools. An educator-developed e-guide helps mentors ask questions about each book.

Cofounded
 by Marc Lara ’04, Grandmentor aims to improve children’s literacy rates and promote healthy aging among the one in five Americans who will be 65 or older by 2030. “Both the children and seniors involved so far love the program,” says Lara, whose day job is growing MicroHealth, a startup that helps people with chronic conditions lead healthier lives through mobile technology. “We’re just getting started — these relationships have the potential to transform lives.”

Hill Country Hospitality: Thanks to Marc Glosserman ’06, you can go deep in
the heart of Texas — in the Northeast. Meats at his Hill Country Barbecue Market (in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Washington, DC) are smoked in a custom meat-smoking room and served up counter-style on butcher paper. Authentic treats from the Lone Star State abound — like Kreuz sausage from the legendary market, Blue Bell ice cream, and Big Red soda.

While the barbeque joints pay tribute to Glosserman’s paternal Texan grandparents, his newest restaurants, Hill Country Chicken (Manhattan and Brooklyn), honor the home-style cooking of his mother’s side of the family with fried chicken, fresh-cut fries, and homemade pies. Named to Crain’s New York Business 2014 40 Under 40, Glosserman crafted a don’t–mess–with-Texas-style business plan, too: a franchise spanning restaurants, pop-ups, catering, and mail-order pies, his Hill Country Hospitality topped $24 million in sales last year.

Illuminating DNA Sequencing: After earning his MBA, Alex Dickinson ’95 started several software and tech ventures before founding Helixis, a startup whose inexpensive lab instruments enable any biologist to examine short DNA sequences. When Illumina, a world leader in DNA sequencing, acquired Helixis in 2010 for $105 million, Dickinson joined the company and went on to build one of the largest databases of DNA sequence information in the world — in the cloud. “Making this information avail- able to anyone anywhere is essential as DNA sequencing becomes a clinical tool for the diagnosis of cancer and other conditions,” says Dickinson.

An electrical engineer by trade, Dickinson is 
no stranger to tech breakthroughs. As a researcher for AT&T’s Bell Labs, he invented the world’s first chip-based fingerprint sensor nearly 20 years ago — technology later acquired by
 Apple and applied to its iPhone
5S. “What has always motivated 
me is the magical process of
starting with nothing and making something.”

Jewelry for a Cause: When celebrities like Hillary Clinton, Tina Fey, and Michelle Obama wear the jewelry that
 she designed, Joan Hornig ’83 is excited — mostly for charities like Autism Speaks, the Children’s Health Fund, and Doctors Without Borders. Hornig donates 100 percent of the profits from each piece to a charity of the buyer’s choice. To date, she has donated to more than 800 charitable initiatives around the world addressing such issues as education, social services, the arts, and environmental protection.

In 2012 the New York Stock Exchange asked Hornig to ring the closing bell to honor the 10th anniversary of her unique philanthropic business model. “[This model] seemed like the next step along the trajectory of social enterprise, leveraging the power of luxury items for the benefit of others,” says Hornig, whose collection is available online and at Bergdorf Goodman.

Kajal London: If you visit the blog of Kajal London, the luxury eyewear collection founded by Kajal Sanghrajka ’12 during her second year at Columbia, you’ll find portraits of change makers and influencers from sports, fashion, film, and beyond (including fellow Columbia Business School entrepreneur Omar Haroun ’12), each modeling the brand’s distinctive frames.

“Glasses reflect who you are, so it’s really important to tell a unique story,” says the London-born Sanghrajka. Her expertise in eyewear was decades in the making: she grew up accompanying her father, who also worked in the business, to trade exhibitions around the world. In addition to well-known brands like Christian Dior and Gucci, Kajal London offers limited edition vintage frames and is designing an in-house collection for launch in 2015.

Little Luxuries: Sometimes the smallest, most private extravagances feel the most luxurious. Consider the lingerie line Rococo Dessous, launched by Sascha Hertli ’13, that uses 24-karat gold thread in each hand-stitched, made–to–order piece. “Gold was worn for many centuries in royal and imperial houses,” says Hertli. “Our dream is to revive this tradition for modern princesses.”

Or Savelli Genève, a smartphone designed as a piece of jewelry — and available at high-end retailers around the world like Harrods — from founder Alex Savelli ’08. For those who want to give someone a little luxury every month, there’s Enclosed, a knicker–of–the–month club from Antonia Townsend ’99. “I created a gift that not only makes a woman’s eyes light up, but also provides the giver with confidence that they are giving something utterly different,” Townsend says.

Medical Devices by MDs: When Aylin Tashman Kim ’08 worked in the pharmaceutical industry, she met many doctors with breakthrough ideas for medical devices but neither the time nor resources to act on them. MD by MD, the company Kim launched upon graduation in 2008, harnessed this opportunity by working with six doctors to commercialize their ideas. The company attained more than $1 million in grant funding for its clients and filed four US patents before Kim left in 2012 to collaborate with doctors on a second startup, SPIWay, which focuses on solutions for minimally invasive neuroendoscopic surgery. The company’s endonasal access guide, recently cleared by the FDA, allows surgeons to access the brain through the nose and is now used by ENTs and neurosurgeons across the country. “I believe that the leading source of medical technology is in the minds of those who practice medicine every day,” Kim says.

Napping on the Job: The Huffington Post has one. NASA has two for their pilots. And, of course, Google has them in their offices around the world. Last year was the best-selling year for the EnergyPod, an ergonomic napping chair created by MetroNaps, a company cofounded in 2003 by Christopher Lindholst ’02. Employers are waking up to the benefits of on–the–job napping as recent studies from the National Sleep Foundation and Harvard link sleep deficits to mood problems and health risks like diabetes and heart disease. Well-rested employees aren’t just healthier; they’re more productive.

“A 20-minute nap in the EnergyPod boosts alertness by 30 percent,” says Lindholst, who has been CEO since 2008. To keep the office buzzing, MetroNaps’ EnergyPod facilitates power naps via a privacy visor, built-in music, and a timer with a programmed combination of vibration and lights for gentle waking. So go ahead: sleep on the job.

Omelet: A Full-Service Branding Company: Filmmakers for Omelet, a marketing agency led by Don Kurz ’79, were shooting a promotional video for the nonprofit A Better LA when they were introduced to ex-gang members cleaning up the streets they once controlled. That meeting sparked the idea for a new kind of project for the firm — License to Operate, a feature-length documentary being produced by Omelet Studio, partner Foundation Content, and director James Lipetzky.

The firm’s unusual foray into filmmaking is an example of Kurz’s willingness to take risks to grow
 the company in new and innovative ways, which has resulted in 500 percent growth since he took the helm of Omelet in 2011. The entrepreneurial company was a good fit for Kurz, who ran marketing firm EMAK Worldwide for 15 years before becoming a consultant and starting a hedge fund with a partner. He was drawn to Omelet after consulting with the company on strategy. “I saw great potential in their creativity, and we had a shared vision 
of Omelet as an industry disrupter,” he says.

Predicting Preeclampsia: When two Stanford University School of Medicine professors approached Matthew Cooper ’11 about commercializing a diagnostic test for preeclampsia, Cooper considered it an offer he couldn’t refuse: he almost lost his wife to the condition. Globally responsible for some 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year, preeclampsia is difficult to diagnose because of nonspecific symptoms.

Carmenta Bioscience, the company Cooper cofounded with Stanford’s Atul Butte and Bruce Ling in 2012, is developing two blood tests that will be available to doctors in the United States next year: one to identify if a pregnant woman is at high risk for preeclampsia and another taken later in pregnancy to confirm if she has it. (A predictive test is critical because even though the single biggest risk factor is preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy, the complication most often occurs in first pregnancies.) If a woman is at high risk, doctors can prescribe simple, effective treatments like bed rest of taking baby aspirin. Carmenta also plans to develop a test that can be used in remote villages in developing countries. “I’m passionate about making this disease irrelevant,” says Cooper.

CanvasHQ: The hotel business was the impetus behind CanvasHQ, the turn–your–into–canvas–art startup founded by Storm Nolan ’08 — and a secret to its success. The company was founded “as an offshoot” of CSK Hotels, the Arkansas-based holding company where Nolan is a partner. “We’re do–it–yourselfers,” says Nolan. “We wanted to put a lot of artwork in our hotel properties, and knew we could save a lot of money doing it ourselves.”

The specialty service distinguishes itself from competitors by making canvases of all sizes — up to 96 inches wide. Last year the company saw 200 percent growth in revenue, with orders placed by professional photographers making up one-third of the business. “I attribute our success to high-quality work and good prices — values we definitely learned from the hotel business,” says Nolan.

Real Estate Disrupters: Tech startups are changing the home-hunting game. Compass, cofounded by Robert Reffkin ’03, streamlines the New York City apartment search via an app and website where agents and clients can collaborate throughout the process. “Apartment hunting should be fun, easy, and quick,” Reffkin says. “It shouldn’t take 10 days and 20 phone calls to find your home.”

For brokers, there’s ResiModel, founded by Elliot Vermes ’02, which simplifies deals via a cloud-based valuation and underwriting platform. Property owners have new tools at their fingertips, too: SiteCompli, launched by Ross Goldenberg ’07 and Jason Griffith ’06, equips NYC’s largest real estate organizations with compliance monitoring technology to help them stay ahead of potentially costly violations, inspections, and permits.

Tech may be all the rage, but it’s no prerequisite for entrepreneurial real estate success. Park Madison Partners, founded by managing partner Nancy Lashine ’81, matches institutional investors with real estate private equity funds and has raised more than $4.5 billion from 127 institutional investors since 2006. Even power players like Tishman Speyer, founded by Jerry Speyer ’64, aren’t resting on their laurels. With a portfolio of assets topping 129 million square feet — including New York’s Rockefeller Center — the firm is leading the field in developing sustainable properties, with more than 46 million square feet across four continents now LEED-certified.

Social Bicycles: Smart bike, dumb dock. That’s the premise behind SocialBicycles, the bike-sharing startup Ed Rayner ’13 advised when he was a Columbia student and joined as CFO and COO not long after he graduated. Whereas bike-sharing programs like New York’s Citi Bike rely on kiosks and docks that can be cumbersome for riders to use, SoBi puts an electromechanical lock, cloud software, and even GPS directly into their bikes — “a comparable system for about a third of the cost,” says Rayner.

It’s also more flexible for cyclists. Instead of searching for a dock near their destination, SoBi cyclists can lock their bike to any rack or pole. Whereas typical bike-share companies must constantly “rebalance,” moving bikes from full stations to less crowded ones, SoBi uses an incentives system: if riders lock their bikes within a designated “hub location” (a geographic range viewable via a Google map), they earn a credit, while those who leave their bikes outside a hub incur a small fee. The company rolled out 2,000 bikes in cities including Tampa and Las Vegas over the summer. “We’re just getting started,” says Rayner.

Travefy: David Chait ’13 was lost in an e-mail chain nearly 100 messages long when trying to plan a friend’s bachelor party in 2012. Finally, in an effort to end the chaos, one of the group members went ahead and booked a hotel on the Jersey shore. “He was right that the date worked for a lot of the guys,” Chait says, “just not the guy getting married! At that point, I realized there had to be something better.”

Chait knew of many great one-dimensional solutions — “You can Doodle a calendar invite to find a date, book on Expedia, and even track expenses in a Google Doc” — but no comprehensive tool existed; so he created Travefy, a free group travel planner that allows users to collaborate on trip itineraries, book travel deals, and manage shared expenses via the company’s website or mobile app.

“Group travel is complicated,” Chait says. “Travefy solves these headaches and makes planning easy and fun.”

Untamed Sandwiches: Braised meat is not something you hurry. The best brisket takes its sweet time — and is now available during lunch hour on a toasted ciabatta roll at Untamed Sandwiches, a Midtown sandwich shop from Andy Jacobi ’12 and chef Ricky King that opened in January 2014 to rave reviews from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Timeout New York.

King and Jacobi, a former grass-fed beef executive, wanted to bring high-end, sustainably raised food to a fast-service setting. All of Untamed Sandwiches’ meats are free-range, grass-fed (when that is what the animal is supposed to eat), and hormone- and antibiotic-free. Vegetables are local and organic. “There’s so much research suggesting that this type of food is better for you,” Jacobi says. “It’s really cool to send checks to farmers who are as passionate as we are about doing things the right way.”

VerTerra Dinnerware: If you doubt that single-use dinnerware can be green, think again: VerTerra, founded by Michael Dwork ’07, makes chic biodegradable serving pieces with just fallen palm tree leaves and steam — minus any glues or chemicals. The company’s factory in India is near the largest concentration of palm trees in the world, where VerTerra supplies hundreds of local workers with fair-wage jobs.

Dwork came up with the idea when he was an intern at Infosys Technologies in India the summer after his first year at Columbia. While driving through a remote village near Bangalore, he spotted a woman pressing leaves into water to create makeshift plates. “I just fell in love with them,” says Dwork, who — in between classes — raced to create a more durable version and negotiated deals with local famers for fallen leaves that meet organic standards. By the time he graduated Dwork had the validation he needed — funding from the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurial Fund and the Draper Fisher Jurvetson East Coast Venture Challenge — to go full steam ahead.

Wired Magazine: For Louis Rossetto ’73, being an entrepreneur means believing in “the inevitability of your vision of the future” — an apt description for the cofounder of Wired magazine, who in the first issue, back in 1993, wrote that “the digital revolution is whipping through our lives like a Bengali typhoon.”

Managing a software magazine in Europe, Rossetto witnessed the growing influence of PCs and networks across industries — and was keenly aware that the innovators driving this new digital culture were invisible to the public. “This was the biggest story of our time,” says Rossetto, “but nobody knew who these people were or what they were doing.”

On a shoestring budget, Wired was born — and soon after, HotWired, one of the first commercial websites (which launched even before Netscape). Under Rossetto’s five years as editor, Wired magazine won two National Magazine Awards for General Excellence and one National Magazine Award for Design. The stories Rossetto championed — on topics like interactive games and digital military simulations — were not being told anywhere else. “It was as if we had our own intelligence operations and window into the future.” Although Rossetto has since moved on to lead ventures in real estate and chocolate, he still marvels at “those revolutionary times.”

Moose-X Training: Former banker Manya Klempner ’03 loved the adrenaline of the trading floor. But long hours at Citi, JPMorgan, and Merrill Lynch meant she rarely made 
it to the gym. Determined to make fitness more realistic for busy women like herself, Klempner cofounded Moose-X Training in November 2012 with a simple promise: convenience. Customers can select and book a Moose-X personal trainer online who will meet them at their home (or anywhere convenient). Gym membership — a prerequisite for most personal training sessions — is
 not required.

“We’re making personal training accessible — not just something Gwyneth Paltrow can afford,” Klempner says. Why the moose? “Because we’re approachable and fun; we’re not about spandex and the latest fitness trends.” Although Klempner occasionally misses the multimillion-dollar deals from 
her former life, she loves the speed at which she can grow the company. “No memos, no committees, no getting approval. Here the buck stops with me.”

YOOX GROUP: Aspiring fashionistas can buy runway looks without leaving home thanks to YOOX Group, founded by CEO Federico Marchetti ’99 in 2000. Yoox.com, one of the global e-commerce giant’s many offerings, allows shoppers to choose from a vast selection of hard-to-find designer fashion, rare vintage pieces, art books, and design objects. YOOX also runs the online stores for major houses like Alexander Wang, Armani, and Valentino. The firm launched TheCorner.com, a luxury boutique for high fashion, in 2008, and ShoeScribe.com, dedicated to high-end women’s footwear, in 2012.

Zachary Prell, Inc: Years on Wall Street wearing pricey but poorly fitting shirts gave Zachary Prell ’05 a mission: to create a comfortable, stylish, and versatile sport shirt collection. The shirts Prell designed less than a year after graduating from Columbia look good tucked or untucked, with or without a tie. Today, his eponymous men’s sportswear brand includes outerwear, sport coats, knits, sweaters, and swimwear, and is available in more than 200 stores in the United States, including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Saks Fifth Avenue — and the company recently announced $15 million in equity financing to support further expansion.

To honor his earliest inspiration, Prell called the brand’s first shirt the “Irving” after his grandfather, Irving Prell, an entrepreneur who started his own pharmacy in West Los Angeles. The Irving sold out quickly, but Prell continues the tradition of naming shirts after friends of the brand.