INSECTS ARE THE NEW PLASTICS
Impressed? Check out the vision that INSEAD’s Tim van Vliet and Saby Maity lay out for their INSEACT startup: “We want to be the world’s largest insect company with factories all over Asia.” Why insects? Simple: That’s what fish eat. The protein powders from insects, they say, creates a “more sustainable, consistent and competitive product than current fish feed.” That’s not the only avenue they intend to pursue. “Insects are perfect for cleaning up agricultural waste streams,” they add. “That is why we plan to work together with large sustainability-focused palm oil companies to convert palm oil production side-streams into a food source for the insects.”
You won’t find these startups languishing in garages or basements – sweating over survival and starving for funding. Stanford’s Synapse Technology Corporation, for one, has already raised $6.3 million dollars. At Wharton, aavrani, a natural skincare formula, has attracted $1.5 million dollars…along with projecting a million dollars in 2019 sales. Similarly, UCLA’s Riders Share is on track for a million dollars in annual recurring revenue. SiteRx’s Seth Goodman came away from graduation with a $100,000 investment from the Lang Fund and a spot in Columbia’s Startup Lab.
Money wasn’t the only reward these startups garnered. Statera Therapeutics, a Yale School of Management startup that fights autoimmune diseases, obtained exclusive rights to the school’s STP technology. How strong is Florence Noel’s Dear Black Women concept? The University of Michigan MBA has already attracted 7,000 users to the site…through word of mouth. Daniel Schindler has already sold 500,000 servings of his drink supplement…to one brewer alone. However, the Washington University grad is more proud of what it took to reach this mark.
“On our path from idea to reality, we did almost everything wrong—from creating terrible business models to not understanding the feedback we received,” he admits. “But we always had and continue to hold the determination to push forward, no matter what, fueled by a dream of total freedom.”
AN UNDERDOG GOES HOME A WINNER
Others took pride in the creative process and customer feedback. At Babson College, Jake Maude and Ty Filsinger founded BikeLord to sell used bicycles online. Their payoff has been customers praising them for making the process “so easy” and being “exactly what the bike market needs.” Pooling their talents, three Cornell MBAs formed Purro, an “AI-driven” platform to guide students through career development. While the service is being used by students at 20 schools, the founders note their biggest achievement involves turning a hesitant office manager into a confident F&PA analyst. At MIT’s Sloan School, Adam Klein and Jared Johnson bucked expectations by launching their Season Three apparel brand in 2018.
“One would think being a DTC fashion brand at a school most known for groundbreaking technology would be a detriment, but for us it was a boon,” they note. “Our biggest achievement thus far has been designing and building a stylish boot from scratch. Having no design experience, nor any background in fashion, we found and worked with amazing people to bring our vision to reality. The process of creating a global supply chain, despite having limited capital resources, was also pretty great.
Perhaps the most satisfying achievement, however, is proving the doubters wrong. In February, the University of Virginia’s Amanda Joseph took home the school’s Entrepreneurship Cup. It was a profound moment for Joseph, who hadn’t placed in the previous round after judges doubted her audience would use her travel service.
“In the four months following that loss,” she writes, “I finished building the site and arrived at the next stage of the competition with hundreds of dedicated users and inspiring itineraries. The experience taught me the importance of not simply explaining why your business will work, but demonstrating that it does.”
FIXING THE FOODSERVICE INDUSTRY
Setbacks were just one source of motivation for the Class of 2019. Growing up in the restaurant industry, Jose Alonso “fell in love” with the foodservice industry. Still, the Citigroup banker didn’t truly piece together the big picture until he worked as a line cook to prepare for his MBA. The experience led him to form Caldo Restaurant Technologies, which automates assembly stations.
“We believe that making foodservice operations smarter and more efficient will allow for better jobs,” he explains. “Turnover in foodservice right now is insanely high and low-level employees don’t take jobs to improve their skill sets and rise in the restaurant ranks. By removing repetitive tasks, there will be room to repurpose labor efforts to more meaningful ones, and dedicate efforts to developing employees rather than churning and re-training.”
As an MBA student at U.C.-Berkeley, Alonso also drew inspiration from Megan Mokri, a 2016 Haas grad and CEO of Byte Foods. Unlike other founders, Alonso says, Mokri didn’t sugarcoat her experiences. She admitted her failures, all while remaining open to uncomfortable feedback. She wasn’t afraid to pose hard questions to MBA students as well.
“The beautiful thing about the Haas network is how supportive alums are,” Alonso adds. “Case and point: Megan is now on our company’s advisory board!”
WANT A ROLE MODEL? WATCH MOM
Florence Noel didn’t have to search far for a role model. As a first-generation American, the Dear Black Women founder was surrounded by entrepreneurs. No one made a bigger impression than her mother. “[She] sold makeup, protein shakes, and rented a taxi medallion – all while working full-time and earning her Associates, Bachelors, and then Nursing degrees. Having a front-row seat to that kind of work ethic and ingenuity impressed upon me that if I wanted something and it did not exist, I needed to create it. And I could. That’s entrepreneurship in a nutshell.”
Beyond alumni and family, MBA alumni also followed the examples set by ‘celebrity’ entrepreneurs. Among the Class of 2019, Sara Blakely earned the most praise. Georgetown’s Melissa Antal, for one, lauds the Spanx founder for being “candid,” “resilient,” and “real.” For Wharton’s Rooshy Roy, Blakely serves as both inspiration and template.
“Her drive to succeed despite her limited resources or resume (at the time of launch) motivates me every single day. Blakely drove growth at every turn – from developing the original product to expanding distribution to building a team. Her ability to remain relentless, passionate, and kind inspires me to do the same and showcases just how talented and dynamic women can be.”
HARDEST DISCIPLINE TO MASTER? TRY SOFT SKILLS
That said, Roy learned plenty more during her classes at Wharton. She estimates that lessons from her Negotiations class, for example, saved her startup over $250,000 – or nearly twice the cost of a Wharton MBA. That doesn’t mean the value of every course could be tagged with a number. At the Yale School of Management, Owen Yang still struggles to quantify the return on his Managing Groups and Teams course. Over time, the takeaways from the course fundamentally shifted what he valued and how he led.
“I used to think that this class focused too much on the soft skills and not enough on hard-hitting numbers and techniques,” he admits. “Looking back now, I’ve realized I grossly underestimated its benefits. The problems related to accounting, finance, legal, and marketing are not hard problems to solve because we will have resources and expertise to tackle these challenges. The problems related to culture, team dynamic, motivation, and consensus are significantly harder and are typically ones that can tank a young, promising startup.”
Other MBA entrepreneurs learned best by doing. That was the case for Rice University’s Vinay Acharya. In 2018, he was accepted into OwlSpark, the school’s startup accelerator. Along with holding classroom sessions, OwlSpark hosts guest speakers, networking events, and competitions for aspiring entrepreneurs. While OwlSpark provided space for Acharya to build his business, the real goal was to drive him out of the building so he could learn from his customers.
“Over the 12 weeks, if there’s one thing you learn it is that the answers to most questions facing your startup begin with ‘talk to your customers,’” Acharya explains. “Turns out, the reason why a lot of startups fail is they build something that no one wants. The build-and-they-will-come approach is a surefire way of failing. OwlSpark taught me to think from the customers’ perspective and (better still) get the customers’ perspective directly from them! During the program, I spoke to over 50 potential customers, understanding their jobs, their motivations, their priorities, and (of course) their problems. That is the starting point.”
To read over two dozen in-depth profiles of the most innovative MBA startups, go to page 4.