The Most Disruptive MBA Startups Of 2020

Asha Banks, CheerNotes, Carnegie Mellon (Tepper)

A SENSE OF IDENTITY

Identity sits at the heart of disruptive startups. Exhibit A: CheerNotes. According to Asha Banks, a 2020 Carnegie Mellon Tepper MBA, just 7% of brand name greeting cards have “diverse representation” – an omission that leaves out 40% of the card buying public in the United States alone. To counter this narrative, Banks launched a selection of inclusive greeting cards that better reflect the experience of this massive market. The response? For one, CheerNotes was one of eight startups accepted into the Target Corporation’s 2020 incubator, Even more, Banks has received encouraging messages from customers letting her that she is on the right track:

“As someone who grew up in Canada as an Indian and in an immigrant family, so many of your cards strike a particular chord. For decades we’ve been forced to buy cards that have a white bride with a white gown for an Indian wedding. Thank you for being so                  thoughtful.”

Perhaps the most ambitious disruptor comes out of the University of Michigan’s Ross School: Thawra Network. Rima Imad Fadlallah, founder and CEO, tells P&Q that “thawra” means “revolution” in Arabic. She will settle for nothing less for her startup, which is geared towards producing “identity-affirming content” for Arabs and Muslims across the United States. Thus far, Imad Fadlallah points out, Thawra content is already streaming across 70 countries. She likens her startup to BET and Univision, with an eye towards social impact and community similar to the Oprah Winfrey Network.

In the coming years, Imad Fadlallah continues, she is determined to expand beyond podcasts and social media and into television, feature films, and even merchandising. To be successful, the firm’s revolutionary spirit must translate into action that transforms how Arabs and Muslims view themselves – and what they should expect from the world around them.

“Thawra envisions a world where revolutions are televised,” Imad Fadlallah adds. “We want our platform to inspire social movements, and we believe that our communities will be best positioned to advocate for ourselves and others when we can finally be the ones telling our own stories. We want to reimagine what role media should play in inspiring real change.”

A CASE STUDY IN PERSEVERANCE

Ben Moore, The Ugly Company, Notre Dame (Mendoza)

Achieving social good is one theme that connects many of these disruptive startups. It was undoubtedly the driving force behind Notre Dame’s The Ugly Company. Growing up on a family farm, Ben Moore watched as tons of edible fruit was tossed as waste due to its appearance.  To counter that, he created all-natural dried fruit snacks with catchy branding and an absorbing story. After spending a decade at sea on deepwater drillships, Rice University’s Ally Cedeno launched Women Offshore. An online nonprofit, the community provides necessary support to women, who account for just 2% of maritime roles. At New York University’s Stern School, Umar Belal was busy building ONE432. Call it a mix of fashion and social impact, where 50% of net profits are shared with the artisans or devoted to Pakistani education programs. Using an app, purchasers can even track where the profits from their sale go in real time!

Launching a startup is an exhausting process filled where the best-laid plans are often waylaid by forces beyond a founder’s control. Certainly, ONE432 would make a case study for the ages. Initially, the firm’s central product would be a Jutti, an update of a 400-year-old shoe with no left or right foot. Prioritizing events over an online presence, ONE432 was caught flat-footed when COVID-19 hit this spring. Initially, Belal had to contend with the perception of Pakistani products being a “cheap commodity,” not to mention the strain of building a supply chain and training artisans. However, the pandemic forced Belal to re-assess his business model and focus instead of creating a “Lounge Essentials” collection – a combination of shirts, hoodies, and slippers that mixed style and comfort as the world stayed home.

“Successfully pivoting into garments and slippers with our Lounge Essentials collection during COVID really demonstrated the creativity, flexibility and resolve of our company,” Belal observes. “Within 45 days, the ONE432 team was able to design, source and train our artisans to produce a completely new set of products. Without any paid advertising, we generated more revenue from our online channel than in any previous period.”

ALREADY HITTING MILESTONES AND NOTCHING SUCCESSES

Sometimes, these MBA disruptors were able to mix social good and fun. That was the case for INSEAD’s Mapo Tapo, a sports tourism platform founded by four climbing enthusiasts Through this venture, the founders channel their passion for extreme sports. Holding activities in economically-underdeveloped communities, Mapo Tapo fuels their growth, even employing locals as guides and hosts. The model has already produced dividends earlier this year, with Mapo Tapo operating a trip to Western Sicily for 21 climbers.

“Connecting a group of climbers from all over the world to locals, using climbing to break communication barriers and to explore the hidden gems of Sicily, was incredibly rewarding,” explains Alessia Fontanari. “It was the result of three months’ efforts in sourcing local partners, designing authentic experiences, and marketing them, all while juggling MBA classes and Covid19 craziness.”

Andrew Quinn Soterias, HEC Paris

Mapo Tapo is just one of the entrepreneurial success stories from this year’s MBA class. At the University of Minnesota, Lost&Found, a suicide prevention nonprofit, went from $3,000 in 2017 donations to $200,000 in 2020 (with three months still left to go). HEC Paris’ Soterias Solutions has attracted $1.4 million euros in grant funding for its water quality sensor. That pales in comparison to BIOMILQ. A cultured breastmilk producer from Duke Fuqua, this MBA venture has already generated $3.5 million dollars from investors.

ALUMNI TO THE RESCUE

Of course, some firms’ success can’t be quantified just in VC funding. Case in point: Twentyeight Health. According to Amy Fan, the founder and 2019 Berkeley Haas MBA, the company’s mission is to “expand access to reproductive and sexual for underserved communities, including women of color and women from low-income households.” For Fan, Twentyeight Health is a response to a broken healthcare system, one where “there are so many healthcare stakeholders that start with P — yet patients are often the last considered.” Fan’s startup counters these gaps using a platform that includes “telemedicine, prescription delivery, and ongoing care.” Over the past two years, Twentyeight Health has made a difference in the lives of thousands of women.

“We’ve served the contraceptive needs of women in five states as the only player accepting Medicaid,” Fan points out. “We offer a range of non-procedural birth control including over 100+ FDA-approved brands of birth control pills, ring, patch and emergency contraception. We’ve partnered with numerous non-profits and community colleges to reach underserved women and help them find affordable contraceptives. As a part of our model, we donate 2% of revenues to Bedsider and the National Institute for Reproductive Health.”

Business school is sometimes called a two-year cocktail party; it is a time for students to widen networks and deepen relationships with key players. Such connections were critical to getting Twentyeight Health off the ground, says Fan. In her case, support came in the form of Aaron Schwartz, an  MBA alum and serial entrepreneur who acted as a spark as much as a sounding board.

“Even though Aaron was busy starting his newest company, he would hop on the phone after putting his kids to bed to provide advice. Additionally, he opened his network and connected us to many investors, help that came when we needed it most. Even though I did not know Aaron well, I was inspired by his willingness to go above and beyond to help a fellow entrepreneur simply because he wanted to pass forward the help he had received along the way. It’s the kindness of real individuals like Aaron that motivates me to do the best I can and pay it forward when I can.”

Umar Belal, ONE432, New York University (Stern)

“WHY WAIT?”

NYU Stern’s Umar Belal found inspiration through his parents, who were also entrepreneurs. Growing up, he says, he learned problem-solving and management from dinner table conversations. As an adult, he adds, he learned a key lesson on starting a business from his father’s love of paragliding.

“Make sure all the equipment is secure and the wind is right, but at some point, you have to make an assessment and jump off the ledge,” he jokes.

For many disruptors, the biggest leap of faith wasn’t launching a venture. Instead, it was leaving a steady paycheck to return to business school. Before starting FarmRaise, Jayce Hafner worked as a policy advisor to the Episcopalian Church. While she intended to eventually pursue entrepreneurship, she thought that she needed to gain more professional experience and financial acumen. Stanford GSB, however, quickly “planted the seeds of action” inside of her.

“In addition to a treasure trove of startup courses and rich mentorship, the GSB culture presses us hard to answer the question: “Why wait?” I realized I didn’t want my life to feel like waiting in an airport terminal: I was ready for takeoff.”

IT TAKES A VILLAGE…TO START A COMPANY

Andie Kaplan, Connected Mobile, Wharton School

Business school left an indelible mark on these MBA entrepreneurs. At INSEAD, Mapo Tapo’s Alessia Fontanari believed any career path was possible. After tasting entrepreneurship, she discovered one path was impossible: returning to the corporate world. During classes, Wharton’s Andie Kaplan was continuously applying lessons to refining her model and scaling her venture. One professor would even go line-by-line through network carrier terms and conditions to help her understand legal requirements (and marketing opportunities). At UCLA Anderson, Evan Quinn took advantage of everything – time, space, resources, support, expertise – to build a drink product and infrastructure that was ready to go come graduation day.

hiyo would not be where it is today without the help of so many individuals from UCLA Anderson. My teachers pushed us to research the feasibility of our concept. The Price Center and the UCLA Anderson Venture Accelerator have opened so many doors to mentors, industry experts, and potential investors. The Wolfen Fellowship awarded by the Wolfen family gave me the opportunity to work on hiyo full-time in the summer between my first and second year. My fellow classmates participated in countless sampling events and surveys, giving us critical feedback. Four MBA classmates worked on hiyo alongside me for their 9-month master’s thesis project, working tirelessly to position the company for sustained success. Lastly, through the presentations, competitions, and investor showcase I participated in, UCLA Anderson pushed me to have the confidence and resiliency to believe that I could become a great leader and entrepreneur. It takes a small army to make any venture successful, and I am forever grateful for my UCLA Anderson small army.”

At Washington University, Byron Porter developed Hum, a wireless sensor system to boost efficiency in rail delivery. He makes this blunt assessment of his degree’s value to an aspiring entrepreneur: Startup survival rates are not good and I feel I’ve put our company in the best position possible to succeed because of my MBA at WashU.”

The Best MBA Programs For Entrepreneurship & Innovation  

THE 2020 INC./POETS&QUANTS RANKING

ALL THE DATA USED TO CREATE THIS YEAR’S RANKING

THE METHODOLOGY BEHIND THIS YEAR’S RANKING

THE MOST DISRUPTIVE MBA STARTUPS OF 2020

NORTHWESTERN KELLOGG: WHERE MBA VENTURES GO TO THRIVE

To read 34 in-depth profiles of MBA-founded startups, go to Page 3. 

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