Creating tomorrow's entrepreneurs
Emory initiatives provide brains and backing to help new business leaders succeed
Photography: Stephen Nowland; cover image: Allison Shirreffs; design: Elizabeth Hautau Karp.
Photography: Stephen Nowland; cover image: Allison Shirreffs; design: Elizabeth Hautau Karp.
In 2002, after eight years of running his own Atlanta-based business-to-business software firm, Sid Mookerji 04MBA would’ve been considered a successful businessman by most reasonable standards. After all, his company, SPI, or Software Paradigms International, boasted 110 employees and was used by a number of large clients to help with supply chain management and sales analytics.
Still, he decided to enroll in the executive MBA program at Goizueta Business School.
“I thought I didn’t need any more knowledge,” says Mookerji, who had spent five years as a software development consultant in his native India and the US before founding SPI in 1994. “I went back to school for the networking contacts—but the program really changed my mind.”
At Goizueta, Mookerji came to realize that he’d never really developed an effective growth strategy for his company. After graduating in 2004, he was able to use the skills he’d learned at Emory to expand his business, refocusing his products for the retail market. By the time Mookerji cashed out in 2016 after a successful merger, SPI had acquired fourteen other companies, established offices in eight countries, employed more than three thousand people, and had a client list that included some of the country’s largest department retailers, such as Macy’s.
Last year, Mookerji leveraged his success by becoming an angel investor who provides early infusions of cash to fledgling companies—and by joining Goizueta’s Entrepreneurs in Residence program, in which he and other start-up veterans meet informally on campus with undergrads and MBA students to tell their business stories and answer questions.
“It’s important to establish a bridge between academia and the start-up ecosystem,” Mookerji says.
Of course, the challenge for business schools—arguably more so than for, say, history or chemistry programs—has always been to balance foundational education with preparing students for the ever-shifting demands of the business world. And that challenge has intensified in an era when more and more graduates want to acquire an entrepreneurial skill set that will enable them to build ventures, both inside and outside of traditional corporate structures.
To meet that challenge for its eight hundred undergrads and six hundred MBA students, Goizueta not only started the Entrepreneurs in Residence program, but a range of entrepreneurship initiatives, partnerships, and seminars that offer mentoring, business incubation, and, potentially, actual investment money for students, faculty, and the broader Emory community.
Chris Dardaman 16MBA (right, with Sid Mookerji) earned a degree from Goizueta and wound up becoming an entrepreneur in residence and a volunteer coach for business students. “It’s been great to watch people learn and go through the steps to tweak their ideas to become more responsive to the market,” he says. “I’ve loved being around students and sharing the experiences of my twenty-five years of building a national firm.”
Emory students and alumni are not the only ones benefiting from the entrepreneurial spirit. For instance, Social Enterprise at Goizueta (SE@G) aspires to increase prosperity and reduce poverty in places where markets are currently ineffective. SE@G fuels academic research to illuminate the factors that induce and impede the realization of societal impacts; puts research into practice through fieldwork programs that inject knowledge, networks, and capital to empower communities of entrepreneurs; and develops the next generation of principled social enterprise leaders through hands-on education, exposure, and experience.
Since its inception, the program has served 110 small businesses in Atlanta’s Clarkston and East Atlanta-Kirkwood neighborhoods by creating or retaining nearly two hundred jobs, establishing sixteen brick-and-mortar locations, and generating annual revenues of $5.8 million.
When Peter Roberts, academic director of SE@G, started the center, he wanted to add an international component with an interest in coffee. He developed relationships and an annual trip that exposees students to the development challenges faced in Central America and the Caribbean. The experience engages students so that business principles and market-based solutions can be applied to achieve meaningful societal impacts.
“We want more of the money to stay in coffee communities,” Roberts says. “By bringing our Nicaraguan partners closer to their consumers, our hope is that, ultimately, they will have more ownership in their own business affairs.”
Andrea Hershatter has taught entrepreneurship at Goizueta since the late 1990s. She organizes the annual two-day Emory Entrepreneurship Summit, most recently held in April, where successful alumni speak, mingle with neophyte entrepreneurs, and critique student “elevator pitches.” This year’s keynote was Jim Lanzone 98JD/MBA, whose information-retrieval website was acquired by Ask.com in the early aughts. That success helped propel him to his current job as president and CEO of CBS Interactive.
“We’re looking to train the industry disruptors of tomorrow, and this event is a great way for students to see what’s possible,” says Hershatter, who also is senior associate dean of undergraduate education at Goizueta.
Emory President Claire E. Sterk’s strong support is fueling the focus on entrepreneurship, says Hershatter. “This is a moment when entrepreneurship and innovation are being embraced at every level of the institution,” she says—from student clubs to a Goizueta–sponsored, student-run, microlending venture to the Office of Technology Transfer, a department that helps Emory faculty members market their inventions and intellectual property.
In an era when the next high-tech breakthrough seems as likely to come from a young person in a hoodie as from an old guy in a Bell Labs jacket, there’s no denying that start-ups have become very sexy. Hearing about recent grads who traded in their skateboards for seats in the boardroom is likely to start any business major dreaming about his or her first IPO. But Rob Kazanjian, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Organization and Management, says Goizueta hasn’t expanded its entrepreneurship offerings simply to meet demand from the next generation of would-be Elon Musks. Many of the skills that enable people to launch their own companies also will serve them well in other areas of business.
In fact, Kazanjian says, “The principles of entrepreneurship are being adopted by big companies who want to attract employees with a mindset for innovation.” There’s even a term for employees skilled at developing new business platforms within a corporation—intrapreneurs—and they’re much sought after by headhunters.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, FAIL
Entrepreneurial drive, of course, isn’t all it takes to create a successful company. It’s helpful to have strong grounding in accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, operations, and other business school foundations. But Goizueta builds upon these with several programs designed to give students experience with the real-world challenges of launching a start-up.Entrepreneurial drive, of course, isn’t all it takes to create a successful company. It’s helpful to have strong grounding in accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, operations, and other business school foundations. But Goizueta builds upon these with several programs designed to give students experience with the real-world challenges of launching a start-up.
Amelia Schaffner, who spent fifteen years with IT consulting giant Accenture, joined Goizueta last fall as its first director of entrepreneurship, serving as a liaison for the business school, outside faculty, and the Atlanta business community as a whole.
Schaffner coordinates campus visits by local entrepreneurs and venture capitalists—some of whom are Emory graduates—to share their own start-up experiences and offer advice and mentorship. “It’s an incredible opportunity for the students,” she says. “They get exposure to a large number of brains.”
And it’s not only brains that are made available. Every six months, the university sponsore the RAISE (Retention and Advanced Investment for the Southeast at Emory) Forum, where the founders of young companies pitch potential investors for up to $5 million in funding. Any who receive more than $1 million in new capital are asked to commit to staying in Atlanta at least five years.
The entire model for bringing a product to market has changed in just the past decade with the emergence of the “lean start-up” paradigm, Schaffner says. Instead of spending months or even years trying to perfect a product they hope will sell, today’s entrepreneurs are encouraged to “fail fast”—that is, embrace a trial-and-error approach in which early versions of an idea are shown to consumers to confirm whether the company is targeting the correct market or even that there’s a demand for the product at all.
"This is a moment when entrepreneurship and innovation are being embraced at every level of the institution."
One of Goizueta’s recent initiatives that replicates this back-to-the-drawing-board process is the Emory Start-Up Launch. The free, ten-week accelerator program sees teams of rookie entrepreneurs—anyone can take part, but at least one team member must have Emory affiliation—pitch ideas and collect real-world feedback to help hone their potential products and develop a business model. Out of fifty-five applications, eleven teams were selected.
Ed Rieker 04MBA, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who graduated from founding his own companies to providing seed funding for start-ups, came aboard Goizueta in 2014 as an adjunct professor and now helps oversee Start-Up Launch. Among the ideas selected for the program is a smart-phone app to tell you whether a skin splotch is melanoma, a service to help winemakers source the appropriate grapes, and software to help disabled employees more easily navigate their workplace. Some of the ideas are likely to change dramatically over the weeks, but that’s the point, says Rieker. “This program helps them define who the buyers and users are, and then finds a solution for them,” he says.
Eboni Freeman 18BBA, whose five-member team developed software to help disabled workers navigate the sometimes complex process of requested workplace accommodations (see “Enabling Ability” for more on the work of Freeman’s team), says the launch seminar has been useful for showing them how to pitch to investors and refine their product through interviews with potential customers.
“It’s shown us where we need to grow on our business model concept,” she says. “We’ll feel more comfortable launching the company with the data in our back pockets.”
Chris Dardaman 16MBA, who cofounded the wealth management company Brightworth in 1997, is, like Mookerji, a business veteran who came back to earn a degree from Goizueta and wound up becoming an entrepreneur in residence and a volunteer coach for the Start-Up Launch teams.
“It’s been great to watch people learn and go through the steps to tweak their ideas to become more responsive to the market,” he says. “I’ve loved being around students and sharing the experiences of my twenty-five years of building a national firm.”
Another major Goizueta initiative is its partnership with the three-year-old Atlanta Tech Village (ATV), the country’s fourth-largest tech incubator, whose founder, David Cummings, is also an entrepreneur in residence. Through a program cheekily dubbed Pitch the Professor, students compete each semester for eight spaces that Emory maintains at ATV in order to develop their ideas.
“Having hundreds of entrepreneurs under the same roof creates what I call ‘engineered serendipity.’ ”
A light-filled building with the open feel of a campus student center, ATV plays host to panel discussions, peer roundtables, onsite mentoring, and weekly networking lunches to provide members with ample opportunities to share ideas, get advice, and form partnerships.
“Having hundreds of entrepreneurs under the same roof creates what I call ‘engineered serendipity,’ ” says Cummings—in other words, the perfect environment in which to shape a concept into an actual product.
Business major Ignacio Arana 18BBA spent this past semester at ATV nurturing his idea for an interactive online course to teach teenagers how to manage their personal finances as they prepare for college. He doesn’t yet have his business model worked out, but Arana says being at ATV has been a great experience, providing both inspiration and shared wisdom.
“The same skills they learn about how to build a business are the ones they’ll need to evaluate a business or launch a division.”
“You’re exposed to people here who can help you figure things out,” he says. Cummings, in particular, has been helpful in making introductions with other possible mentors, says Arana, and suggesting that he discuss his idea with one hundred potential customers.
Goizueta professor Charles Goetz helps vet student pitches to decide who gets the sought-after spaces at ATV. Out of around forty winning ideas in the past few years, he estimates that about 30 percent have led to new product launches. But even those who don’t immediately start a company will be well-served by their experiences. “The same skills they learn about how to build a business are the ones they’ll need to evaluate a business or launch a division,” Goetz explains.
One reason Goizueta’s focus on entrepreneurship is so welcome, says Dardaman, is that the skills one learns to launch a company can be applied in a number of professions. Instead of immediately creating a start-up, most recent business graduates will work in the corporate world for a while before striking out on their own.
“Statistically, the more successful entrepreneurs are older, with some business experience,” he says. “What students gain from an entrepreneurial education is an integrated view of business that can help them down the road.”
The cross-pollination now occurring between Emory, local entrepreneurs, and incubators like Atlanta Tech Village is exciting, Dardaman says. “There’s a lot of positive energy and momentum right now,” he says. “Emory is becoming a big part of the business ecosystem of Atlanta.”
In the working world, people with disabilities just need a chance to get in the game. A group of Emory students has created a program to level the playing field.
Goizueta student Eboni Freeman was working as an intern at a large technology company when she saw firsthand the challenges that people with disabilities face in the workplace—not due to a lack of desire or capability, but inefficiencies in hiring and technology strategies.
That’s when she decided to launch Ability Enabled, an SaaS enterprise start-up aiming to create more inclusive working environments for people with disabilities by creating accommodation packages and helping employers implement an agile approval process. Freeman and three fellow students—Zhaohan (Amanda) Li, Yunqiao (Lily) Xu, and Isadora Martins—created a simple software platform for employers and employees navigating disability inclusion. The software can be easily personalized and integrated into existing human resource systems, and it addresses many of the issues and obstacles in the current disability accommodation processes. The startup has won a number of competitions and is currently looking for funding from angel investors.
“Ability Enabled aims to solve two problems—miscommunication and the inefficiency of disability accommodation discovery, processing, and tracking,” Freeman says. “Our revenue model is size-based annual subscription with premium add-ons for additional bespoke services such as data-driven and personalized strategic reports for managers, employee resource group leaders, and chief diversity officers.”
The Ability Enabled team has learned the importance of assumption-busting and focusing on one problem at a time. Thanks to more than one hundred discovery interviews with potential clients, users, and allies, they gained evidence-based answers to three questions: Is the problem we thought exists the right problem to solve? Is our solution the right solution to solve the problem? And are potential buyers and users indifferent to the problem—and will they pay for the solution?
“Talking with potential customers and relevant professionals helped us learn more about the field, what assumptions we had coming in, and how only when you talk with people in the market, you will get to know the problem and the market better,” Freeman says.
The Ability Enabled team’s goal is to launch a tactical and strategic guidebook on its website that provides potential benchmarks, step-by-step instructions, and lessons gleaned from its discovery interviews. They hope to provide perspectives from diversity managers, employees with disabilities, and disability-diversity consultants on dealing with reasonable accommodation and creating a more inclusive working environment for people of all abilities.
“We learned that while trying to understand more about the problem of accommodations procedures at work, we kept running into new, heart-wrenching problems,” Freeman says. “Along the way, we figured out that for start-ups, it is important to be dedicated to the initial problem and not be distracted by other challenges.”
Writer Rachel Kramer is currently double majoring in business at Goizueta Business School and Middle Eastern Studies in Emory College of Arts and Sciences.