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Forget avoiding risk — Hyatt Hotels Global Chief Marketing Officer Maryam Banikarim ’93 has actively sought it out, finding her biggest business successes in seemingly unlikely places. In 2011, she joined Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the United States, as senior vice president and chief marketing officer. Banikarim helped redefine Gannett’s relevancy, navigating the company’s definitive split into two separate entities — one a publishing company, the other a broadcast and digital company. Her efforts paid off — the company’s stock, which traded at $13 per share when she was brought on board, hovered around $30 when she left in January 2015.
But given Gannett’s position as a leader in an industry — print journalism — on the decline, few saw her move from senior vice president of integrated sales at NBCUniversal to Gannett as a positive one, at least in the beginning. “When I arrived at Gannett, people were whispering to me, ‘Why did you come here? You weren’t fired,’” Banikarim recalls. “But I knew if I could be part of the team that was able to turn that ship around, it would be a defining moment in my career.”
It’s a far cry from the career path Banikarim first envisioned. Having grown up in Iran and moving to the United States after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, she was interested in the foreign service while an undergraduate at Barnard. As a Harry S. Truman Scholarship winner, she enrolled in the dual degree program between the Business School and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. But it was after sharing a new advertising idea with Mickey Drexler, former president of clothing retailer The Gap, following his lecture to her MBA class, that she became interested in pursuing a career as a business change maker. “If you're looking to do the same thing again and slightly better, I'm probably not your person,” Banikarim says. “Companies come to me when they’re looking to transform. I’m definitely a change agent.”
On Creating Change:
“You have to be laser-focused on your consumer and not so much your own likes and dislikes. You have to have instincts, but you have to understand the data. At NBCUniversal, Kim Kardashian may not have been for me, but if you're programming E! and that's what people are responding to, then that's what you're going to show. It's not about your personal taste as much as really putting the consumer at the core and understanding how their behaviors and attitudes are constantly changing.”
On Her New Job:
“Hyatt has already discovered their purpose, which is to care for people so they can be their best. I have a lot of experience around purpose, so part of my job is to operationalize that. The other part is figuring out how we differentiate our brand and out-perform the marketplace. That’s an easy sentence to say. It’s a lot of work to get there.”
On Being Dumb and Imperfect:
“When you play with a really good tennis player, your game gets better. Nobody is going to know everything. You have to be confident enough to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. And don't be afraid to take on things that you don't think you're going to be perfect at out of the gate. Volunteer for the hard stuff.”
On What’s Next:
“We are more connected than ever, but we are time-stressed and stretched thin. I think brands and companies that are there for consumers and help make their lives easier — for example, providing ways to be healthy when you're on the road — are going to be able to win. What will that look like? Is that going to be an app on my Apple Watch? Is that going to be menu options in a hotel? I don't know exactly. The key is being relentlessly curious — look at consumer behavior and predict what’s next.”
When Siggi Hilmarsson ’04 first moved from Iceland to New York to attend Columbia Business School in 2002, he quickly found he missed one of his favorite Icelandic staples — skyr, a thick, strained, high-protein yogurt. He started making his own skyr at home with his mother’s recipe, and the winning approval of friends encouraged him to expand to a dairy in a rented space upstate in 2005 and launch Siggi’s Dairy.
The rest, as they say, is history. Hilmarsson quit his job as a consultant at Deloitte, and Siggi’s went from the shelves of just 15 stores in New York its first year to more than 8,800 stores in 2015, including the ubiquitous Whole Foods, which started carrying the all-natural yogurt in 2008. During the last three years, Siggi’s has been one of the fastest growing national yogurt brands according to Nielsen, with 120 percent growth in sales in 2015 versus 2014.
With his own company’s future bright, Hilmarsson is thinking ahead — the entrepreneur was eager to share his thoughts on what’s next for business and for the MBA students hoping to follow in his successful footsteps.
On the future of Siggi’s Dairy and skyr:
We want to grow as much as we can first in the United States and then look internationally for select markets. However, it’s crucial to us that we do this while sticking to our values of simple ingredients and not a lot of sugar. We are not keen on diluting the concept to grow faster, as that would betray our values as well as cost us the loyalty of our customers. We want to build a lasting brand with values our consumer can depend on.
I hope the classic skyr will not change; it was the food of the Vikings and has been around for at least 1,100 years, so another 100 years is not that long. Innovation is always fun and exciting — just as long as a classic cup of plain skyr is always around the corner.
On the next big thing in business:
I'm not sure that I can say with any degree of certainty what is going to be the next big thing. Very few people can. If I could say, I would probably be out there participating in it somehow. In terms of specific sectors, I think healthcare is going to go through a lot of changes, and there will be big things happening there. I'm excited about technology potential in agriculture, where you already see farmers using digesters to create electricity out of waste water and other waste.
In terms of the food industry, I think and hope there are not going to be any big things, because I think we are going—and already have been, to some extent — back to the basics. I think that will continue. People will keep eating more real foods, fruit, vegetables, and fish, and move away from processed food.
On the next 100 years:
The most notable thing that will change in the next 100 years is change itself. The rate of change is only going to increase even faster than it has in the last 20 to 30 years. In particular, large corporations will have to become more entrepreneurial to deal with the changes. Some of the more rigorous or structured business practices will do less well in an environment that’s changing faster.
I also think that we will see a continued shift toward the service sector at the expense of physical goods. We'll see more of the economy taken up by things like experiences, content, entertainment, healthcare, and services. These are things that have more complex revenue models than simply exchanging a good for a fixed price. Lastly, I think we're going to see more pressure on businesses and corporations to factor in externalities — such as social and environmental costs — in their decision-making.
On the future role of Columbia Business School:
The role of the School in educating future business leaders is going to be threefold. First, there’s the classic toolbox of economics, operations, and finance. The basics will probably remain relatively stable in the next century.
The second part is entrepreneurship, which will help business people not just cope with change but understand how to thrive and prosper from and with change. And the third part will be helping business leaders understand how to factor external variables into their decisions — helping leaders understand social and environmental costs, the kind I mentioned earlier, will become increasingly important as the world gets bigger, more populated, and the pressures on resources become more acute.
Growing up as a black woman in segregated New Orleans, Joyce Roche ’72 saw just three possible career paths. “You could be a teacher, nurse, or social worker,” Roche says. “As women, our universe was defined very narrowly.”
But while attending a party as an undergraduate student at Dillard University, when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum throughout the South, she overheard her then-boyfriend and his friend discussing the business schools they had applied to — one was headed to Columbia, the other to Harvard. The conversation sparked something in Roche, who “didn’t know anything about business,” and before graduation, she applied, too — and Columbia offered her a fellowship and a living stipend.
The opportunity marked the first steps on a new life path for Roche. After graduation, she was hired in marketing at Avon, where she would go on to become the company’s first African American vice president of marketing, the first African American female vice president, and the company's first vice president of global marketing. Roche then served as president and COO of Carson Products Company, a cosmetics company geared toward African American customers, before moving to the nonprofit world as president and CEO of Girls Inc., a national organization more than 150 years old that is focused on inspiring girls to be strong, smart, and bold.
The now-retired Roche wrote about her varied experiences and trailblazing life in her 2013 book, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success (BK Business), a memoir that shares her lifelong struggle with the “impostor syndrome,” a condition that she says plagues successful people in all walks of life. “I felt like people were always thinking, ‘She’s not as smart as she needs to be,’ or, ‘She doesn't have the experience, so she's probably not a good leader,’” Roche says. “So I worked like crazy to prove that, in fact, I did deserve to be where I was.”
On the Importance of Education:
“My mom and aunt, who helped raise me, were both domestics — they cleaned houses. They drummed in the message of getting an education, because they believed that would allow me to break out and do more than they had the opportunity or ability to do. Growing up at a time when opportunities were limited, their words gave me endless encouragement to pursue education and tell myself, ‘Okay, you need to work hard. You need to prove that you can do this and show that you can be successful.’”
On Being the First:
“When I joined Avon’s marketing department, there were only four women in the whole department, and one of them started the same day that I did. I really couldn't look to any examples to figure out the right way to act or perform. I felt like I had to learn it all myself.
“I also felt like everything I did had to be perfect, because there weren't that many of us. I felt like I had to work over time, over prepare for everything, because I worried: was I up to it — to the expectations, to the job? We just didn't have the support. We didn't have role models. We had to kind of lay it out for ourselves. Most of all, you didn't want to fail.”
On the Next Generation:
“The Millennial generation, in my observation, is very different in that there's not as much separation between personal life and business. They’re more integrated. Therefore, the things that motivate them are different than previous generations. The way they work is different. The way they view their interactions with colleagues is different. I think it requires business schools to focus on how companies and leaders can adapt to that difference. At the same time, how do we blend existing business culture with the Millennial approach?
“We've got to find a way to embrace both the old and new, because that’s where the value is. I get so intrigued whenever I'm at one of the companies whose board I sit on, and we're with their Millennials — to see the working dynamics that are so different than the way I worked is phenomenal. We've got to open our minds on both sides of the equation and understand. That's how we're going to move the dial forward. Throughout my career, I’ve found that being flexible is critical. I got my start in a world that was changing dramatically in terms of the possibilities for women and people of color. I knew that I needed to stay open, flexible, and ready for new opportunities — and the same is true for those just starting their careers today.”
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.”
At a time when his peers were worried about prom, Tarek Sherif ’91 was already an entrepreneur. As a child, he watched his father, an academic, struggle with finances and declare bankruptcy: an experience that deeply affected Sherif and led him to start his own house-painting company with friends as a teenager. “By the time I was finished with high school, I was able to support myself through college and help my family out,” Sherif says. “I always wanted to be my own boss.”
Today — true to his early goals — Sherif is co-founder, CEO, and chairman of Medidata Solutions, the leading global provider of cloud-based solutions to the life science industry and one of the largest public technology companies founded in New York City. Medidata, which Sherif started 17 years ago with two business partners he met while managing equity funds focused on public and private technology and life sciences companies, is the world leader in collecting and managing clinical trial data and supports trials in more than 120 countries. The company offers its clients — including medical device and diagnostic companies, academic and government institutions, and pharmaceutical companies — a cloud-based platform of applications to help streamline clinical trials from study design and planning through execution, management, and reporting, reducing cost and risk and bringing new life-saving treatments to market as quickly as possible.
Medidata, which saw approximately $500 million in revenue in 2016, satisfies Sherif’s need to not only be his own boss — but to apply his business-building drive toward crucial work.
“There is something amazing about being involved in an industry where, at the end of the day, you’re potentially impacting family members, loved ones, and friends because you are helping to develop a drug, a device, or a therapy that improves people’s lives,” Sherif says. “That’s always been the motivation and continues to be. We build technology that lets our clients better treat their patients.”
On the occasion of the School’s Centennial anniversary, the self-made Sherif recently shared his experience and advice, as well as his thoughts on what’s next when it comes to technology helping to bring the best new treatments to patients.
After [getting my undergraduate degree at] Yale, I went through a training program at Brown Brothers Harriman. I spent four years learning all the aspects of running an investment bank, which was great training, but at the time I didn’t understand how valuable it was. Now I tell business students that sometimes you do disparate things in your life from an academic or career perspective, and it’s only later in life that you see how you can tie it all together. One of the big lessons that I learned early on is to be open-minded to different experiences and trying different things to figure out what you’re good at — and what you’re not. After those four years on Wall Street, I realized that my career was not going to be in the banking business. It wasn’t that great a fit for me personality-wise, and it wasn't as exciting as I thought it was going to be. But I had to learn that firsthand.
One size doesn’t fit all:
I went to GE Capital after Columbia, where I found myself in a very, very large organization. I had a career epiphany at that point and decided that I would never want to be in a large organization again. I would rather be in a much smaller organization and have more control over my own career and destiny, even if it stayed small. So I left there and joined a small team of people who were running a family office and investing in the equities market and some private market investments and early-stage investments. We were together for four or five years before I went off on my own. Then I met the other two founders of Medidata and that was that. I’ve been doing this for 17 years now.
Medidata’s careful success:
When we started the business, we were very small and focused on one specific area in drug development. Today, we are the leaders in the space that provides the underlying infrastructure for making drug development more efficient. Where the business will be if we continue to execute well — and what will ultimately make us a multi-billion-dollar revenue company versus the half-billion-dollar revenue company we are today — is providing the kind of knowledge and insights to our clients that allow them to make the best discovery and development decisions. It won’t help them to just be efficient. Of course, that’s part of it, but it’s our goal to help researchers do better science to bring the best drugs to market. We’ve always run Medidata in fear of ever finding ourselves in a difficult financial situation. We went from a startup to taking the company public on just $13 million of capital. When we went public, we still had $10 million of it on our balance sheet. We built a business with over $100 million of recurring revenue with effectively $3 million. Today, Medidata is worth about $3 billion, with $500 million in revenue.
The future of medicine will be personal:
Drug development used to involve developing a single drug or therapy and selling it to everybody — think about the polio vaccine or hypertension treatments. Now we’re moving toward personalized medicine, where a drug is very tailored to the genome, phenotype, and environment in which it lives. In order to do that, you need a lot of information about a patient and their environment. The fact that we have wearables today that collect information about our mobility, our blood glucose — you couldn’t do that even five years ago. That’s going to impact medicine and how we treat people, how drugs are developed. Ultimately, the use of technology and the need to glean valuable insight from data is only going to increase, and that means that the role in the industry for companies like Medidata is only going to expand. There’s a lot of opportunity ahead.
Curt LaBelle ’99 chose a somewhat unique path among his Columbia Business School classmates — he pursued both his MBA at Columbia Business School and an MD at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons at the same time. “I had always been interested in medicine as well as technology and business,” says LaBelle, who originally aimed to become a physician who was aware of business fundamentals and maybe “dabbled in business on the side.” But once he arrived in New York to begin his MD program, that all changed.
“Being in NYC, I was exposed to both scientific innovation and a whole new world of opportunities on the business side,” LaBelle recalls. “I was very intrigued.” That intrigue led LaBelle to pursue the two degrees simultaneously, as one of the first students to take part in the newly established dual-degree program between the Business School and the College of Physicians and Surgeons. Through the School, LaBelle landed an internship with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and worked on several small projects with venture capital funds. After his internal medicine internship, he joined a venture fund full time, which turned out to be the perfect fit.
“I found that even as I was going through medical school, I was more interested in learning about new medical products in development and thinking about how they could be better than what was already available; thinking of the clinical and cost benefits of new products. That’s really where my heart was,” LaBelle says. “To me, venture capital and growth capital investing is the perfect combination of all my interests, with business, medicine, and technology interwoven.”
Since then, LaBelle has spent the last 16 years investing in healthcare companies, becoming managing director at Tullis Health Investors and vice president at Investor Growth Capital. He has also served as a board member for many successful companies, including KAI Pharmaceuticals, Sirion Therapeutics, and Impulse Monitoring, among others. Throughout these various roles, LaBelle was focused on investing in innovative medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and diagnostic services — but he became particularly interested in extending the availability of these products to the individuals who needed them most.
“As innovative as many of these products were, in some cases, they were not getting to the people who could perhaps benefit most from these technologies,” LaBelle says. “I was always interested in trying to see how we could increase the flow of innovation to the developing world.”
LaBelle got the opportunity to further pursue this passion in 2015, when he took on the role of managing partner for the Global Health Investment Fund, a $108-million social impact investment fund that provides financing to advance the development of drugs, vaccines, diagnostics, and other interventions against diseases that disproportionately burden low- and middle-income countries. The fund was originally created and structured by the Bill Gates Foundation to serve two purposes: to create and generate positive financial returns for investors, but more significantly, to invest only in companies that develop products that can be delivered cost effectively to those in need in the developing world. Ideally, these products also have applications in the developed world and can lead to more cost-effective care.
“Everything we invest in, we need to believe that it will generate positive returns, but we also must demonstrate that there is a need in the developing world — countries in Africa, India, South and Central America — low-income countries,” LaBelle says. “And we need to demonstrate that these products can be delivered to those countries at a low enough price to make it actually feasible.”
One example is the fund’s investment in an oral cholera vaccine. Following the devastating Hurricane Matthew in October, the World Health Organization and others placed an order for one million oral cholera vaccines to be delivered to Haiti. “In the aftermath of the hurricane, people there were at very high risk for cholera,” LaBelle says. “It’s really exciting that we have been able to help a company be ready to address situations like that and hopefully significantly decrease the incidence of cholera in an area where otherwise potentially hundreds of thousands of people would be infected.”
It’s that human impact that motivates LaBelle’s work the most, he says, and as the School celebrates its Centennial anniversary and looks toward the next century of business, something he ultimately sees as the driver for more socially responsible investing across the board. “I see a lot more interest in general from people trying to do some good with their investments and not just generate the highest financial returns possible,” LaBelle says. “There will continue to be more interest and capital going toward funds and companies that are not only trying to generate good capital returns, but also trying to accomplish something that’s good for the world. People will start to measure impact for their investors in humanitarian goals that are just as important as capital returns.”