The Most Disruptive MBA Startups Of 2021

Will Rush, Stack (Washington Foster)

SOMETIMES, SUCCESS IS JUST STAYING ON YOUR FEET

Still, the biggest achievements can always be measured in funding, partnerships, or awards. Exhibit A: Pelicargo, a Logisticstech firm that streamlines the sales process for small and mid-sized freight forwarders — providing consistency, transparency, and efficiency in the process. For Jon Acquaviva, a Pelicargo co-founder and MIT Sloan grad, the firm’s biggest achievement has been something more fundamental than accruing funding or bringing a product to market.

“Personally, I believe the biggest accomplishment in our venture has been meeting each other to form our founding team. Finding co-founders often feels like the white whale of entrepreneurship in that it’s vitally important to every step of the journey yet incredibly difficult to accomplish in practice, especially in the midst of the pandemic. Shinji and I met during our entrepreneurship course and then we met Edward, our technical co-founder, in the MIT dorms during a random encounter. Our history just proves that the key for entrepreneurship is to get yourself out there and be vocal with your ideas; if you think about your ideas forever and don’t talk to others about them, they’ll never grow into something tangible.”

Will Rush, whose Stack Fintech is busy raising a million dollars, points to something even more intangible: resilience. “The dogma of startup life will either spit you out piece-by-piece or draw you in deeper-and-deeper,” writes the University of Washington Foster School grad. “Over the past six months I have made $0, I’ve struggled to keep my non-work life afloat and I’ve been told ‘no’ or ‘I don’t get it’ about a thousand times. I’ve also never known more about myself, connected more deeply with the people around me, and been more positive about the impact I want to make on the world.”

BUSINESS SCHOOL: A SAFE HARBOR TO MAKE MISTAKES

Sometimes, startup success is just a matter of luck…the kind that only happens when preparation intersects with daring. That serendipity is one reason why Carnegie Mellon’s Culturora is still standing. A HR platform that connects employees in an increasingly online world, Culturora found a critical sponsor through the type of networking that serves as its purpose.

“I attended a roundtable with the Chief Operating Officer of THD in 2020 and made sure to ask him a question about their company culture during the pandemic,” explains founder Jody Madala. “His response gave me a perfect inroad to connect with him after the event! He then put me in touch with his head of HR, who then connected me to their leaders in Talent – which is our perfect customer contact. The timing was perfect since the Talent group was thinking about how to drive culture in the pandemic and post-pandemic world. THD has great use cases for us, and we really believe we connected with then at the perfect time!”

That said, the biggest supporters of these startups have always been the business schools where they’re incubated. At Carnegie Mellon, Mathew Polowitz founded Equa Health, a training platform that the firm describes as a “mindfulness coach in your pocket.” For Polowitz, the best part of MBA programming was it offered a safety net to fail again-and-again.

Leo Mindyuk, ML Tech (Chicago Booth)

“I tried out a number of paths before finding this venture,” he admits. “Design consulting, big tech, running for an office seat I didn’t win… The MBA experience was this pressure cooker of me repeatedly telling myself to “just go for it.” Sure, it was painful at times, but I was in this unique environment where I could pick myself up and the next thing would be right there for me to try. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see exactly how each of those failures created the opportunity for me to work a venture that’s even more aligned to my passions and my personality than anything I had failed at before.”

A SUPPORT SYSTEM

Another advantage to business school is programming custom-tailored to founders. At the University of Chicago’s Booth School, that comes in the form of the Polsky Center, which provides entrepreneurial training and support in the form of coursework, coaching, workshops, speakers, conferences, funding, and networking. It even includes tech and legal support to help founders prototype and commercialize their ideas. For Leo Mindyuk, the most valuable aspect of the Polsky Center involved competitions — the New Venture Challenge specifically, whose alumni range from Grubhub to Venmo.

“During the NVC competition, we were able to significantly improve our business idea by getting valuable feedback from the faculty as well as well-known venture capitalists and entrepreneurs,” Mindyuk notes. “In particular, the questions that they have been asking us helped us to improve our business plan and later in the summer raise significant funding from strategic angel investors and VC firms.”

Mindyuk’s classmate, Sebastian Rivas, also lists the New Venture Challenge as the most valuable part of his MBA experience — “by far.” However, he also cites his classes, particularly Entrepreneurial Finance and Private Equity and Commercializing Innovation, as invaluable resources for getting his venture off the ground.

Sophie Randolph, Green Room (Rice University Jones)

“These were all great classes that focus on the intersection between entrepreneurship and finance. I’ve found that it’s really important to understand these two standpoints well in order to create the most value – entrepreneurship is a lot about thinking big and executing, while finance is a lot about mitigating risks and making sure that the market will accept the entrepreneur’s idea. When both standpoints agree with each other, great things happen. If they are misaligned, then you’re still not there.”

‘ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS AND PUSHING BACK IN THE RIGHT PLACES’

Such points were hammered home by faculty, whose roles in student startups can range from executive coach to eventually investor. Kyle Judah plays the first role at Rice University, where he heads up the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or Lilie for short. Here, he left a lasting impact on Sophie Randolph…and her startup.

“With experience as both a founder and a funder, Kyle speaks from deep experience. His passion for helping students is boundless and I have been one grateful recipient of mentorship, introductions, dad jokes, and moral support. One of the biggest challenges I face is that I don’t know what I don’t know. Kyle has been a huge help in asking the right questions, pushing back in the right places, and making sure I’m as best set up for success as possible on the wildly unpredictable entrepreneurial journey.”

If anything, business schools channel a certain entrepreneurial spirit, one that encourages MBAs to dream big, team up, take risks, and solve problems. MIT, long known for tech innovation, is one such program that sparks this creative mindset.

“The entrepreneurial ecosystem here is like a massive planet with its own gravitational force pulling in experts and enthusiasts from every corner of the world,” writes Jon Acquaviva. “I came to MIT with a latent interest in entrepreneurship but really felt I would use my MBA to get a promotion or a new job. That lasted for a month or two at best, as I quickly found myself pulled into the ecosystem and brainstorming ventures with my classmates and professors.”

Manuel Godoy frames this b-school dynamic this way…

“Everyone at Wharton was rooting for us!”

Joshua Yang, Glyphic (Stanford GSB)

A PROMISING FUTURE

So what’s ahead for the 2021 disruptive MBA startups? At Duke University, Patrick Pierson-Prah hopes his Renmo venture turns monthly rent into the norm for West Africa. INSEAD’s Capim is equally ambitious. “We dream to help the 160 million Brazilians, who do not have a healthcare plan, to access the private health ecosystem, truly making the healthcare in our country universal,” writes Marcelo Lutz.

Others are looking to leave a mark, a proverbial “dent in the universe” in the words of Steve Jobs.  At London Business School, Caroline Williams and Mary Liu launched junee, a “borrow-and-return system of reusable bowls for lunches. Their goal, they say, is to help usher in a world where people will someday say, “Isn’t it crazy we used to throw things away after just one use?” Joshua Yang takes it even a step further with his venture.

“When people hear “biotech”, I want them to think “Glyphic”.”

Alas, some disruptive startups will flounder and fail. In the end, most founders aspire to the goals laid out by Jeffrey Gum: “Become a household name, change the swimwear industry forever by making shorter shorts and sungas more popular, help out and support the veteran community more, and build an incredible community about fitness and having a better life…and then sell for $100mm.”

NEXT PAGE: IN-DEPTH PROFILES OF 43 DISRUPTIVE MBA STARTUPS

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