Former students, colleagues and friends rose to their feet April 27 in the Statler Hotel ballroom to honor David BenDaniel for the years of lessons, mentorship and advice he’s given as the Don and Margi Berens Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. Many said his class exposed them to the idea of creating a company.
BenDaniel’s honor was one highlight of Entrepreneurship at Cornell’s Celebration conference, April 27-28, which kicked off with a documentary screening in the Collegetown eHub and ended with the standing-room-only Big Idea Competition. More than 150 alumni returned to campus for the annual event.
“Honoring Professor BenDaniel at our gala dinner was a perfect fit for our annual celebration event,” said Zach Shulman '87, J.D. '90, director of Entrepreneurship at Cornell. “David has been at Cornell since 1985 and has profoundly impacted thousands of Cornell alumni.”
Another highlight of the conference was the naming of the Student Business of the Year, given to WƆ NƆ Ni, a company founded by Nicole Mensa ’17, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Mensa earned a $5,000 prize for her company, which makes skin care products including organic shea body butter. The company supports a women’s shea butter cooperative in northern Ghana and donates a percentage of its profits to charity.
“The conference offers me a great opportunity to network with other entrepreneurs and hear from seasoned entrepreneurs,” said conference Valeska Toro ’09, co-founder of SolaTravelers.com, a company that connects female travelers with women “insiders” in cities around the world, who offer real-time companionship and advice on transportation, safety and fun entertainment options.
Rodolphe Gelin, chief scientific officer for Softbank Robotics Holdings, gave the keynote by demonstrating the abilities of three “Pepper” humanoid robots the company has created. Gelin said the field of human services robots is still in its infancy but the robots are being tested in France as tourist information aides and in Japan, where an aging population is creating a shortage of service workers.
Students and faculty were invited to take part in a “Pepper” competition and workshops sponsored by the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship to explore how the robots could be used in a hospitality context.
Other events included a showcase of emerging technology from the Cornell Center for Technology Licensing, symposia on topics ranging from family businesses to intellectual property protection, and eLab Demo Day, where students offered highlights of their progress. eLab selects student businesses through a competitive application process, then offers them fall and spring intense coursework, a mentor match pitch event in New York City, and weekly meetings with the eLab teaching team.
A commonality the 11 eLab teams shared was the amount of time they’ve spent getting to know their customers, a step that eLab Director Ken Rother said is vital as student business owners try to understand the problem they will solve for their customers.
“We’ve visited 65 countries and stayed at more than 100 hostels,” said Adrian Martinez, a master’s student in the Baker Program in Real Estate and a founder of Camerones Hostel. “We talked to hundreds of skateboarders, showed them our board and got their feedback,” said Jeffrey Ly ’17, a founders of XBoard.
As each company shared their stories, success was another common theme.
“We took first place in the Pillsbury Hospitality Business Plan competition, pitched at the Cornell Venture Challenge this morning and will pitch tomorrow at the New York State Business Competition,” said Michael Annunziata, MBA ’17, CEO of Natural Cuts. The company won a first-place award and $10,000 in the state competition.
“We just received our first contract for $42,000 to implement our solution in a nearby plant,” said Jason Guss, a doctoral student in engineering and CEO of OrthoFit.
“We are at full capacity, we’ve signed a partnership with a greenhouse in New York City to begin in June, and we’re raising funds for our own greenhouses,” said Serdar Mizrakci, MBA ’17, a founder of PureSpinach.
Kathy Hovis is a writer for Entrepreneurship at Cornell.