Features

A Culture of Creation

Illustration of person watering a plant that flowers into a lightbulb

ILLUSTRATIONS BY CHOO CHUNG

Launching businesses and joining startups have emerged as tantalizing routes and viable career paths for the Columbia College student eager to have an immediate impact on a cause, create a product or service, or enjoy a high level of input in the workplace.

Heralding this trend is a wave of initiatives that provide avenues for undergraduates to explore entrepreneurship. They include a College-sponsored, undergraduate-only challenge in the University-wide, annual Columbia Venture Competition (CVC), which now awards $250,000; a new academic course on the foundations of entrepreneurship; and internship programs focused on startups. Such initiatives are typically fostered in some way by Columbia Entrepreneurship, an administrative body launched in July 2013 at the direction of President Lee C. Bollinger for the purpose of supporting and cultivating entrepreneurial endeavors across the University. Columbia Entrepreneurship works with all schools, as well as with alumni and student clubs such as the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE), an undergraduate entrepreneurship club that has grown exponentially in the last three years.

David Lerner, director of Columbia Entrepreneurship and an adjunct associate professor at the Business School who has been with the University for approximately a decade, notes that the last five or six years have “seen an incredible explosion of interest and enthusiasm around startups and entrepreneurship around the University, but especially at the College.” That surge, he adds, reflects a national trend attributable to resources made available by technology and the reduced cost of launching a business.

“It’s never been more accessible or affordable to start a company,” says Lerner. “The cost has plummeted and, with the information that’s available because of the Internet and blogs, it’s a perfect storm of opportunity for younger folks to get involved.”

Perhaps most indicative of the entrepreneurial milieu that has developed at the College is a recent crop of student-run businesses. In January, Katherine Jin ’16, Kevin Tyan ’16 and Jason Kang SEAS’16 — the team behind the startup Kinnos — made Forbes’ “30 Under 30” in Healthcare list. The trio was recognized for inventing Highlight, a powder that turns bleach blue, making the otherwise colorless disinfectant visible and therefore more effective as a decontamination agent. [Editor’s note: See “Student Spotlight,” Winter 2015–16.] The news came a month or so after Sara Sakowitz ’18 took the $2,500 first prize in the Engineering School’s annual Fast Pitch competition and was included in Crain’s New York Business “20 Under 20” list for her own startup, Blue Moon Box, a science kit subscription service for kids. [Editor’s note: See “Student Spotlight,” this issue.]

Sakowitz and Jackie Luo ’17, both of whom have leadership roles in CORE, also are among the eight undergraduates who run Liongram, a campus cookie and candy delivery service that launched in December. “We wanted to get more on-campuses businesses going,” says Luo, who hopes Liongram’s presence will encourage other students to “have fun and get some experience running something on their own in a low-pressure environment.”

College students and recent graduates who have launched businesses or are on the verge of doing so can enter the CVC, a campuswide business plan competition that has engaged more than 1,000 students and alumni from all Columbia schools and from across the world since its inception in April 2009. In 2015, CVC expanded to five tracks, each sponsored by an individual school or other University entity. First place in the inaugural Undergraduate Challenge went to Shriya Samavai ’15 and Lauren Field BC’16, founders of Studio Lucien (formerly Academy Of), a clothing line that takes cues from famous works of art. Kinnos took third place.

Illustration of a tree where lightbulbs are growing

Samavai believes her company has benefited not only from the $25,000 prize, which she and Fields are using to produce their first piece — a rain jacket inspired by Katsushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa — but also from their experience of creating a business plan and pitching their concept to potential investors. “We had an idea at the onset but we didn’t have the full vision,” Samavai says. “The contest helped us focus and think about what exactly it is we’re trying to do.”

Dean James J. Valentini notes that “enthusiasm for entrepreneurship is very high among our students” and believes that Samavai and Field’s win demonstrates “that students can build their own futures, build their own success, that they can use their creative thinking and analytical skills to turn an idea into reality. That’s essentially what we teach in the Core, and that’s what entrepreneurship is all about.”

College alumni who have graduated within the last five years can enter any of the other CVC challenges and apply to the Columbia Startup Lab, a co-working space subsidized by the University that opened in July 2014 at the WeWork building in SoHo West. Admitted startups can use the space for up to a year and have access to onsite workshops and mentors. Of 71 seats, the College has 10. Among the alumni who have worked or are working out of the Startup Lab are Carolyn Yim ’11, founder and CEO of Plyknits, which gives shoppers direct access to her family’s knitwear line; Sam Bodkin ’12, founder of Groupmuse, a social network that matches people who want to volunteer their home for a classical musical performance with musicians and guests; and Cooper Pickett ’10, CEO and co-founder of content creation service Longneck & Thunderfoot.

Richard Witten ’75, former vice-chair of the University Board of Trustees and special adviser on entrepreneurship to Bollinger, says that when it comes to the Startup Lab and other entrepreneurial initiatives, Columbia Entrepreneurship’s approach has been to “let folks shine, create leverage for them and provide resources for them to do their magic,” adding that he believes that as a result, “Columbia is getting a reputation for being a place where entrepreneurs can thrive.”

In response to the growing interest in entrepreneurship among undergraduates, this semester saw the debut of a course for College and General Studies students called “Venturing to Change the World.” The weekly, three-hour seminar seeks to “expose students to the intellectual foundations and practical aspects of entrepreneurship.” Sixty students are enrolled in the course, which is taught by Damon Phillips, the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise at the Business School, and Amol Sarva ’98, a prolific technology entrepreneur who co-founded Virgin Mobile USA and Peek. The syllabus is divided into three modules: thinking (Who is an entrepreneur?), creating (What are the elements of a successful startup?) and doing (How to pick a cofounder.).

“Students have expressed interest in a course like this for several years, particularly students in CORE,” says Valentini. “This is a course that is very important for us to offer. I would like Columbia College students to recognize that entrepreneurship is something that any of them can do. Entrepreneurship is just an idea meeting an opportunity and turning into a successful enterprise. Columbia College students have no shortage of ideas, and the world offers no shortage of opportunities for those ideas to develop.”

Sarva, who calls entrepreneurship “a powerful force driving progress in our civilization,” believes that the course, a first at the College, was designed in the spirit of the Core Curriculum insofar as it equips students with fundamental knowledge. “Understanding [the] dynamics [of entrepreneurship] and how to harness them and put them to work for the right purposes is really important for young people,” he says.

Christopher McGarry, director for entrepreneurship in the University’s Office of Alumni and Development, notes that the participation of alumni such as Sarva, through mentorship, speaking engagements and other capacities, has been key to the growth of the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Columbia. “The startup community relies on other members of the community itself for growth, nurturing, support, solution-finding and innovating,” he says. “I look for help for young entrepreneurs and one of the best sources of help is the alumni community.”

The excitement for entrepreneurship among College students has also been characterized by greater interest in careers at startups. Luo, a computer science major who aspires to start a tech company, took the Spring 2016 semester off from her academic studies to pursue an internship at Nylas, a San Francisco-based startup that develops email apps and platforms. “Tech is one of the most exciting things out there because people are constantly creating things and those things are fundamentally changing what the world is like,” she says, adding that entrepreneurship and startups are appealing because they afford “personal empowerment and being able to have more of a say in what you do.”

Jennifer Preis, a senior associate director at the Center for Career Education (CCE), notes that entrepreneurially-minded students often view work at existing startups as a precursor to launching their own ventures. “I’ve had students tell me that they look forward to seeing firsthand what it’s like to execute an idea,” she says.

The thirst for startup experience led CORE and CCE to launch the Startup Internship Program in 2014. Open to students in the College and several other schools, SIP connects students in 12-week spring internships at startups in a range of fields and quickly has become the most popular of CCE’s spring internship programs, according to Preis. In partnership with Columbia Entrepreneurship, CCE also administers the Columbia Undergraduate Startup Internship Fund, which launched in 2015. Funded by a gift from an anonymous College parent, SIF covers up to $5,000 in expenses for financial aid recipients in the College, Engineering and General Studies who are pursuing unpaid or low-paying summer internships at startups.

Last spring, through SIP, sociology major Fabio DeSousa ’16 interned at Venture for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates to work at startups around the country. After graduation, he will work at one of those startups for at least two years as a Venture for America Fellow. DeSousa, who is interested in urban design and social entrepreneurship, applied to SIP after interning at a startup accelerator and finding that he preferred the work environment to other, more structured internships he had completed. “I can see the work I do directly translating into results,” he says.

Preis has found that many other students also find “the distinctive culture of startups” appealing. “They are drawn to the idea of working hard, taking on a lot of responsibility and making change while ideally working on a cause important to them,” she says.

Since the 2014–15 academic year, College students also have had the option of applying to be part of Res. Inc. — short for Residential Incubator — a residential community housed in the Living Learning Center. Res. Inc. occupies the eighth floor of Wallach Hall. Programming includes weekly seminar meetings, dinners and receptions with alumni entrepreneurs, visits to startups around New York City and events hosted by the LLC Faculty-in-Residence Ioannis Kymissis, associate professor of electrical engineering and an entrepreneur himself. Residents must be working toward launching their own ventures and are expected to enter both the Fast Pitch competition and the CVC.

The excitement for entrepreneurship among College students has also been characterized by greater interest in careers at startups.

Among the students currently living in Res. Inc. is Robert Netzorg ’19, who along with Hamed Nilforoshan SEAS’19 and Eshan Agarwal SEAS’19 developed an app called Bites, which allows college students to connect with local cooks to purchase home-cooked meals. The trio took second place in the Fast Pitch competition in 2015. Netzorg applied to Res. Inc. because he wanted to be surrounded by “like-minded people,” he says. “With regards to entrepreneurship, there’s a culture of creation that’s very interesting to me — how a group of people get together to turn their ideas into something that’s feasible. It’s about creating something for people to use and to make a living off of what you create.”

Fanning the entrepreneurial flame among Columbia undergraduates is CORE, which offers a robust lineup of initiatives that revolve around a three-prong mission to “inspire, educate, and launch.” The group was founded in 1999, but it was not until the 2013–14 academic year that it became visibly active, to the point that it is now considered the largest secular, non-political organization on campus. That distinction is based on the group’s email list, which according to president Simon Schwartz ’17 reaches more than 7,000 current students and recent alumni.

Last semester, CORE launched one of its most ambitious initiatives to date: an intensive startup accelerator for New York City students called Almaworks. For nine weeks, teams from the inaugural 10 participating startups, each including at least one Columbia student or recent graduate, received free individualized advice from volunteer mentors. The fledgling companies included Swipes, an app launched by Julio Henriquez ’18 and Helson Taveras ’18 that allows College students to share dining hall meals. A second cohort of startups will participate in Almaworks this spring.

CORE also has partnered with Columbia Entrepreneurship on speaker events (guests have included Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, and Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and Square). CORE’s other offerings include Women@CORE, a mentorship program that pairs female entrepreneurs at Columbia with female entrepreneurs in New York City. CORE also organizes Global Tech Treks — trips to tech startup hubs around the world — during Spring Break. In 2016, students visited Paris, Berlin, London and Rio de Janeiro. “I’m really proud of how much we’ve been able to push the student group label,” says Schwartz, who has been involved with CORE since his first year at the College.

For CORE’s executive board members and other student leaders, adds Schwartz, being involved with the group is akin to overseeing a small company: “We run it like a startup,” he says. “We have to deal with problems and responsibilities but in a manner that isn’t fiduciary or legally binding. We get this practicum and understanding of the mentality and some of the day-to-day challenges of running a startup.”

Sakowitz, who sits on CORE’s executive board, credits her involvement with the group for the success she has had with her startup. “I started Blue Moon Box because I thought it would be a cool way to get kids involved in science, which is something I’ve wanted to figure out how to do for a long time,” she says. “Joining CORE and exploring some of the programs that Columbia offers flipped the switch and made me realize that this was something I could and would love to do.”