Most Disruptive MBA Startups Of 2023

When it comes to MBA student startups, you can’t blame customers and investors for being skeptical. Sure, these founders have great ideas and credentials. In the end, these ventures are hobbies, most figure. And they’ll disappear once their founders get their offers from McKinsey.

Not Rooney Lee.

It would be an understatement to say Rooney is committed to his customers. A 2023 graduate of the University of Virginia’s Darden School, Lee discovered a “glaring gap in the market” during his Google internship two summers ago. Needing a place to live, Lee pursued mid-term housing through Airbnb. This resulted in “steep” rental costs – not counting the sunk cost of a vacant apartment back in Virginia. Soon enough, Lee was developing NewSublease, a platform where students and professionals could find what he calls “affordable mid-term leasing.”

Rooney Lee, University of Virginia (Darden)

GOING ABOVE-AND-BEYOND

It hasn’t been an easy market to crack, Lee tells P&Q, particularly with the intimidating legal minutiae surrounding subleasing. In response, he focused on customer service to reinforce that NewSublease was here to stay. Even more, Lee’s interpretation of service extended way beyond quickly responding to inquiries.

“[I was] personally inspecting properties, welcoming guests at the airport, facilitating moves, and handling cleaning for hosts. To truly epitomize our commitment, I even opted to live on a couch during the summer, offering up my own residence as temporary housing for our users. This personal sacrifice not only demonstrated the depth of our dedication, but also helped us gather firsthand feedback.”

This hands-on approach has proven quite effective. Thus far, NewSublease has produced over 350 property matches, saving these customers over $3,000 per month. Lee has even posted his first gross profit! What’s more, Lee estimates that his prospective market covers 10 million students and professional who lose “over 50 billion dollars due to overpayments or double rents.” Long-term, Lee hopes to broaden his mission to ease stresses inherent to relocating and reduce underutilized space.

His advice to MBAs starting ventures in school? As a student, you enjoy resources and goodwill. Don’t shy away from capitalizing on either. “Asking is free,” Lee adds. This simple yet powerful maxim has become my guiding star, influencing my approach to sales, operations, and virtually every facet of my business. It serves as a constant reminder of the endless possibilities that can unfold from a simple act of reaching out or seeking guidance.”

42 STARTUPS FROM 35 BUSINESS SCHOOLS

NewSublease is one of the 42 student startups honored in P&Q’s 5th annual “Most Disruptive MBA Startups.” This year, P&Q invited 42 business schools to submit nominations for ventures with “the greatest potential for lasting beyond business school.” They may include startups that have raked in substantive investment, created a unique business model, or earned recognition in competitions. This year, 35 MBA programs participated in “The Most Disruptive MBA Startups,” including Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Wharton School, INSEAD, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management. To qualify, a school nomination must feature at least one founding member from the Class of 2023.

Virut Hemnilrat, Cambridge Judge Business School

Among this year’s MBA startups, you’ll find the use of artificial intelligence (AI) platforms has skyrocketed. Faster, wider, deeper, clearer, and more personalized has been the mantra for AI. And the Class of 2023’s most innovative startups have followed through on these promises. One Columbia Business School startup – LogTrack AI – even includes AI in their name. An “AI copilot for freight managers”, the firm covers everything aggregating price across various platforms to handling bookings and communications between customers and drivers. In contrast, James Azar has created a Reservoir Credential Card based off the Apple Pay model. A 2023 Georgetown McDonough MBA, Azar’s Reservoir venture enables individuals to access their professional and academic credentials through one quick, accurate, and cost-effective source. At the Cambridge Judge Business School, Virut Hemnilrat launched AVX, a FinTech that enables migrants to access their credit information to reduce barriers in their host countries.

“Through my own experience immigrating to the UK and conversations with friends in similar situations, I came to realize the scale of problems faced by migrants due to the absence of UK credit history,” Hemnilrat tells P&Q. “This lack of data can have far-reaching consequences on people, affecting the cost of rental deposits, eligibility for phone contracts, and access to credit in the country. Yet, many of these people possess a strong credit history back home, which is not recognized by companies providing these services in the UK. These difficulties make no sense in an increasingly digital and interconnected world. Hence, I decided to launch this venture aiming to address some of these issues.”

AI APLENTY

Lanre Ogungbe, Johns Hopkins University (Carey)

Lanre Ogungbe, who earned his MBA from the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School last spring, has already attracted $3.1 million investment dollars for his Prembly startup. The firm offers Identitypass, which uses “facial recognition technology, data, and document verification algorithms” to help those living in emerging markets to access an array of markets, products, and services.

“One of our most remarkable achievements,” Ogungbe tells P&Q, “is we’ve created the ability to verify nearly 100 million individuals and businesses, all while assembling a team of over 40 exceptionally talented individuals to bring to fruition an idea that was conceived less than three years ago.”

Healthcare is another area where ambitious and idealistic founders have opened shop. At the University of Washington’s Foster School, the founders of Naturacur Wound Healing have developed a gel, medical device, and therapies that could potentially revolutionize the field. Vital Audio, the product of New York University, features a technology that can calculate heart rate and biometric from a voice on a telephone. UCLA Anderson’s Odyssey applies AI to put underserved populations in touch with community health workers. In a similar vein, inclusive+ targets healthcare in the LGBTQ+ space.

“We are a B2B2C platform that enables health systems and medical organizations to upskill their clinicians to be more culturally and medically competent in LGBTQ+ care,” explains Lori Ebenstein, a co-founder and MBA graduate from the University of Chicago’s Booth School. “This solves the reality that only 4.4% of providers strongly agree they have adequate training in the needs of the community. Once clinicians are trained, they have the option to be featured on our directory, making it easier for the LGBTQ+ community to find them and get needed care that is often otherwise postponed.”

ROLLING BACK CLIMATE CHANGE

Several disruptors built their startups to combat climate change. At the Yale School of Management, the founders of Banofi Leather have been busy producing a plant-based alternative to leather for the fashion industry. Across the pond at the University of Oxford, Foya Ayoola has attracted over $1.5 million dollars for her ElectricFish venture – which provides sites with fast chargers for electric vehicles. MIT Sloan’s MacroCycle Technologies has drawn over $4 million dollars in investment. If the future is plastics, as The Graduate predicted, it may come in the form of MacroCycle Technologies’ conversion of plastic waste to virgin grade plastic – which is produced without any carbon emissions. The venture was inspired by the experiences of co-founder Stwart Peña Feliz in the oil and gas industry, where recycling actually required extra CO2 emissions.

Chidalu Onyenso, Harvard Business School

“The plastic industry, I realized, needed to change,” he adds. “Which is why when I met my co-founder in MIT Sloan’s Climate & Energy Ventures class, I immediately knew this was a technology I wanted to commercialize to fix our broken recycling industry.”

INSEAD’s Nicolas Sdez is pursuing a similar mission as Peña Feliz. At INSEAD, he built PRONOE, a water treatment system designed to enhance the oceans’ ability to remove carbon dioxide. Chidalu Onyenso has concentrated her efforts on Africa, particularly Nigeria. Through Earthbond, a CleanTech venture, she is promoting solar energy solutions to replace fuel generators that can sometimes fail for up to 18 hours a day.

“When we talk about sustainability, decarbonization, and climate adaptation by 2050, how are we not talking about Africa and its energy transition,” asks Onyenso, a Harvard Business School graduate. “Twenty-five percent of the world will be African, 60 percent of the world’s available arable land—the source of our food supply—will be in Africa, and seven out of the top 10 most climate-vulnerable countries are in Africa. So in pursuing my MBA, and knowing I’d only be a founder if I could solve a problem that was compelling enough for me to spend the next decade of my life on, it made sense to start with African SMEs.”

HARVARD AND WHARTON STARTUPS

That’s not to say this year’s disruptive startups revolve around heavy issues like healthcare gaps or environment catastrophe. Some involve day-to-day leisure. Take Outmore Living, a product of the University of Texas’ McCombs School that has closed over a million dollars in investment. Like heated seats in your car? Well, Kevin Long and Alex Duncan, the founders of Outmore Living, are bringing the same comforts to your outdoor furniture! Hate spending hours-and-hours braiding your hair? Yinka Ogunbiyi and David Afolabi, recent Harvard Business School grads, are rolling out Halo Braid. Basically, their solution automates the hair braiding process. It is a market, Ogunbiyi says, with 180 million potential customers. More than that, she adds, it is a process that hasn’t changed in thousands of years – making it ripe for disruption.

“During the COVID-19 lockdown in the UK, I tried braiding my own hair for the first time,” Ogunbiyi tells P&Q. “It took me four days. I wasn’t surprised. I’ve been wearing braids my whole life, and braiding usually takes six or more hours. However, as a mechanical engineer, I was struck by the repetitive nature of the task. Starting the braid was an art-form—and really difficult—but finishing the braid felt like sewing by hand instead of using a machine. I found myself wondering why there wasn’t a device to help people with braiding, especially because it’s now the most popular hairstyle among Black women.”

Sarah Powers, Wharton School

At the Wharton School, Sarah Powers tapped into another lucrative market: family heirlooms. This space, she says, will encompass 45 million families to the tune of $4 trillion dollars. Better yet, she adds, 80% of the market lacks a plan or tools to divvy up these valuables, which leaves the process fraught with conflict. For Powers, this creates an opportunity for her startup, Nemu, to bring people together – and make some money too.

“[The] process of managing and dividing heirlooms [is] highly administrative, emotionally exhausting, and financially inefficient. Nemu is on a mission to bridge this gap. Families who use our app are able to quickly catalog their heirlooms and capture family stories about them, reliably appraise their valuables, equitably divide what’s most wanted, and confidently sell what’s left. Our vision is to turn this notoriously difficult, family fracturing process into a process of celebrating heritage, connecting generations, and upcycling beautiful heirlooms.”

DOING GOOD IS GOOD BUSINESS

Of course, fashion acts as a magnet for MBA talent. At the University of Chicago’s Booth School, Laura Mattos produced an AI app, Zelia, that acts as a personal stylist that recommends wardrobes personalized to their style and situation. Goldie operates off a similar model. It was founded by four women – the original “Goldie Girls” – at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School. The concept is that Goldie takes personalized measurements so users can get the best jeans fit.

“In our introductory Rice MBA entrepreneurship class…we were tasked with finding a “burning problem” to work on. We couldn’t get over the nightmare of jean shopping,” explains co-founder Viviane Nguyen. “Sizing within women’s clothing has always been a mess with jeans being the worst offender; you can even be four different sizes within the same brand. As we went through customer interviewing, we developed the initial idea of Goldie — a jeans fit finder that uses comprehensive measurements and product specifications to calculate the perfect fit.”

Many times, the best startup concepts involve issues close to home. Michelle Addison suffers from anaphylactic allergies – and her three children endure food allergies as well. This inspired Addison, a lawyer and 2023 Duke Fuqua MBA, to start Allergood – an interactive menu that “filters” out allergens.  Juliana Vélez’s passion is education, particularly for low-income women and single mothers. At ESADE, she launched Brikap, which replaces a generational poverty cycle marked by limited opportunities with a “continuous feedback cycle” that enables women to hone their professional skills. This same spirit inspired Sarah Naumann and Amanda Shojaee to create In Good Company at George Tech’s Scheller College. Their firm helps employers better accommodate employees with disabilities. The idea took root when Naumann was teaching 2nd grade to students with learning differences – and wondered how they would find employers who could bring out their potential. Their solution, she says, boosts retention while cutting recruitment and training costs – a win-win where “good intentions” overlap with “good business.”

“Integrated employment is our solution to a lack of reliable employees in the service industry,” Naumann adds. “This happens when employers put into place the right accommodations to support employees with disabilities to succeed on the job. This, in turn, allows for a more complete and diverse team that sticks around for the long run. These added supports are typically inexpensive, like providing picture charts instead of written task lists or spacing out breaks to help with varying levels of stamina.”

Next Page: Startup Results, Biggest Obstacles, Favorite Courses and Professors

Page 3: In-depth Profiles of 42 Disruptive MBA Startups

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