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For Matt Bachmann ’15, you could say it was love at first brew.
“We were in the same cluster, and it was the first week of class,” says former consultant Bachmann, recalling the first time he met Ben Gordon ’15 — the classmate who would become his future co-founder of Wandering Bear Coffee Company. “We both showed up to class with homemade cold brew in mason jars. We were sitting a couple feet apart in the same row, and we just looked at each other and asked, ‘is that cold brew?’”
From that initial connection over a shared passion, the duo began to dream of building a business — and in February 2014, Bachmann finally convinced Gordon to make it official. They developed a business plan that featured a unique idea — fresh cold-brew iced coffee delivered directly to your home or office, which would also be convenient to store and serve, thanks to innovative box packaging that featured a ‘tap’ for easy dispensing. “Our goal was never to compete with Starbucks or focus on single servings,” Bachmann says. “We wanted to bring a café-style iced coffee into consumers’ homes.”
That spring, the pair won the Columbia Shark Tank Competition, an annual student initiative organized by the Columbia Entrepreneurs Organization that awards two winning teams $7,000 each to help launch their ventures. By summer, Wandering Bear — a name chosen to represent the brand's strong, curious personality and team culture — was headquartered in the Columbia Startup Lab, the University’s recent-alumni co-working space located on the ground floor of WeWork Soho West at 69 Charlton Street. The lab is a cross-school initiative between Columbia Entrepreneurship, Columbia Business School, Columbia Law School, School of Engineering and Applied Science, Columbia College, and the School of International and Public Affairs.
During Gordon and Bachmann’s second year of business school, they continued to create their new company, taking part in the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program, a semester-long program that helps second-year students prepare their businesses for investment and connects them with potential seed funders. “We’ve really used the School as an incubator for the business,” says Bachmann. Today, Wandering Bear has expanded from the Northeast to ship cold-brew coffee across the US and is available in popular retail outlets such as Whole Foods, Fresh Direct, and New York City’s Eataly.
“The School’s resources gave us flexibility and the support of a community and our peers,” Bachmann says. “It has all been integral to our success. The ability to use the programs and the time in school as an actual vehicle for entrepreneurship in real life, not just academically, was probably the greatest asset the MBA program offered us.”
Wandering Bear is indeed a poster-child for the startup success supported by the School’s Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center, which — along with the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurial Initiative Fund — was established in 2000 through an endowment from entrepreneur Eugene Lang. Since its inception, the Lang fund has invested in more than 40 student-founded companies, and the center’s many programs and initiatives have acted as a launching pad for countless student and recent-alumni ventures.
“Mr. Lang recognized that entrepreneurship — launching new businesses, employing people, those businesses paying taxes — was what drove the economy,” says Vince Ponzo, senior director of the Lang Center. He says that while the center’s mission was originally focused on helping students and recent graduates make their startup dreams come to life, in recent years that mission has expanded to serve the needs created by an overall shift toward a more entrepreneurial economy. “Some students don't want to start a business. They want to go to a small startup. Or maybe they're going to take a more traditional job, but they know that today, thanks to technology, things change quickly. They want to be able to think entrepreneurially, whether it’s in their career, company, or industry.”
In addition to the longstanding programs that Bachmann and Gordon took part in, the Lang Center has recently launched several additional initiatives to provide students and alumni with even more opportunities. This fall, the Lang Scholars Program will pair Executive and full-time MBA students with companies in the Dreamit Ventures Fall 2016 cohort for a semester-long independent study. Dreamit is a growth accelerator designed to help mature startups — those beyond the seed-funding stage — connect with customers and key strategic partners. The Scholars Program, which started in fall 2015 with Techstars, works with a different accelerator program each semester.
“The Scholars Program gives students exposure in what it’s like to work at a startup,” Ponzo says. “They build their personal networks, not only within the companies themselves, but also through the ecosystem of involved mentors and entrepreneurs in New York City. The companies benefit by getting a world-class MBA student working with them.”
Last year also saw the Lang Center’s first Startup Networking Night, which brought together representatives from 30 of the city’s fastest growing, highest profile startups — such as Blue Apron and WeWork — to network with 100 MBA students in Chelsea. And an Alumni Networking Night, which was held in Bryant Park for alumni who are entrepreneurs, is scheduled to become an annual event. “Events like these build community among people who are going through the same problems, or have access to money or talent or resources,” says Ponzo, adding that last year’s event attracted a huge turnout among alumni from a wide range of graduating classes. “It’s another way to help entrepreneurial alums, investors, and innovators get to know each other and to continue to support our brand, raise awareness, and help each other.”
It’s that sense of community — and focus on creating connected entrepreneurial leaders ready to tackle the challenges of an increasingly dynamic business environment — that Ponzo hopes will continue to inform the Lang Center’s mission and offerings in the next 100 years, too. “Work is much more fluid. People change jobs more quickly. The Lang Center wants to help create Columbia Business School graduates who can think adaptively, who are flexible, who can stay one step ahead — in other words, who think like entrepreneurs,” Ponzo says. “And I would love to see our students, who are literally some of the smartest and hardest working people in the world, tackle big problems that affect society. It’s not just about building billion-dollar businesses anymore; it’s about creating businesses that impact a billion people.”