Innovation In Sustainability: A Cornell Student’s Journey To Startup Launch

Courtesy photo: John Khazraee working with leaders at EWomenNetwork

John Khazraee, a mechanical engineer by trade, has worked for such tech giants as Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle over the past ten years. He lived and worked in Japan while working for Microsoft, then worked for Coohom Cloud in Shanghai, as the director of international business development.

When he headed back to the U.S., he decided he wanted to go back to school. “I was thinking, ‘What can I do in terms of sustainability, and what can I do to start my own company?’ There were so many unknowns,” he says.

Entrepreneurs with interests in sustainability and backgrounds in tech often gravitate toward graduate business education. So it was with Khazraee, who found an academic home in Cornell Johnson Graduate School of Management’s EMBA program.


John Khazraee in the Philippines

Khazraee’s journey as a sustainability and tech entrepreneur is about as dynamic as the markets he navigates, and his experiences at Cornell have been pivotal in supporting his current endeavor of developing his sustainable consulting tech company, Innovate Sphere Consulting.

He chose to pursue an EMBA because he wanted the flexibility to continue working full time while going to school on the weekends.

Before returning to school, Khazraee had a mix of consulting experiences, including a trip to rural Philippines where he showed a community how to filter drinking water sustainably which has curbed their issue of waterborne illnesses among local children. He was “always deeply involved in sustainability, stemming from experiences I had growing up,” he says.

Khazraee was accepted into Carnegie Mellon, UNC, and UC Irvine among a few other programs, yet he chose Cornell due to their extensive and active alumni network in both sustainability and technology, the person support and communication from their recruiting team, and their program length at 17 months.

While at Cornell, Khazraee realized he wished to put his skills together and launch a sustainable tech consulting company and sought to further explore the feasibility.


Cornell is renowned for their exceptional professors, one of whom is Mark Milstein, who gave Khazraee both the spark and motivation to launch his company, Innovate Sphere.

At Cornell, Milstein teaches Strategies for Sustainability, where he highlights that Millennials don’t mind spending 10% extra for sustainable goods and three out of four Gen Z shoppers prefer sustainable products over brand names when they hit the stores.

While Gen Z prioritizes sustainability, they expect the same from companies. According to a report by IBM, 56% of Gen Zers believe that businesses should take responsibility for environmental issues, and 72% believe that companies should be held accountable for their environmental impact.

John Khazraee and Mark Milstein

With the business landscape shifting to favor those who care about sustainability, Khazraee thought “let me push this forward and leverage my knowledge of technology, my experience and my passion and let me see if I can make it a viable solution. It gave me this drive,” he said. Milstein encouraged him to go for it and bring Innovate Sphere to life.

Khazraee first ventured out to Japan to assess the feasibility and do market research. Japan had already made a lot of progress and had companies here doing this type of consulting. Korea was in the same situation,” he mentions. He sought to look elsewhere.


Those in Cornell’s network share tight bonds as they navigate their academic journeys together. Another key player in Khazraee’s motivation to start his consulting company was meeting Thao Ly Bui Tran who works at Cornell. She connected Khazraee to her Vin-University network, and Khazraee spent two and a half months meeting with officials who worked in companies like VBCSD, AMCHAM- Vietnam, VinGroup, and a leading sustainability venture capital group called Touchstone Partners

“These countries had signed the Paris Agreement to reduce their CO2, but they haven’t met their goals, and they want to,” says Khazraee, who saw there was a need. The Paris Agreement is a binding treaty on climate change involving 196 Parties. Effective since November 2016, it requires governments to cut CO2 emissions to enhance trade with countries like Australia, the U.S., and the EU.

John Khazraee at Lavazza Coffee headquarters

Khazraee consulted a few companies, one being the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, who slowly implemented technology he had introduced them to. “This is where my knowledge of tech started coming into play. I started providing free consultative services – in the beginning you provide value. This made a noticeable difference for them,” he says.

“They are reducing their costs even though it might be a higher upfront cost, and also reducing CO2,” says Khazraee, who has been noticing the mindset of many influential individuals change. “It used to be that the barriers to investing a lot up front were that there are no short-term return on investment. I think this is changing, and leaders are looking more at their long-term investments,” he says.

Shortly after visiting Southeast Asia, Khazraee traveled throughout Italy to meet those working at Lavazza Coffee, Davine’s, and Zegna in order to observe how to provide technology solutions in bridging the gap to achieve their goals.


With the support of Cornell, Khazraee is also building up his other company, Investwise Learning, that came out of the university’s Ithaca-based Summer Entrepreneurship Program he attended last summer.

Having also been involved in real estate, Khazraee started this venture to democratize real estate investing and empower individuals to participate actively. Inspired by lessons from his mother about real estate investment since childhood, he embarked on creating an online crowdfunding platform that enables anyone, regardless of affiliation with Cornell, to pool resources and invest in commercial real estate projects collectively.

“The unique aspect of this company is in that investors will have a voice in making these projects more sustainable, unlike traditional investments in the stock market,” says Khazraee.

Khazraee continues to consult more global companies with Innovate Sphere, and his journey continues as he officially earns his EMBA this month. As Khazraee writes his own narrative of what it means to be a modern-day entrepreneur, his hope is to inspire others to follow their passions and overcome the fear of the unknown.


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