Doctoral student Maya Mundell ’14, a participant in the inaugural cohort of W.E. Cornell, gives a presentation during a networking event in the spring.

Programs empower underrepresented student entrepreneurs

Women and underrepresented minority entrepreneurs are beginning to close the gap with their white male counterparts in startup rates overall, and they comprise a growing share of entrepreneurial activity in the United States.

But when it comes to venture-backed, high-growth startups, women and minorities are still consistently left behind. Only 2% of companies founded strictly by women and just 1% of those founded by black entrepreneurs receive venture capital, according to research from Crunchbase, Kauffman Institute and CB Insights.

Doctoral student Chinasa Okolo was a participant in the inaugural cohort of W.E. Cornell.

When Andrea Ippolito ’06, M.Eng. ’07, returned to Cornell in 2017 as executive director of Cornell’s Engineering Management Program, she made it her mission to engage underrepresented entrepreneurs. Last year, within Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Advancement, she established a new program for women entrepreneurs, called W.E. Cornell.

W.E. Cornell, partially funded by a grant from the President’s Council of Cornell Women, is open to women-identified and non-binary students pursuing a STEM degree. The program was going to accept a maximum of 10 students, but due to overwhelming demand, Ippolito guided a cohort of 22 women through the 10-month program designed to empower and train female entrepreneurs.

Another minority-focused program, Cornell’s Black Entrepreneurs in Training (BET) was formed in the spring of 2018 to foster black student entrepreneurs W.E. Cornell and BET are looking to grow; applications for both programs’ fall 2019 cohorts are due Sept. 11.

Wanlin Li ’19 (engineering) completed the W.E. Cornell program last year and is now participating in the nationally ranked Y Combinator Startup School to advance her business.

“As an engineering student coming from a family of engineers,” Li said, “I never learned about the importance of conducting customer discovery or confirming a customer market. W.E. Cornell gave me the tools to start my own company and helped me evolve and refine my product.”

A key component of the program is mentorship: Ippolito has cultivated an advisory council of 13 successful Cornell alumni, including Deb Kemper ’88, partner at Golden Seeds Venture Fund, and Leigh Amaro ’00, senior vice president of enterprise partnerships at Mastercard. The advisory council guides the program’s curriculum and provides ongoing mentorship.

“Through W.E. Cornell, I was connected to Lindsey Blumenthal ’06 as a mentor,” said Li, referring to the senior director of stewardship and development at Apple. “Her perspective on business development and organizational growth has guided me and inspired me to further strengthen my entrepreneurial skills.”

BET was formed by Julia Reeves ’20, Jehron Petty ’20 and Ansumana Bangura ’20 to cultivate a community at Cornell dedicated to inspiring, informing and initiating the next wave of black entrepreneurs from any academic school or field.

“Only 1% of venture capital-backed founders are black,” Petty said. “With the strength of Cornell’s entrepreneurship programs, we have a huge opportunity to address this problem right here and set an example for the entrepreneurial ecosystem beyond Cornell.”

This fall, members of W.E. Cornell and BET will attend joint trainings and workshops. Members of both groups will be able to continue on their entrepreneurial journeys, by participation in Cornell’s student accelerator eLab, through the hardware accelerator at Rev: Ithaca Startup Works, or by becoming a Commercialization Fellow.

Both programs are seeking to grow their network of mentors. Ippolito has a message for alumni and entrepreneurs considering a mentorship role: “Your impact is invaluable and guides participants for their entire careers – regardless of the path they end up on. It’s an overwhelmingly fulfilling experience.”

Molly Israel is the director of marketing and communications for the Center for Regional Economic Advancement.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli