Celebration honors student, alumni entrepreneurs
By Kathy Hovis
When Barry Beck ’90 realized that people were starting to buy practically everything online – except for luxury cosmetics – he saw the opportunity. He quickly convinced his wife, Marla, that a startup was a good idea and then jumped right in with founding their new company, Bluemercury.
“Every entrepreneur rides a wave,” Beck said on campus April 14, at a lunch honoring him as the 2023 Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year. “When an entrepreneur sees a problem, they also see an opportunity.”
Cornell President Martha E. Pollack presented the award, praising the Becks for establishing the Marla and Barry Beck Entrepreneurship Fellows Program in 2016, which provides funding for Cornell students who want to spend the summer pursuing their startups without the worries of having a paid summer position.
Beck shared the story of Bluemercury, which started as an e-commerce company. He then pivoted to buy a boutique store across the street from their headquarters, quickly seeing success there and “aggressively opening more stores.”
Being optimistic, treating his employees well and embracing the difference between happiness and true joy were some of the life lessons Beck shared during his acceptance remarks.
“The people who think they are crazy enough to change the world are usually the ones who do it,” he said.
Beck was honored during the Entrepreneurship at Cornell’s annual two-day Celebration conference, which also included various panels, talks and networking events, as well as eLab Demo Day and the announcement of the winners of three other competitions.
“We are so delighted that Barry Beck was able to join us on campus and be part of Celebration,” said Zach Shulman ’87, J.D. ’90, director of Entrepreneurship at Cornell. “He is a passionate entrepreneur whose love for Cornell runs deep.”
Karlie Chen ’23, a student in the Nolan School of Hotel Administration, picked up the $5,000 award for Student Business of the Year for her startup, Best Picnic Spots, an online marketplace for listing and booking luxury picnics.
“We’re like the Airbnb for luxury picnics,” Chen told a panel of judges when she pitched her business during an April 10 competition. The idea for the business, which launched last June, became even more relevant during the COVID pandemic, when people searched for ways to celebrate their milestones outside, she said. “These picnics can draw up to 100 guests.”
Kayla Wooley, MBA ‘22, founder of Staff on Tap, took home the $25,000 prize in the BenDaniel Venture Challenge, an annual competition run by Big Red Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund operated by a team of MBA students and other Cornell graduate students. Wooley’s company digitally connects temporary nurses to understaffed nursing homes.
Several student companies took home prizes in the Engineering Innovation Competition, announced during the Celebration lunch by David Putnam, associate dean for innovation and entrepreneurship in the College of Engineering.
Adele Smolansky ’23, a computer science major, won a $2,500 Ronald ’57 and Frederick ’86 Fichtl Innovation Award and a $5,000 Ron G. Kermisch Innovation Award for her company, A.I. Learners. The educational technology platform helps kids who have physical, cognitive and behavioral challenges learn math through personalized online games and analytics.
The student team of engineering majors Molly Eron ’23, Danielle Frye ’23, Katie McGarty ’23, Veronica Vila ’23 and Chenglin Zhu ’23 won another $2,500 Ronald ’57 and Frederick ’86 Fichtl Innovation Award for My IUD, their smart contraceptive device, which alerts users to movement or issues with their intrauterine device.
And the student team of engineering majors Mark Tarazi ’24 and Mohamed Aden ’23 and doctoral student Rebecca McCabe won the Yunni and Maxine Pao Social Innovation Award of $10,000 for creating their organization, the Global Action Impact Association. It sponsors a national competition that empowers college students to conceive, design, prototype and execute high-impact solutions for global sustainability.
During the eLab Demo Day event April 13, 11 student teams who are part of this year’s student business accelerator presented updates about their progress so far.
“We tell students that entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Ken Rother, managing director of eLab and lecturer at the Cornell S.C. Johnson College of Business. “This is around the first watering station for them. The finish line is way off in the distance.”
Many of the teams that presented during the event demonstrated working applications or told stories of the way their company’s product has changed as they’ve done deeper research into the problems they are trying to solve.
Jeremiah James, a doctoral student in engineering, shared how his company, Adaptive Rentals, began seeking to address the problem of expensive and inadequate rental housing for college students. But the startup has since evolved into a lead generation business, helping real estate companies and investors find people interested in selling their properties.
Daniel Tuan ’24 (Dyson) and Max Pace ’24 (Arts & Sciences) started Synopsis as a way for busy people to keep up with news in their industry without having to wade through multiple news sites, journals and emails each day.
“Synopsis finds articles of interest in their industry and provides on-demand summarized reports tailored to the individual,” Tuan said. The team is planning a beta launch of their product in June and a full release in August.
Visit the conference website to see a complete schedule of the presentations from the Celebration conference and watch a recording of some sessions, as well as eLab Demo Day.
Kathy Hovis is a freelance writer for Entrepreneurship at Cornell.