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As a student at Columbia Business School, your backyard extends far beyond Uris Hall and the other world class professional schools that grace our historic upper west side campus. With an unparalleled location in New York City, you will be at the very center of today’s start up and business revolution. In addition to a physical location that puts many
of the worlds most exciting businesses just a few subway stops away, you’ll also join a network of amazingly accomplished students, alumni and faculty. It’s through this network that you’ll gain access to the types of opportunities, advice and mentorship that are certain to have a positive, lasting impact on both your business and your career.
Jennifer Wright-Laracy '09GreenBox
Changing the World, One Pizza Box at a Time
Donnel Baird '13Founder and CEO, BlocPower
What’s the Big Idea? To create a marketplace that connects impact investors to local institutional networks of energy efficiency projects via BlocPower’s online platform.
What’s unique about it? We organize a project into a portfolio performing an engineering analysis of the work and its financial and social impact.
Who are the customers? BlocPower primarily focuses on serving churches, synagogues, non-profits, and small businesses in underserved communities in West Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
How many employees? 8 employees, plus 20 firms we call “BlocPower Partners” that we subcontract consistently.
Next major goal? Help ConEd prepare and invest $1-2 million in inner city neighborhoods in central Brooklyn to bring clean energy at scale before Governor Cuomo shuts down the nuclear power plant that supports 20% of New York’s electricity. Then, once the model is proven, expand and duplicate to prevent blackouts in cities up and down the east coast.
BlocPower: Empowering the underserved
In looking at Donnel Baird’s family and early childhood days, it is easy to see how they helped shape his social entrepreneurship goals later in life. Baird grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in BedStuy, Brooklyn with his parents and sister. Baird’s father worked as a mechanical engineer and his mother was a social activist and social worker.
In the 1980’s, the neighborhood they lived in was a tough, drug and crime-infested area; something Baird and his parents, immigrants from Guyana, found distressing. “I grew up with kids that were so used to living with the sound of gunshots, that they automatically knew to expertly run for cover as if they lived in a war zone,” Baird remembered.
Baird’s family later moved to Atlanta and after graduating from Duke University, he returned to Brooklyn as a community organizer. “I became a community organizer after college, and worked on the Obama campaign,” Baird said. “I always knew I wanted to give back in some way.”
The neighborhood scenes he witnessed in his youth left an impression on Baird and he thought that a way to give back was through job creation. “I noticed how, in the dead of winter, people in the ‘hoods would have their windows open because the buildings were overheated. I thought ‘Why not hire and train people to learn how to better insulate the buildings?’ This would create jobs and save tax-paying dollars from literally going out the window.”
He sought to focus on updating the energy installations of buildings in those underserved neighborhoods in inner cities, in particular in upper Manhattan, West Harlem, the South and North West Bronx and Central and East Brooklyn. Through BlocPower, Baird and his team weatherized hundreds of houses, providing training to local unemployed people to do the construction work.
Today, BlocPower’s target clients are a unique and worthy one; they primarily focus on communities of faith in inner cities. “Historically, communities of faith have played an important role in giving African-Americans the right to vote, supporting immigration etc.,” Baird explained. “They are central to the nurturing and support system of inner city communities and we are engaging them in conversations on coming into the clean-energy space, taking ownership of it, and how it creates jobs, supports climate change – all while saving on their energy bills.” Baird uses their collective power in a community to bargain for lower electricity billings on energy-efficient products. “It is a unique for-profit capitalist business strategy,” Baird added.
At Columbia Business School, Baird gravitated to the Lang Center, and in particular, The Social Enterprise Program, whom Baird saw the school cared about. “Columbia Business School invests in their Social Enterprise Program and that particularly swayed me to choose Columbia over other schools.”
“I credit Columbia Business School for being the entrepreneur I am today,” Baird shared. “I enrolled at CBS with no business background at all and Columbia took me from ‘0-to-60’ in two years.” Learning how to operate and monetize social and environmental change made all the difference. “Columbia gave me the time, space and mentoring to make BlocPower happen.”
Cyrus Massoumi '03Founder, ZocDoc
What’s the Big Idea? To make booking a doctor appointment as easy as booking a flight or hotel – allowing patients to find an in-network doctor, see real-time availability, and instantly book an appointment online. By uncovering the hidden supply of appointments, we help patients receive faster access to medical care and empower them to take control of their health.
What’s unique about it? Healthcare is extremely antiquated. Consumer technology has evolved travel, finance, retail and more – but why not healthcare? Beyond bringing this convenience to healthcare, we’re helping patients access care at a rate that wasn’t possible before. The national average wait time to see a doctor is currently over 18.5 days, but with ZocDoc, the typical patient gets care in under 24 hours.
Who are the customers? We operate a two-sided marketplace, so we actually have two customers – patients and doctors. For patients, ZocDoc takes the pain out of booking an appointment and gets patients in to see a doctor quickly. For doctors, we bring them new patients, keep their existing patients happy, and help optimize their schedules.
How many employees? 600 employees and we are quickly growing our teams in New York City, Phoenix, and Pune.
Next major goal? We recently committed to bringing ZocDoc to every state in the contiguous US by the end of 2014. I’m excited to roll out our service to these additional states and to deliver a more seamless healthcare experience to patients and doctors across the US.
ZocDoc: putting people first.
Cyrus Massoumi created ZocDoc in 2007 after rupturing an eardrum on a flight. "I couldn't find a doctor for four days. I knew that there had to be an easier way for patients to find doctors,” Massoumi said. He was convinced that a better healthcare system could be possible. He put his extensive experience in the healthcare-technology nexus, web commerce and management to work and created the idea that became ZocDoc.
Massoumi stresses that the key to ZocDoc’s success lays in the company's devotion to its customers. “One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of,” Massoumi says, “is ZocDoc’s Net Promoter Score, or a consumer’s willingness to recommend a product or service, scored out of 100. Most healthcare companies have a score in the negatives, but ZocDoc maintains a NPS in the 70’s, right alongside brands like Amazon and Apple.” Over 5 million Americans already use ZocDoc to find doctors and book medical appointments online. “With our #1 core value being ‘Patients First’, we make sure that our patients are the priority in every decision we make, which has contributed to our high NPS and consumer loyalty.”
To date, ZocDoc is funded by some of the tech world’s most respected and influential investors, including DST Global, Goldman Sachs, Founders Fund, Khosla Ventures, Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff, and Ron Conway. Total investment in the company has reached $95 million.
Massoumi’s recipe for success stems around four key pillars: Great People + Hard Work + Focus + Time. He feels that being able to master those four elements, you’ll nearly always find success. But expressing genuine passion for people and the work you do, like Massoumi does, should not be overlooked. Passion can truly be contagious and inspire those around you. “I firmly believe that everyone you meet, whether in school or afterwards, plays an important role in shaping you and your business. Some of my MBA classmates were even early investors in ZocDoc. The connections I made and the network that my Columbia education affords me have been invaluable in my success.”
Massoumi’s most proud and humbling distinction to date is ZocDoc’s recognition by Crain’s New York Business as the Best Place to Work in New York. “People; that is what it’s all about.”
Shazi Visram '04Founder and CEO, Happy Family
What’s the Big Idea? To create a leading premium organic food brand that delivers optimal nutrition for the entire family.
What’s unique about it? Our products are certified organic because we believe that children deserve delicious foods grown without the use of chemicals, and synthetic pesticides.
Who are the customers? People who care about the health and wellness of their families.
How many employees? 80 full time and 75 part time moms around the country, called Healthy Mamas that serve as ambassadors of health and wellness, providing resources and outreach to new parents.
Next major goal? To be a global brand.
HappyFamily: health and wellness for today’s young families
Shazi Visram came up with the idea for Happy Family after watching a friend prepare baby food in her kitchen for her infant because healthy food options in stores seemed to be missing. The preparation took a lot of time and work, and was not practical. Visram thought there had to be a better way.
What began as Happy Baby — a minimally processed frozen, organic alternative to baby food in a jar — has since grown into a comprehensive line of products for the whole family. “We have evolved from my initial vision which was changing the way babies are fed in this country to include toddlers and now it has become ‘changing health and wellness for today’s young families,” Visram said.
The evolution has really made the company step it up in turns of innovation and bigger picture thinking. What is fairly new is a partnership with Groupe Danone who is now the major-owner of Happy Family. “We partnered with Groupe Danone, who is the second largest producer of baby food in the world. They are renowned for their nutrition research and development capabilities, and their commitment to safety and quality parallels Happy Family’s. It is a good match.”
Visram came to Columbia Business School knowing she wanted to start a business and chart her own way, and for that reason the Lang Center was the one place she felt at home. She believes that having the right people in your life makes all the difference. “My first strong role models were my mother and father who gave me a taste for following my dreams,” Visram said, “and later Professor Clifford Schorer and the Lang Center team became a big part of my development and of bringing Happy Family to fruition.”
What Visram found most challenging was not just developing an idea but tactically executing it. “It was about not feeling alone and feeling supported,” she added. “Courses like Intro to Venturing, Launching New Ventures, and the Greenhouse Program were such formative experiences. It was the most tactical, hands-on experience I could have asked for as I continued to revise my business plan.”
In 2011, Visram earned the title of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year for New York. Happy Family has been named as one of the fastest growing organic food companies in the nation by Inc. magazine for two years running, and was named “Rockstar of the New Economy” by Fast Company in 2012.
Happy Family is now sold in over 30 countries and has close to 100 products. The company continues to grow and evolve. “Business continues to boom and the partnership with Groupe Danone will make the dream of becoming a global brand a reality. Our future looks happy and bright.”
Steve Gilman '15Block Party Suites
“To organize a robust community, sometimes you have to put walls around it,” says Steve Gilman ‘15 about his company, Block Party Suites.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE CRATE
CBS alumnus Steve Gilman ‘15 and his co-founders, Adam Ward and Cody Slape, recognized the importance of creating a platform to connect the community and the appeal of repurposing a common object in an innovative way. In 2014, they combined these concepts and launched Block Party Suites, a B2B company with the goal of better utilizing the space between businesses and consumers at outdoor events by transforming shipping containers into customizable suites. While the outdoor landscape of sporting events and music festivals has long been saturated with luxury tents and staid brand promotion techniques, this innovative approach has provided businesses with a novel way to reach their audience.
THE METAMORPHOSIS: SHIPPING CONTAINER TURNED LUXURY SUITE
There is no shortage of product supply, “for every 100 shipping containers that enter the U.S., 50 are shipped back empty, 45 are stored in lots, and only 5 are claimed for other purposes,” says Gilman. Block Party Suites uses a new model that opens on the side, and then works with a Texas-based fabricator to revamp the containers into full-fledged, double-decker entertainment venues, replete with track lighting, AC power, satellite TV, and comfortable furniture. They provide daily and weekly leasing options, take care of staking out a prime location, and handle all of the logistics of installing and packing the suite.
UNCRATING THE PAST
The word is out – with a contract for fall football season at Southern Methodist University and several exciting partnerships in the pipeline, Block Party Suites is growing quickly. In reflecting on the defining steps that led to their success, Gilman believes picking the right co-founders, building good relationships, and the mentorship he received from Columbia Business School were critical. “If you come to Columbia knowing that you want to become an entrepreneur, everything you learn you can start applying to your own business. Every class that was driven toward entrepreneurship invited interesting entrepreneurs to come in and tell their stories.” Gilman noted the valuable lessons he learned from CBS alums and guest speakers like Greg Marsh (CBS ‘13) from KeyMe, Ryan Peterson (CBS ’08) of Flexport, Nik Bonaddio of numberFire, Ryan Simonetti from Convene, and Matthew Keiser of LiveIntent, all of whom had successes and failures, but ultimately persevered in building their ventures.
AN ISLAND SURROUNDED BY SHIPPING PORTS…AND FILLED WITH INSPIRING ENTREPRENEURS
“People don’t reach out to successful founders enough because they think they’re too busy…but usually they’re more than willing to help students,” explains Gilman. As a student, he remembers visiting a different startup every Friday, an advantage, he notes, that could not be found on this scale or magnitude anywhere else. “Plus,” Gilman adds, “there are enough resources and investors in New York that you could attend several events every week.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Block Party Suites will work out of Columbia Startup Lab for the next year, and Gilman looks forward to continuing to grow the company in a space with other ambitious alumni startups. He is focused on scaling quickly, optimizing operations and further enhancing the suites with new features to foster these important connections and experiences for their clients. There is no doubt that Gilman and his team have a bright future with substantial room for growth ahead. “We use the motto ‘Always Go,’” says Gilman, “which means chasing every opportunity, never waiting to do something tomorrow that you can do today – everything is worth exploring.”
Susannah Vila '15Flip
“The problem we’re trying to solve is important in a lot of tight real estate markets, but it’s especially important in New York City – not only is it extremely tight, it’s lopsided and bizarre and different from any other market."
LIBERATING LEASE-BOUND NEW YORKERS
After years of having her “pockets emptied” in the New York City real estate market, Susannah Vila (CBS ‘15) created Flip, a marketplace for leases that allows users to put a price on a lease they no longer want, or buy a lease they wish to take over. “Our goal is to make it very simple for people to find a qualified replacement tenant to take over their lease when they need to leave,” says Vila. “The driving idea is that a lease is an asset with economic value.”
A DIFFERENT KIND OF MATCHMAKER: FACILITATING THE FLIP
By serving as the key connectors between lease seekers and lease breakers, Susannah and her team are revolutionizing the process of renting and the way people think about leases in New York. They start by pre-qualifying all applicants. “I want [renters] to have the security and negotiating power to find someone just as qualified to take over [their] lease at any point in time,” says Vila. Leaseholders post their lease for sale on Flip’s website or through the iPhone app, and meanwhile, if they wish, they can shop for a new lease before it hits the market. “We are focused on doing these flips in a very ‘high touch’ way, making sure our customers are super happy, and we are improving the process with each lease flip that we do.”
FINE-TUNING FLIP’S MISSION
Vila’s company empowers the renter and addresses a problem experienced by countless city dwellers, but it took rigorous preparation and refinement of the concept to arrive at this solution. At CBS, Vila took classes like Lean LaunchPad with Steve Blank, Launching New Ventures, and Organizational Change, all of which had an invaluable impact on the formation of Flip. “The Entrepreneurship Program at CBS was amazing for us,” recounts Vila. “It gave me a roadmap with checkboxes of what I should do to validate any idea for a business I might have in the future.” In particular, Vila found the guidance from her advisors, Zach Aarons (CBS ‘13) and Bob Dorf, as well as interviews with potential customers – an activity in the Lean LaunchPad class – to be especially useful. “The idea changed drastically through those conversations. We honed in on what the problem was and how people were experiencing it, and we changed our service to fit that problem. It was only at that point that we started to get traction in terms of people talking about the idea.”
FLIP FORWARD: WHAT’S NEXT?
Flip plans to add more features to a new version of the app set to launch later this summer. In the meantime, they are working from Columbia Startup Lab, focused on building their customer base and preparing to raise a seed round of financing in the fall, which will enable them to build out the team and launch in new markets. As Vila says, “the most important thing when you’re starting a product or service is to be solving a problem.” Those who have used the service thus far agree Flip certainly checks that box.
Ricky Joshi '06Saatva
Q&A with Ricky Joshi (‘06)
Saatva, co-founded by CBS alumnus Ricky Joshi (‘06), is a leading online-only, eco-friendly, Ultra-Luxury Mattress brand. As a vertically integrated e-commerce retailer, they manage and control the entire process from working with suppliers to managing final in-home installation. This model has enabled them to operate more efficiently and bring those savings directly to the customer – offering a $2,500 mattress to the online market for a mere $899. They are growing by more than 100% year over year and are currently on a $70M annual revenue run rate. Since graduating from CBS, Joshi has relocated to Austin, TX, so we conducted an e-Q&A to learn more about his path from CBS to the luxury mattress industry.
Lang: Tell us how you came up with the idea.
Joshi: At the time I was building a digital marketing agency that was becoming successful in its own right. As I built it, however, I started to witness e-commerce going through a second renaissance. I knew I wanted to pursue something more scalable. During my exploration I was introduced to Ron Rudzin, my co-founder, who passionately felt that the mattress market was broken. I analyzed the industry and realized that there was a big opportunity to fix the process. I decided to join Ron as co-founder and put everything I had behind executing our combined vision.
Lang: What has led to your success?
Joshi: From day one we started building out our own national installation and delivery infrastructure. We’re now up to 16 factories and 53 distribution centers. This has been huge. It means we are able to provide a better product and a better service. It would have been much easier to nationally ship a bed in a box, but we know our market wants in-home installation, a foundation and frame, and mattress removal. As a bootstrapped company we’ve had to have a lot of discipline building the business that carries forward to this day. As a brand this has become very defensible. We keep growing so rapidly because we’ve built such a solid foundation.
Lang: What could have been improved along the way?
Joshi: As a first mover into the space we should have started PR earlier in our life-cycle. We are very well known among in-market and luxury consumers, but a couple competitors have broader mass recognition.
Lang: How did your time at CBS shape your path?
Joshi: I was in the Greenhouse Program and I believe continuous exposure to successful entrepreneurs was incredibly helpful in understanding how to approach the process. Over time I’ve found the CBS network goes beyond those who attended during my years, and in fact some of my best friends and most helpful contacts have been alums before and after I attended.
Lang: What advice would you give a current CBS student who wants to start his/her own company?
Joshi: Get your feet wet. I learned a lot at my first job, but I feel that I did so because I made the effort to be very hands on with our engineers, designers, and marketers. I became directly involved with operations and managing product development. The more you know how to build something yourself, the better equipped you are to drive success – so much of what I do on a daily basis today I learned just by jumping in headfirst. Also, when I left business school there wasn’t the same type of visibility into early stage capital as there is today. If you have a strong concept, there are networks like Angelist to help get you started. The incubator space is flourishing. Early stage VCs abound. I probably would have done a better job exploring these early stage resources.
Lang: What’s next?
Joshi: We just launched a new brand, Loom & Leaf, to compete directly with Tempur-Pedic, and the brand has been successful beyond anything I could have imagined in such a short period of time. We’re continuing to redefine the entire luxury mattress space by making it accessible. A luxury mattress is a great way to improve your daily quality of life. The message is getting out there, and everyday we’re gaining customers who weren’t previously thinking about mattresses at all. We believe we’re just getting started.
Images courtesy of Saatva.
Sarah Ribner '16PiperWai
“Customers message us every day to tell us that this product has either changed their lives or works better than anything else they’ve tried. The best feeling is when strangers tell me something I created with my best friend made such a difference for them,” says CBS student Sarah Ribner ‘16 about her all-natural deodorant PiperWai.
CHARCOAL: NOT JUST FOR GRILLING
PiperWai’s mission is straightforward – develop a growing brand of all natural skincare that supports a healthy lifestyle, starting with an effective, all-natural cream deodorant. When Sarah Ribner and her co-founder Jess Edelstein launched PiperWai a year ago, there was a diverse selection of natural skincare products on the market, but deodorant options were few and far between. “I’ve always been into alternative personal care products,” Ribner recounts, “but deodorant was the one thing I couldn’t find.” Ribner’s co-founder had the same problem, and had been working on perfecting her own formula for eight years. The breakthrough came from an unlikely ingredient – charcoal, which, as Ribner explains, makes the perfect base ingredient for deodorant. “It is both effective and good for sensitive skin,” plus, she says, “it can absorb up to 1,000 times its own weight in moisture, it balances out the pH environment under your arms, and it’s less irritating than many other natural deodorants that use baking soda.”
PUTTING IN THE SWEAT EQUITY
The popularity of the product has grown quickly over the past year. PiperWai now has several thousand customers, but their success can be attributed to more than just an effective formula. Ribner and her fellow co-founder were involved in every aspect of the company from the beginning, an approach she feels contributed greatly to their progress thus far. “We wanted to get our hands dirty and get involved in every part of the process,” Ribner says. This involved everything from handcrafting the deodorant in small batches in an FDA-regulated community kitchen, to working with designers to create the packaging and website, and even setting up booths at artisan fairs to sell directly to the customer. “We really did put in the sweat equity - we constantly had to put ourselves out there, but through that process we met so many helpful contacts; it was also great for customer discovery,” Ribner adds.
BALANCING MORE THAN JUST pH LEVELS: SCHOOL AND STARTUP
PiperWai had already launched by the time Ribner started her first semester at CBS. While balancing both endeavors has been challenging, Ribner has leveraged the experience and insights she gained in her classes to help her grow PiperWai. “From presenting in front of a class, to pitching in front of an investor, or speaking at a public event related to [the] industry, getting my MBA has provided a broad range of experiences, which has been very helpful for running a business” Ribner notes. “The second semester was especially helpful because I was able to take entrepreneurship classes and do independent studies focused around PiperWai.” Ribner took Lean LaunchPad and Launching New Ventures, along with Advertising and Managerial Negotiations classes, all of which have proven to be useful. “Launching New Ventures was incredibly helpful – not only did it put me in contact with investors, but also with great guest speakers, some of whom I am still in touch with today,” Ribner says.
THE TO D.O. LIST
Ribner is currently participating in the Columbia Startup Lab Summer Program with Barbara Roberts and working on an ambitious list of goals for the year ahead. Their recent Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign success – reaching 123% of their goal – will enable them to contract with manufacturers to mass-produce the product, while also exploring new variations like stick applicators and travel size options of the deodorant. “We reached even higher than our goal, but it’s nothing outside of the range of what we’re able to handle. It’s just enough to get us to that next level and figure out how to scale without being overwhelmed” Ribner says. The impact the product has had on so many customers is the driving motivation for Ribner. “I would like to see that happen with additional products,” she says, “[when we expand,] we want to do it right, make sure it’s effective, at a fair price point, and most importantly, that these products contribute to our customers’ overall wellbeing.”
Watch the video below to learn more about PiperWai:
Video and Image credit: Nathaniel Dodson | Endy Photography
Marc Glosserman '06Founder and CEO, Hill Country Hospitality
What’s the Big Idea? To create an authentic barbecue and live music experience that honors the capital of Texas and takes its "cue" from the legendary meat-markets-turned-barbecue-joints of Central Texas with their distinctive, dry-rub style.
What’s unique about it? All barbecue at the restaurant is cooked fresh daily on premise in a custom meat-smoking room, and the market is full of products directly from the Lone Star State, like favorites such as Kreuz Market sausage, Big Red soda, and Blue Bell ice cream.
Who are the customers? People from all walks of life; BBQ and fried chicken have mass appeal.
How many employees? 400 employees
Next major goal? Expanding on the BBQ and fried chicken business models by opening up more restaurants across the US.
Hill Country Hospitality: paying tribute to family
Marc Glosserman grew up around barbecue food and remembers fondly how it was central to every family gathering. “My core base family is from Texas,” Glosserman shared, “and when we would get together, we would pick up food from Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, a market that has been around since the 1900s.” Lockhart is the official barbecue capital of Texas.
This appreciation for food and local culture stayed with him as he traveled internationally while he tried to figure out what he would do next with his career. “Food and hospitality were always present growing up as was entrepreneurship,” Glosserman said. His father and grandfather were entrepreneurs, so by osmosis he learned many business fundamentals. “I loved the creative process and the idea of building something. My grandfather described an entrepreneur as ‘someone that goes out and makes things happen in business.’ I wanted to be that.”
Along the way, Glosserman launched businesses in telecommunications, publishing and healthcare, but it wasn’t until he came back home to Texas for a family wedding that the idea of opening up a restaurant was born. “I was having a conversation with the owner of Kreuz Market and I realized that wherever I traveled, one of the first questions I would ask is ‘where can I get the best local cuisine.’” Food, culture, and hospitality were forever present in Glosserman’s life. “I asked the owner if he considered expanding his business and although he had no plans for that, that is when a light bulb went on in my head,” he remembers. “I thought this experience that I grew up with does not exist outside of Lockhart.” He had the idea of recreating a truly authentic Texas barbecue experience in NYC where he was headed next.
He moved to NYC 2004 and sought to meet people in the restaurant business. In the fall of 2004 he began his first semester at Columbia Business School and used his academic career to continue thinking about his idea. He tailored the curriculum around working on his business plan. “It was invaluable for me to take courses in finance, marketing, operations management etc. and apply what I was learning in real time to my concept. I was not sure if I was going to do it, but I thought Columbia was a great place to incubate the idea as I furthered my education.”
Even though there were many unknowns, Glosserman credits Columbia and the network for giving him the support to plow ahead. “The concept was a complete career departure for me professionally, but it may never have gotten off the ground if I was not supported by classmates, professors and the Lang Fund. Having the endorsement from the Lang Fund in particular has helped me win additional funding.”
Seven years and five restaurants later, Glosserman admits it has all been worth it. “This has been an incredibly hard yet rewarding experience. “I am thankful that I found an industry that I am passionate about and have a real personal connection to,” Glosserman said. “I often say that my business is like writing a love letter to my family; paying tribute to them.”
Yael Alkalay '97Founder, Red Flower
What’s the Big Idea? To create organic and all-natural lifestyle, home and beauty products made with the purest ingredients that support a consumer in every aspect of their life.
What’s unique about it? At red flower we are grounded in deep attention to authentic tradition and global bathing rituals. Because we farm, source and make all products ourselves within 100 miles of NYC, the product experience is unlike any other on the market that delivers a ‘wow factor’ and touches all the senses.
Who are the customers? People who care about health, the environment, wellness, beauty and travel globally.
How many employees? Twenty full-time and freelance associates.
Next major goal? Push our technological capabilities and continue growing our partner base like Canyon Ranch, Shutters on the Beach, and local boutique properties like the newly-opened Ludlow Hotel.
red flower: a guide to life.
To know the story of red flower is to know the origin of its founder, Yael Alkalay. “While I was at Columbia Business School, I went skiing in the French Alps,” Alkalay explains. “I was very high up in the Alps, and while skiing, I had an accident which caused me to have a stroke. I lost use of my right arm and could not speak. It was Christmas day on my second year of business school.”
The incident was life changing and formative. The healing process allowed Alkalay to think about what is most important in her life and renewed her respect for her senses. “I have always had strong senses – a strong sense of smell - but I took it for granted,” she said. During her recovery, a close friend came to visit her and washed her hair. She remembered how the very minty smell of the shampoo, and the touch of her friend’s hand, revived her. She began to rethink the small things that we do for ourselves and how being more present makes life abundant and beautiful. The whole experience became the catalyst that gave birth to her life’s mission.
“The sense of smell is powerfully restorative. The broadest way I could think was to engage all the senses, and more importantly how the immediate sense of smell can change or alter one’s attitude.” It was this realization that led her to think about a business that empowers people to live a full life; that helps them turn an everyday habit into a ritual and value the simple basics of life. “When you can’t speak or use your arm, you learn to consolidate and rethink things very quickly. I learned the fundamental power of scent to heal and restore, and how using everyday things in life can shift your attitude.” She sought to empower others with this knowledge.
Back at Columbia, Alkalay cultivated her curiosity about how things work and how they come together. She knew she wanted to get a business off the ground and the concept of red flower evolved while at business school. “The name ‘red flower’ came to me as I was looking for an iconic, powerful yet simple word to represent what I was trying to convey with my brand. I thought ‘red flower’ was perfect; without flowers there would not be life. It is amazing to me that life comes from this beautiful and humble source. This was something I can stand behind with all of my being.
Alkalay credits the support of the Columbia Business School community for her success. “Being at a top school that encourages you to work on your idea and allows you to think like an entrepreneur was instrumental to my success,” she said. “I would not have launched red flower if it wasn’t for the support of my professors, the alumni network and the Lang Fund.”
Ron Gonen '04CEO, Recyclebank
What’s the business? Paying households to recycle.
Who are the customers? Municipalities, recycling haulers and households.
Who are the investors? Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurial Fund, Ron Gonen, Casella Waste Systems, Patrick Fitzgerald, RecycleHoldings, RRE Ventures and Sigma Partners.
How many employees? 25
Biggest achievement? Taking a company from an idea to something that people think can change an industry.
Next major goal? Profitability.
Ron Gonen was drawn to social entrepreneurship as a teenager, when he was a founding member of the National Conference for High School Students Against Hunger and Homelessness. Years later, when Gonen was a senior consultant at Deloitte Consulting, he was honored with the firm’s 2002 National Impact Award for developing a consulting unit that connected pro bono services to nonprofit and charitable organizations.
Gonen came up with the idea for RecycleBank , a start-up that pays households for recycling, when he was a student at Columbia. “The best thing about Columbia is that its New York location means that students have access to a variety of people and opportunities,” he says. “My professors were actual businesspeople who were applying the theories that they discussed in class to the real world.”
RecycleBank provides large containers to households for recycling. Its technology then identifies the amount families have recycled and translates this into a dollar amount — RecycleBank Dollars — that can be used at more than 300 different stores. The results have been dramatic. In two neighborhoods in Philadelphia, for example, 20 percent of the households were recycling before RecycleBank started; now 90 percent of them recycle.
Gonen believes that building a network is critical. “As an entrepreneur, your success depends on the people you meet,” he says. “When seeking investors, worry less about valuation and more about the individual. Take the time to be a good judge of character. Your dream is your dream; you are the only one who had it. Collaboration and the advice of good people will feed your dream, but don’t ever let anyone force you to give it up or take it from you.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Gonen maintains a demanding schedule. “People don’t always understand why I work so many hours,” he says, “but I don’t think it’s unique. I think that anyone who has ever built anything of value has had to work the type of hours I work. Consider it a prerequisite. It definitely teaches you to cherish that free hour when you get it. Don’t turn on the TV — spend time with your significant other, friends and family.”
Andrea Wenner '05Executive Director, Out2Play
What’s the organization’s mission? Dedicated to building and refurbishing playgrounds in New York City public schools.
Who are the customers ? Children and New York City public elementary schools.
Who are the donors? Individuals, corporations, foundations and city government officials.
How many employees? Two, and two volunteers.
Biggest achievement? Completion of 40 playgrounds at schools throughout the city on time and under budget.
Next major goal? Form a partnership with the city to get a permanent funding match. We have a list of 120 schools that need playgrounds. Our goal is to build a playground at every one of those schools by 2011.
During her sophomore year of college, Andrea Wenner launched her own video rental store. “The business lasted for about a year before Blockbuster and others moved in and we were overrun,” she says, “but it was a great experience.”
Still, Wenner didn’t enter Columbia Business School planning to be an entrepreneur. “It was the Launching New Ventures class and my playground-construction idea that got me going,” Wenner says. She considered several other ventures—including universal gym memberships for traveling businesspeople and a beach towel with a built-in pillow and backpack—before developing Out2Play , a nonprofit that builds and refurbishes playgrounds at New York Public Schools.
Wenner grew up in a suburban town with lots of playing fields and playgrounds. But when she moved to New York, she lived next to an elementary school that didn’t have a playground. “During recess, the kids would just stand in the street,” she says. “I thought there wasn’t enough space for playgrounds, so my initial idea was to build them on school roofs. Then I learned that schools didn’t have the money.”
Out2Playactively engages students in the design of their new playgrounds. “When we ask kids what kind of playgrounds they want, they’ll ask for slides or basketball hoops,” she says. “They have some funny requests, too, like a pool or a convenience store. But then the architect will explain what an architect does. It gets the kids thinking about the whole process, which is great.”
The School’s network has served as a resource for Wenner. “At Columbia, I appreciated being with people who were in the same boat,” she says. “I could turn to the person next to me and find out what his or her business problems were that day, and I knew that everyone was pushing forward regardless.”
Wenner finds being an entrepreneur both challenging and rewarding. “Before you begin, you have this big vision and grand idea, but when you actually start your business, there are lots of tedious tasks, and if you’re the only one behind the venture, you’re the one doing the work,” she says. “Working alone has been more lonely than I anticipated. But I also have the power to do what I want.”
Ntiedo Etuk '02CEO, Tabula Digita
What’s the business? Educational video games.
Who are the customers? School districts and learning centers, and in the future, parents. The users, of course, are always students.
Who are the investors? Venture capitalists (Ascend Venture Group) and select angel investors.
How many employees? Eleven full-time and up to 19 outsourced programmers.
Biggest achievement? Overachieved sales goals by approximately 60 percent.
Next major goal? Successful launch of the company’s consumer division, supplementing the school sales division.
Ntiedo “N T” Etuk was drawn to Columbia Business School partly because of its location. “There’s an energy you pick up in New York that makes you fearless,” Etuk says. “The variety of people you meet — advertisers, entrepreneurs, bankers, lawyers — is incomparable.”
After graduation, Etuk spent two years working at Citigroup. He launched Tabula Digita in 2002 and continued its development while employed full-time until April 2004, when he left Citigroup to devote his full attention to the company.
Tabula Digita creates educational video games that look and feel like 3-D PlayStation games but teach various subjects. “Education has always been a focus,” Etuk says. “My father was the West African hurdles champion, but he skipped the Olympics to attend McGill University.” Etuk founded Tabula Digita to address an unmet need for entertaining and engaging ways for young people to learn.
He remembers tutoring a 14-year-old in math: “I tried to get him to hit the books. We did this for two months before his mother said he had asked to stop seeing me. I asked him why and he said, ‘I like you, but we never have any fun.’ It wasn’t that he had a problem learning. He could play games all day and figure out how to use a cell phone in a heartbeat — that was interesting. But textbooks, blackboards, traditional teaching methods — these were of no interest to him or his generation.”
Etuk learned early in his life that commitment and perseverance are critical for success. “When I was young, I was under the impression that people achieved great things because they had special gifts and things came easily to them,” he says. “I later learned that intelligence is not the key factor. Anything is achievable if you are willing to sweat it out.”
Looking back on the launch of his company, Etuk believes that the School helped him be ready to take on the challenges faced by all entrepreneurs. “Columbia gave me the confidence to think of myself as a CEO, and I appreciated that the program emphasized financials,” he says. “Numbers don’t lie. At the very least, they force you to think things through and strategize about your business a little better.”
Andrea Miller '02CEO and Founder, Tango Media
What’s the business? A multimedia company focused on love and relationships for women ages 25–45. Think Sex and the City meets Oprah.
Who are the customers? The audience — professional women for whom building a relationship is a top priority —and advertisers.
Who are the investors? A group of angels, Gabelli Group Capital Partners and Octagon Asset Management.
How many employees? Ten full-time, about 15 part-timers and consultants and dozens of editorial contributors.
Biggest achievement? Building Tango to the point where it has attracted the attention of major strategic media partners and investors.
Next major goal? Creating a successful new non-advertising source of revenue.
Andrea Miller always knew that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. “It’s in my blood,” she says. “We’ve had lots of entrepreneurs in the family — my grandfather, several uncles, Mom, Dad and lots of cousins.”
During her second year at the School, Miller read Thomas Moore’s Soul Mates. “I was inspired by the transcendental power of love and the idea that relationships intersect with nearly everything we do — career, communication, sex, travel and leisure, even the home,” says Miller, who discovered her passion for media as the managing editor of the School’s student newspaper, the Bottom Line.
After graduation, Miller took the Columbia Publishing Course through the School of Journalism and began raising seed money, developing strategic partnerships, hiring a staff and working on circulation strategies for her own growing media company. She launched Tango , a multimedia company focused on love and relationships, in February 2005.
“Most women’s magazines pay little attention to substantive issues,” says Miller. “ Tango is a thinking woman’s magazine in disguise.” Miller finds that being an entrepreneur impacts her own relationships. “I remember speaking at a conference when the question of work-life balance came up”, she says, “I said ‘I don’t have any.’ It’s never going to be a 10-hour-a-day kind of job — at least not for quite a while.”
Miller is constantly thinking about the next developments for Tango. “We’ve had positive feedback from male readers, and while the magazine is female-focused, we are able to cater more to male readers on the Web site, which is becoming the heart of our business,” she says. “I’m extremely excited about Tango 2.0.”
Miller credits her experiences at the School for equipping her with the inspiration to pursue her entrepreneurial vision. “Offering frequent access to business and political leaders is one of Columbia’s greatest strengths,” she says. “Whether it was hearing these individuals or accessing the alumni database, the Columbia network was especially important to me because I entered a field I knew very little about. I reached out to people through the Columbia community for everything from raising capital to finding an editor.”
Zohar Yardeni '01Founder, radiusIM
Founder, CallStreet (with Eric Fischkin '01, Jason Jobe '01, John Londono '01, Fred Wasch '01 and Vance Wells '01)
Founder, radiusIM (with John Londono '01)
What’s the business? RadiusIM.com, a location-aware Web IM network.
Who are the customers? Sixteen- to 28-year-olds.
Who are the investors? A venture capital firm and angels.
How many employees? Six.
Biggest achievement? Just crossed the 2.5 million users mark!
Next major goal? Traffic and revenue milestones.
Zohar Yardeni wasn’t passionate about business when he graduated from college. “I wasn’t the dude carrying the Wall Street Journal in college,” Yardeni says. “I had long hair and no job.”
However, it didn’t take Yardeni long to discover the appeal of business. “What I always liked about business was that there’s a score at the end of the day,’’ he says. After college, Yardeni worked in mergers and acquisitions and private equity. His untraditional path resumed when he worked as a ski lift operator before starting business school.
“You’re working with kids who are 19 or 20, who are not going to college and who are thinking no further than the next couple of weeks,” he says. “If you’re coming from Manhattan and an investment banking job, seeing that lifestyle broadens your perspective.”
Yardeni credits his experience and network from Columbia Business School as an asset to his entrepreneurial efforts. “The greatest thing about Columbia was my classmates,” he says. “We were able to start CallStreet, an earnings-conference-call-transcription service, at Columbia because we had just spent two years with 500 other people who are bright and had time to contribute.”
Yardeni’s first company, CallStreet LLC, was sold to FactSet Research Systems. His next venture, radiusIM, integrates location into the online experience. “Our initial offering is a social instant-messaging Web site ,” he explains. “It shows people where their friends are hanging out and lets them surf for people based on location.”
“Being an entrepreneur is very humbling. Everyone thinks you walk away with $2 billion in your 20s, like what happened with YouTube. I hang out with a lot of folks who started companies, and some did well, but others got doors slammed in their faces. It keeps you honest and humble.”
He finds that it does get easier. “From financing to mundane stuff like office space, starting radiusIM was simpler than CallStreet because we had experience and credibility,” he says. “But one thing that doesn’t change is the commitment required. We’re still living, eating and breathing this business.”
Despite the challenges, Yardeni seeks to encourage people to try to start a business. “There’s a tendency to ascribe a lot of traits to entrepreneurs after success or failure, but the reality is that luck plays a big role,” he says. “It’s great just to be in the game, just to get a chance to try to build something real.”
Julie Flakstad '99Cofounder, Blow
What’s the business? America’s first blow-dry bar.
Who are the customers? All girls and women who want to look their best.
Who are the investors? The founders, a few friendly believers and our first round of outside investors, all of whom are clients and include Linda Sawyer, CEO of Deutsch Advertising, who is now chair of Blow’s board of directors.
How many employees? 50.
Biggest achievement? Our loyal clients.
Next major goal? Expanding the product line further. Identifying additional investors for the next major round of financing.
Julie Flakstad started her business career early. When she was 11, she had her own paper route, and in college, she designed beer mugs decorated with logos and sold them at football games. After college, when Flakstad was living in Norway, she met a man who wanted to start Norway’s first professional golf tournament. He needed one lead sponsor for a million dollars. “I remember sitting in my apartment with five cents to my name,” Flakstad says. “I had never even played golf. But in the course of a month, I found the sponsor.”
Flakstad also found an entrepreneurial role model in her father, who built a “flotel” business — floating oil rigs that house offshore workers. “Back then, nobody worked from home,” she says. “But my father believed that all you needed was a phone and a fax to do business, so he moved to a Caribbean island. He would walk around the house barefoot in shorts, selling Swiss bankers on the idea of investing in rigs in Mexico or in an African market. He taught that if you believe in something, you can make it happen.”
Not long after she graduated from Columbia Business School, Flakstad cofounded Blow , New York’s first “blow-dry bar,” where women can get their hair professionally washed and styled. Instead of visiting a salon every six to eight weeks to get their hair cut or colored, Flakstad says, women can go to Blow up to twice a week for a blow-dry. “We’re transforming the salon model by increasing the frequency that women visit a salon,” she says.
Blow’s first location in New York’s meatpacking district has more than 10,000 clients, and the second salon on the Upper East Side opened in March 2008. Blow has also launched a line of hair-care products that is being extended from 5 to 15 products by the end of 2008.
“You have these dreams and illusions about how grand life will be if you start your own business — master of your own domain, come and go as you please, et cetera,” Flakstad says. “That’s all true, but the flip side is that I’m always on call. Our business is open seven days a week, so my phone is always on. I have 50 employees that count on us, not to mention rely on our making payroll every Thursday.
“You have to have an iron gut. I pay someone to take care of my son so that I can go to work and earn no money. I guess that’s why they call it sweat equity, but I know one day this is all going to be worth it.”
Noha Waibsnaider '02CEO, Peeled Snacks
What’s the business? Gourmet dried-fruit-and-nut snacks, with a unique stay-fresh pack and no added sugar.
Who are the customers? People on the go who value fresh, natural and high-quality food.
Who are the investors? Friends, family, the bank and credit cards.
How many employees? Three full-time.
Biggest achievement? Getting on Oprah .
Next major goal? Profitability.
When Noha Waibsnaider and her family were living in Argentina, they became macrobiotic vegetarians. “I’ve always been conscientious about food,” Waibsnaider says. “When I went back to Argentina for a semester in college, I decided I needed to appreciate the meat down there, which is a million times better than American beef because the animals are grass-fed and live on big, wide-open pastures.”
Waibsnaider applied to Columbia in response to the World Trade Organization protests in 1999. “I empathized with the protesters’ beliefs, but I also felt that our world couldn’t function without businesses and corporations making large-scale decisions,” Waibsnaider says. “I figured that the only way I could make a positive impact was by getting an MBA and going to work for a large corporation.”
During and after business school, Waibsnaider worked in the health and wellness division at Unilever. She left the firm with a vision: to make great-tasting and healthy snack food. Her company, Peeled Snacks , which she launched in 2005, produces a mix of dried fruit and nuts in snack-size bags. “We don’t add sugar or oils to preserve freshness; we actually pack the nuts in their own little bag inside the larger bag containing the fruit,” says Waibsnaider.
Finding the right method to preserve freshness was challenging. Waibsnaider sent the original mixes to a food scientist, who told her that the moisture from the fruit would spoil the nuts. “He said I’d have to use preservatives or separate them,” Waibsnaider says. “I said, ‘OK, we’ll just have to explain to people why we separate them.’ As it turned out, this really differentiates us and helps people understand why our product is fresher.”
Waibsnaider relishes the challenges of entrepreneurship. “Running your own business is always a roller coaster. Sometimes it speeds up, sometimes it slows down, but it’s always twisting and turning, ascending and descending,” she says. “I’m still working on patience, and negotiation skills are so important. So much of being an entrepreneur is just getting the meeting, understanding what the customer needs and making it easy for them.”
Waibsnaider doesn’t rule out launching another business. “There are lots of other enterprises I’d like to start, like water-saving products,” she says. “Water — that’s going to be one of the biggest issues of the next few decades.”
Clifford SchorerEntrepreneur in Residence, Columbia Business School
“I always knew that I didn’t want to work for anybody,” says Cliff Schorer. “You get one shot in life, so why not paddle your own canoe?”
Schorer launched his entrepreneurial career by following in his father’s footsteps. “My father had a small office-machine business and, unfortunately, took ill just as I graduated from college, so I stepped in to help,” Schorer explains. Four years later, in 1969, he became Sharp’s first distributor of its electronic calculator in the United States. After selling that company, Schorer started a microfilm business and then built luxury homes and health clubs with a partner before launching another business with Lucent Technologies that distributed video over fiber-optic networks.
Schorer’s involvement with Columbia Business School began in 1993 when he visited campus as a guest speaker. “I really connected with the students, and I liked hearing their ideas,” he says. “One of the MBA Program’s strengths is that it gathers together highly educated people with diverse backgrounds. This gives students insight into how things are done elsewhere in the world — a critical element since business has moved to the global stage.” In addition to teaching Columbia MBA and Executive Education students, Schorer remains active in entrepreneurial ventures as a board member and seed investor.
“Columbia truly provides a strong foundation from which students can launch companies,” Schorer says. The School’s Greenhouse Program offers a range of support to student start-ups, from business and legal expertise to funding. The Lang Fund invests in businesses identified as having real potential, and a faculty sounding board and a mentor program, which brings together students with alumni who have real-world experience, are available to any student with an idea. “It’s a hands-on experience instead of just theory,” Schorer says, “and a relationship that goes well beyond graduation.”
Schorer encourages students to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams early. “You’ll learn more in the early years than you will in any large corporation,” he says, noting that some of the most successful entrepreneurs — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson — dove right in and built vast business empires. “When you start a company, you recognize the traps and pitfalls only after making mistakes,” Schorer says. “We try to help students learn from our experiences. The people who become the most successful are the ones who remember that nothing great ever happens without enthusiasm. You also have to recognize the weaknesses in your plan. Hiring the right expertise is not difficult. The trick is to understand where the gaps are.”
Donnel BairdFounder and CEO, BlocPower
Cyrus MassoumiFounder, ZocDoc
Shazi VisramFounder and CEO, HappyFamily
Co-Founder and COO, Block Party Suites
Founder and CEO, Flip
Co-Founder & Vice President, PiperWai
Marc GlossermanFounder and CEO, Hill Country Hospitality
Yael AlkalayFounder, Red Flower
Andrea WennerExecutive Director, Out2Play
Ntiedo EtukCEO, Tabula Digita
Andrea MillerCEO and Founder, Tango Media
Zohar YardeniFounder, radiusIM
Julie FlakstadCofounder, Blow
Noha WaibsnaiderCEO, Peeled Snacks
Clifford SchorerEntrepreneur in Residence, Columbia Business School