April 20, 2015

Alumni, students share business ideas at Celebration

For alumni like Vijay Vashee, M.E.N. ‘75, coming back to campus for two days every April for Entrepreneurship at Cornell’s Celebration event is a treat.

“I just love meeting talented, young, smart people and helping them see how they can change the world,” said Vashee, one of more than 200 alumni who returned to campus April 16-17 for the annual conference. “It’s only the young who are willing to take the risks we need.”

Vashee talked while taking a break from judging the Big Idea Competition, one of several student contests held during the event. Vashee is a sponsor of Big Idea, along with his wife Sita, and provides prize money for the winners.

Along with the Big Idea, students took center stage at Celebration during a Student Business of the Year luncheon and eLab’s Demo Day, where student business owners pitched their ideas to a group of alumni and venture capitalists.

“As an alum of the Law School, I’m impressed with the hands-on learning experience that eLab and other Entrepreneurship at Cornell activities offer for students,” said Joe Doyle, J.D. ’09, an attorney with Harter Secrest & Emery. “The experience is immersive, and offers direct contact with clients, which is the goal of every young lawyer.”

Alumni also enjoyed two days of networking and panel discussions; tours of the Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences; an emerging technology showcase from the Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) and a banquet featuring Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 delivering the keynote address.

Svante Myrick
Jason Koski/University Photography
Ithaca mayor Svante Myrick '09, delivers the keynote address at the Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration banquet.

Myrick said he was invited because “we’ve done a few things in the city of Ithaca that can certainly be seen as entrepreneurial.” Highlighting $350 million in recent downtown and Collegetown development, changes in zoning, a new job-training program to help at-risk workers secure new hospitality jobs and the city’s low unemployment rate, Myrick said the city supports an entrepreneurial culture.

That doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs are an easy breed to deal with, he said.

“Entrepreneurs are annoying,” he said with a smile. “They’re pushy and irritating.

“But innovation requires irritation,” he added. “We are facing the same set of problems that have bedeviled us for generations – hunger, homelessness, a lack of education, safe water. As long as we try the same old approaches, the problems will persist.

“The only people with new solutions are entrepreneurs. We need you to be irritating to those in power.”

Alumni in attendance said the spirit of cooperation between city and campus is also evident between schools and colleges at Cornell.

“One of the things that struck me most about this conference is the level of cross-collaboration that happens among students in different colleges in order to execute their business plans,” said Jackie Buffon ’84. “When I was a student 30 years ago, the schools at Cornell were more in their silos, but now this evolution creates a tremendous ability to springboard ideas from very different perspectives. It’s how business in the U.S. and the world is being done.”

Indeed, many of the student teams involved in business idea competitions and technologies showcased by CTL featured interdisciplinary efforts across a variety of fields.

Centre d’Education Inclusif, which won second place in the Big Idea Competition, was founded by Alexon Grochowski ’15, a policy analysis and management student in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, but the team also includes Jimmy Guo ’16, a biological sciences major in the College of Arts and Sciences and students from the Colleges of Engineering and Architecture, Art and Planning.

Entrepreneurship at Cornell is a prime example of this cross-campus blend, with all 13 schools and colleges participating on the governing board and an advisory council of more than 90 alumni, parents and friends with degrees in diverse fields.

“This year has been one of incredible entrepreneurial accomplishments at Cornell and in the community,” said Zach Shulman ’87, J.D. ’90, director of Entrepreneurship at Cornell, citing the establishment of REV: Ithaca Startup Works in downtown Ithaca and the continued fund-raising for new eHub spaces in Collegetown and on campus. “Celebration is a chance for us to mark those accomplishments and also look forward to the continued expansion of our programmatic and academic entrepreneurship offerings for students.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for Entrepreneurship at Cornell.