More than 500 people, including many Cornell alumni, faculty, staff and students, gathered in New York City for Entrepreneurship at Cornell’s sixth Summit event Nov. 3.
Speakers shared stories of their entrepreneurial journeys and the lessons they’ve learned from starting companies, while participants explored 17 booths featuring products and services from Cornell start-ups and programs.
“Across all of Cornell’s campuses, entrepreneurship is thriving,” said Cornell President Martha E. Pollack, as she introduced Robert F. Smith ’85, CEO of Vista Equity Partners, who was honored at the conference as the 2017 Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year. Not only is entrepreneurship a key focus of the new Cornell Tech campus in New York City, Pollack said, but in Ithaca “students are using the eHub working spaces day and night.”
Smith was one of eight entrepreneurs who offered TED-style talks or participated in chats with moderators during the conference, which was held at the Times Center.
Speaker Steve Hindy ’71, M.A. ’75, cofounder and chairman of Brooklyn Brewery, came to Cornell planning to major in landscape architecture and design golf courses. Instead he found himself taking lots of courses in sociology and English and finishing up with a master’s degree in English education. After a career with the Associated Press covering wars and conflict in the Middle East, Hindy returned to New York, hatched the idea of bringing a brewery to Brooklyn and started marketing.
“When I was a kid, I won lots of contests for selling things,” he said, telling stories of the brewery’s early stages, when he made tough decisions on logo development and distribution and donated a lot of his product to get people to taste it. Today, the company is one of the top 10 craft breweries in the U.S.
Speakers like Hindy and Smith are one reason that Deb Kemper ’88 comes to the event each year.
“This has me thinking about the work I do and how I can make more repeatable and scalable processes,” said Kemper, managing director and chair of the Boston Forum for Golden Seeds, a national angel investing group focused on women-founded and -led companies. “I’m managing a group of 50 members and we train people to do investing in early-stage companies. So we’re always thinking about processes and now I’m thinking about how we can accelerate that more.
“For me this is a great way to reconnect with Cornell and with classmates related to something I’m passionate about,” said Kemper, a member of the Entrepreneurship at Cornell advisory council.
In between speakers, student teams from Cornell, Columbia, Princeton and New York universities pitched their businesses to a group of judges, who chose Cornell’s Combplex as the winner. The company has created a device to help beekeepers monitor the health of their hives.
“This is a really big and important problem,” said Dave Haber, a partner in the law firm WilmerHale and one of the judges, as he announced the award. “And you have proprietary technology that not everyone could create. Plus, you can feel the energy about why you are successful,” he said. “Clearly, you love bees.”
Another speaker, Jennifer Hyman, CEO and co-founder of Rent the Runway, said aspiring entrepreneurs need to be in it for the long haul.
“You have to convince yourself that this is something that should take up the next 15 years of your life, because overnight success is at least a 15-year journey,” said Hyman, whose eight-year-old company has grown into a business with 6 million members, 1,100 employees and 450 designer brands that women can rent for special events or on a subscription basis.
While the conference attracts a number of alumni and entrepreneurs from the city, students from the Ithaca campus also traveled for the one-day event, including 10 members of the Cornell Venture Capital Club.
“I enjoyed how Robert Smith, who majored in chemical engineering, talked about how you don’t have to have a business background to be successful in venture capital,” said Adam Ingber ’18. “And we’re meeting with a lot of alumni who are now active in the venture capital community.”
“Summit 2018 is already in the works,” said Zach Shulman '87, J.D. '90, director of Entrepreneurship at Cornell, adding that the next event is set for Nov. 9, 2018.
Kathy Hovis is a writer for Entrepreneurship at Cornell.