Columbia Flexing Entrepreneurial Power

Vince Ponzo is the senior director at the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School. Courtesy photo

Columbia Business School: not just a finance and consulting factory. The school that produced Warren Buffett and introduced value investing wants you to know they’ve also been the launching pad for some massive venture capital-backed enterprises, among them Grofers, Figure 1, and Key Me. That’s right: Columbia wants be known as an entrepreneurship hub, too — and they’re making the case that they’ve always been big-time movers in that space.

“Even though we were traditionally known for finance and consulting, and we still are, when you look at someone like Warren Buffett or Henry Kravis, who are most often cited as finance success stories, they’re also entrepreneurs,” says Vince Ponzo, executive director of the Lang Center for Entrepreneurship at Columbia. “Look at what they’ve done and how they’ve changed their industries running their own businesses and starting their own businesses.”

When Ponzo took over as chief of the Lang Center three years ago — a little more than a decade after he graduated with an MBA from Columbia — he didn’t necessarily want to downplay the school’s deep reputation for finance, investing, and consulting. He just wanted to bring the school’s entrepreneurial success and offerings into the limelight.

“The Lang Center has actually been around for 20 years,” Ponzo points out. “It’s not like Columbia just recently jumped on the entrepreneurship bandwagon. It was always part of Columbia’s DNA.”


In addition to startup labs, lean launchpad courses, and weekly startup treks around New York City’s robust entrepreneurial community, Columbia has a fund specifically for students wanting to work on their own startup or spend the summer at an early-stage startup. Support for current students is what Ponzo says is one of the biggest differences in how entrepreneurship is approached now compared to when he was a student at the first part of the century.

“I think what has changed is, entrepreneurship tended to manifest after graduation for people. They’d go to work at Goldman, they’d go to work at McKinsey, and then maybe four or five years later, either they had then achieved monetary success or they wanted to move on in their careers, they they’d start businesses,” Ponzo explains. “What’s changed is, there are now more students coming to Columbia Business School wanting to do entrepreneurship from the outset. There are more students coming to Columbia Business School specifically with the intention of working at a startup. It’s not the binary banking, consulting, or starting a business.”

In response, Ponzo has been at work expanding the school’s footprint both within the Columbia University ecosystem and outside the broader New York City area. Westward expansion to the San Francisco Bay Area is on Ponzo’s mind, and agenda. Outside of New York, no other domestic metro area has more Columbia Business School alums than the Bay Area, where Ponzo plans on building and invigorating a community of startup-minded alums, current students, and potential future students.

Ponzo has been in the Bay Area with other representatives from the school meeting with alums and startups to begin that process. Last Wednesday (March 1), Poets&Quants was able to catch up with Ponzo in a Philz coffee shop in San Francisco’s financial district. The conversation has been transcribed and edited for readability.

P&Q: What is the purpose of your Bay Area trip? What are you hoping to accomplish?

Ponzo: At this stage, the reason for coming out is building community. You know, Columbia Business School has been known for finance and consulting and I think we’ve really moved the needle in getting Columbia Business School on the map, at least in the New York City ecosystem when it comes to entrepreneurship, because our alums have started businesses of all different kinds. We’ve done a really good job in building that community and celebrating those wins and advertising those companies. And now that we have things institutionalized and have a great community in New York City, we’re going to focus our attention on the West Coast as well.

Similar to New York, we have alums out here that are doing amazing things in venture capital. They’re doing amazing things as operators at very innovative companies or they are founding startups and doing equally amazing things. And obviously the distance between New York City, where Columbia is, and the West Coast poses some problems with geography. You don’t have the density out here that you have in New York City, so that poses some challenges, but we are going to start piecing together the community out here. It’s a lot of one-on-one meetings and listening and understanding how we can help our alums in those areas — entrepreneurship, innovation, investing — from afar. And then also building the community. It’s strong, but it could be much stronger.

I think out here, Columbia Business School people don’t readily identify as much as Stanford alums do with each other or even HBS folks. So, really, just empowering the community out here, catalyzing it, and getting people to meet, communicate, build a network, and then go from there. Once we have that network built, then we’ll take it to the next level. Based on the ideas we get on how we can help people, we’ll start to implement specific things.

P&QDo you have a specific number or estimate of CBS alums who are in the Bay Area working in this space?

Ponzo: I don’t have a specific number, but I know the San Francisco and Palo Alto area is our second-largest domestic alumni space, after New York. So it is significant.

P&Q: When you talk about empowering and building the community, do you have any specific goals you’re hoping to achieve in the next year or so of making trips out here?

Ponzo: It’s almost too early to think two years out because I think this is the beginning of just feeling things out and listening to people. Really, my goal for the next year is about community and connections and that takes a number of different forms. But like I said, (we are) letting people out here know it’s a partnership. It’s not something, quite honestly, that can be done from afar by parachuting in twice a year. We just held a couple of wider alumni events — we just held one in San Francisco on Monday night and Palo Alto last night — we’ve really been telling the community, “Look, we’re here to support you. Because, for entrepreneurs especially, building a network is incredibly valuable, but we need your help. So fly your Columbia Business School flag. Let all of your CBS friends out here know that there is an energy and things happening.” We’re going to have a new leader of the San Francisco alumni club as well. So really just setting expectations that this is a partnership and we’re here to help, but that we need their help as well. And then the next time we’re out here and the next event we have, bring two friends, so instead of a 60-person event it’s a 180-person event.

The other piece of the puzzle is working with different departments at Columbia Business School. I came out here this time with alumni relations. I’ll come out here next time with the admissions office and do an event with prospective students where we also bring alumni. I might come out in summer time when we have our student interns out here — whoever they might be — and do an event for prospective students with the interns out here and alumni. That way you build a community, not just across one population, but across the entire pipeline. And then when people come back here after graduation, there’s a bigger network to tap into.

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