Helping Columbia’s Entrepreneurs Succeed

In February, Bernice Tsai ’96, associate dean, alumni relations and communications, and I visited the Columbia Startup Lab, the co-working space at WeWork Soho West that provides spots for 71 Columbia alumni entrepreneurs, including 10 College alumni.

Dean Valentini with Columbia Startup Lab alumni

In February, Dean James J. Valentini (second from left) met with Columbia Startup Lab alumni success stories (left to right), Cooper Pickett ’10, John Mascari ’08 and Carolyn Yim ’11.

There we met with Carolyn Yim ’11, an English major whose company, Plyknits, gives shoppers direct access to her family’s knitwear line; Cooper Pickett ’10, a philosophy major whose company, Longeck & Thunderfoot, optimizes digital content; and John Mascari ’08, a political science major whose company, Bundle Organics, offers nutritional beverages for new and expectant mothers.

Carolyn, Cooper and John are building upon the skills honed through their majors and the Core. They are tapping into networks formed at Columbia to get the resources and support they need and turning their passions into successful startups.

Entrepreneurship, in the broadest sense, results when an idea meets an opportunity and is built into a successful enterprise. The enterprise does not have to be “tech” and it does not need to be profit- or revenue-seeking. To be successful it only needs to create something of value.

I have experienced this in my own life. When I was a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory I attended a seminar where someone described a measurement challenge. I had an idea of how to solve it, and I was so excited that I stayed up for 36 straight hours working out a proposal for a solution. I secured funding to carry out experiments and developed the idea. No literal business was developed, but it did provide something of value. And although we didn’t hear the word “entrepreneur” much then, that is what I was, without thinking about it.

Columbia College students have no shortage of ideas, and the world offers no shortage of opportunities for those ideas to be developed. I want College students to recognize that entrepreneurship is something that any of them can do, so I am working closely with Columbia Entrepreneurship, the University’s entrepreneurship initiative headed by Richard Witten ’75, and the Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE), a popular student group, to create more opportunities and resources for our undergraduate entrepreneurs.

This year, in collaboration with Columbia Entrepreneurship and in response to student interest, the College is offering a new entrepreneurship course, “Venturing to Change the World,” taught by Damon Phillips, the Lambert Family Professor of Social Enterprise at the Business School, which you can read more about in this issue (see “A Culture of Creation”).We are now working to develop a second course to extend the entrepreneurship curriculum.

These courses build upon several other efforts that the College has undertaken in recent years, including launching the Startup Internship Program through the Center for Career Education, in collaboration with CORE, and establishing a Startup Internship Fund, also through CCE.

Last year, the College began sponsoring and funding the Undergraduate Challenge as part of Columbia Entrepreneurship’s Columbia Venture Competition (CVC). Three undergraduate student teams won a total of $50,000 to propel innovative and promising business proposals. Shriya Samavai ’15, an art history major with a concentration in business management, and Lauren Field BC’16, an English major and art history minor, won the overall competition with their endeavor Academy Of (now Studio Lucien), a company that makes apparel inspired by works of art.

The Undergraduate Challenge was exciting for me because it shows what entrepreneurship is all about, especially entrepreneurship at the College. It’s not only technology that allows students to build their futures and their success, but it’s also their creative ideas and the fact that, thanks to so much support at the College and in today’s world in general, they can use their creative thinking and analytical skills to turn an idea into reality. They can make a real difference in the world using that creativity, the interdisciplinary approaches offered by the College and their own problem-solving skills. I look forward to seeing what comes out of this spring’s CVC.

We are still thinking a lot about what entrepreneurship means to us as a college and we hope to continue building and expanding our programs to meet students’ interests and help them prepare for the future. Enthusiasm for entrepreneurship is very high right now — CORE has more than 4,000 people on its email list, including many College students. And the College is here to help facilitate their success, to help them drive their ideas, to help them take advantage of opportunities to grow their enterprises and to help them make their mark and become leaders of society.

Dean James J. Valentini
James J. Valentini