Nick Pulito, MBA Class of 2016
with special thanks to Lenore Champagne Beirne, Varun Mishra, Chris Shaw, Leah Shisha, Ethan Underhill, and Isha Vij, MBA Class of 2016
Setting the scene
“So, what did you get up to this summer?” MBA2s, by now you know the question well. MBA1s, for now you get to perfect your 30- and 60-second stories for interview season, but come next fall, you’ll face the (only slightly less-daunting) task of summing up a summer’s worth of disparate experiences into a neat little package with a bow on top.
For most of us, the boiler plate conversation is something along the lines of, “It was great! I really appreciated the (access / resources / projects / leadership) on my team. I worked on a cool initiative focused on (pricing / synergies / emerging markets / inefficiencies / babble babble).”
A few brave souls among us, however, answered to a different calling for their summer experience. These go-getters pursued their own business endeavors, either continuing an entrepreneurial journey they had started earlier in their career or through launching a new business altogether.
I sat down with six MBA2s who pursued entrepreneurship over the summer to get a better sense of their experiences, how they positioned their experiences relative to the “traditional” MBA internship, and the next steps they hoped to pursue on their entrepreneurial paths.
Leah Shisha and Isha Vij met during the summer of 2014, both as members of the Class of 2016 summer start cohort. Fast friends, they realized early on that their complementary aesthetics and eye for design made them a force to be reckoned with in group projects and social event planning alike. However, during those first weeks, entrepreneurship wasn’t front and center on the list of to-dos.
It was Shisha who first dipped her toes into the Stern entrepreneurship pool, developing a concept that would eventually evolve into Caper through the $200K Entrepreneurs Challenge hosted by the Berkley Innovation Lab at NYU Stern.
As the concept evolved, Vij kept pulse from the sidelines, and, inspired by the concept and the founder, asked Shisha if she would be interested in joining forces to develop the concept further. It was then, in February 2015, that the Caper story as we know it began in earnest.
Caper is a one-stop shop for one-of-a-kind bachelorette party experiences. Shisha and Vij have built connections with local businesses to create specialized menus and memorable shenanigans for bachelorettes, and take the burden of planning completely off of the bride-to-be and her bridal party.
Caper’s first clients came through referrals, and the business had a soft launch over the course of Summer, 2015. After a successful first run and glowing reviews from the bachelorettes, their friends, and family members, Shisha and Vij prepared for an “official” launch early this fall.
What’s in a name?
Confession: I’m obsessed with the name of this business, and had to ask the founders where it came from. As often seems to be the case in these scenarios, “Caper” was chosen after Vij (who was home in California at the time) described the business to her mom as a service that took bachelorettes and their wedding parties on a “Caper” about town. “I don’t think I had ever even said that word out loud before,” says Vij of the incident. She loved the word, however, and immediately texted Leah for her input. A name was born. “After we decided on that, we never really looked back.”
It takes a village
I asked Shisha and Vij about the Stern community, and the role it had in helping to shape the business. Vij affirmed, “It was definitely Sternies who really helped us in the beginning. Those first few clients were either people that were at Stern or who had friends that recently got engaged. The amount of trust that people put in us just by being their classmates was so overwhelmingly positive.
Shisha agreed, and chimed in that both OCD and the Stern faculty have been invaluable in making this venture a reality. What seemed uniquely applicable for our entrepreneurs was the ability to take in-class lessons and immediately apply them to business challenges, something that Shisha and Vij said they did consistently from courses taught by Professors Okun, Carr, and Galloway.
Already, Caper has organized 8 bachelorette parties, and has half a dozen more to look forward to this spring. This dynamic Stern duo is continuing to grow the business, and is exploring opportunities to scale outside of the NYC metro area. When I asked for goals over the next 6 months: “Maybe we can own Caper.com!” (said with a smile). Until then, you can check out this fantastic company at CaperCo.com (and refer your newly engaged friends and family)!
Raise your hand if you’ve ever done a Tough Mudder. You are super hardcore, and I have so much respect for you. You can put your hand down now. Core Leader was born from a visit that Chris Shaw and Billy Knapp (MBA Class of 2016) took to the Tough Mudder headquarters, after an on-campus event where they met with a panelist from the organization.
Inspired by the Tough Mudder obstacle course model and the founders’ military background, Core Leader was initially conceptualized as a mashup of military leadership training principals and team obstacles, aiming to explore applications within the realm of corporate team building.
Iterate, Rinse, Repeat
In my interview with Shaw, he highlighted the importance of iteration; not only for building a business, but for the fundamentals of teamwork and leadership that Core Leader aims to impart.
Core Leader found its footing thanks in large part to work done with Professor Hans Taparia in his Social Problems-Based Entrepreneurship course, which Shaw described as “iterative and highly immersive.” From there, Shaw was able to secure funding from Stern to build the physical obstacle course and pursue the business over the summer.
When you think of an obstacle course, you probably think of sprawling fields or big gymnasiums. Core Leader is a bit different, and “…that’s one of the key differentiators for the company… It’s a single piece of equipment that can be configured into a number of different obstacles, each with a unique story,” says Shaw. So, like its design process, the obstacle course itself is iterative in a sense, which lends to great team-building opportunities. Another big benefit: unlike the Tough Mudder, you don’t need a ton of real estate to make this obstacle course workable. In fact, Shaw tells me with a chuckle, the whole equipment set is currently resting snugly in a Hackensack, NJ storage locker.
Shaw designed the course equipment himself, starting with coffee table sketches and iterating all the way through to the physical hardware the company now uses. If that alone isn’t impressive enough, I should also mention that he did all of this while still a full-time MBA student; the final hardware pieces were ready to be picked up from the manufacturer on June 1, 2015, just after the ink had dried on his final exams.
Driving a 24-Foot Truck around Manhattan
So far, Core Leader has done four events in the greater NYC area. What does a typical day look like? The guys get up bright and early (4am wake-up call, anyone?) to load up the equipment, head to site, get set up, and get ready for the clients to arrive. It may seem daunting, but for Chris and the team, “The event days are the days that we live for.”
And the feedback so far has been resoundingly positive. A particularly impressive promo video shows the product in action, with fantastic feedback from the college athletic team who participated in Core Leader for a day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DuUYaLy40X4
“It’s completely unique to most people. They’ve never been in the military, and they’ve never done anything like this. This isn’t about brute strength, climbing up a huge wall, or jumping into the water. It’s about thinking through the resources you have at your disposal, and how to solve a problem as a team.”
Coming out the other side
When asked about the future of Core Leader, Shaw said he is excited about the potential directions Core Leader could go, but emphasized the value of the journey itself above all else, “I learned through building this company that it’s a true passion of mine…to come up with an idea, turn it into something real, like a physical thing, and then try to monetize it. That’s just an awesome process.” This author can’t wait to see what’s next.
Prior to Stern, Lenore Champagne Beirne (MBA Class of 2016) had worn many different professional hats. She had started businesses, consulted for businesses, and worked as an employee at start-ups, and at one such stint where she was managing a portfolio of social enterprise organizations in Washington, DC, Champagne Beirne had an epiphany. The organization had tried to support entrepreneurs countless ways, but it wasn’t until Champagne Beirne brought in a career coach that the picture began to change. She recalls, “[The Coach] didn’t know anything specifically about the businesses, but she asked questions that made people see things from a different perspective…It moved the needle in ways that the strategic advice just couldn’t.” Champagne Beirne was immediately inspired, and set to work on becoming a career coach focused on entrepreneurship.
“I came into Stern knowing that I wanted to use coaching as a tool for entrepreneurs,” recalls Champagne Beirne. As she worked on putting together the pieces of what that might look like in the context of a business school education, she came across an opportunity to join 645 Ventures, a fund focused on seed and Series A investments. Champagne Beirne had the investment chops to be able to join them, and found a home within the fund for developing her coaching skills targeted toward early-stage entrepreneurs.
In addition to the work she does with 645, Champagne Beirne has established her own standalone coaching practice, Bright Coaching. She has a growing list of clients who she meets with weekly, and will be finishing her coaching certification early next year.
The natural next question from my perspective was simple: how the heck do you do it all? Building a business, working at a fund, completing a (100-hour) coaching certification course, and somehow staying an actively engaged MBA student sounds daunting at best.
For Champagne Beirne, the answer had a few layers. First, she asserted, “I’m living my own dream, this is exactly what I want to be doing. So it’s really easy to do it.” Who am I to disagree?
At the same time, Champagne Beirne acknowledged the immense challenges of balancing so many competing priorities at once. What has helped her unify the experiences, however, seem to be the interconnected aspects of the assignments she undertakes. “I build my class schedule based on courses I know I can apply to my coaching work, or my work at the fund.” Beyond the academic side, Champagne Beirne has been consistently active with the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship, citing the support there as integral to her Stern experience. “I got the summer start-up fellowship from the Berkley Center to build out Bright Coaching,” but her endeavors didn’t stop there. To top it all off, Champagne Beirne designed an independent study with Professor Dolly Chugh to help develop the new spring 2016 course, Managerial Skills, the follow-up to Leadership in Organizations. “My big vision long-term is to have investors think about supporting founders in a different way, and to have founder motivation and psychology be a standard investor metric…I want to write books about it! I’m standing at the intersection of two things because I think they should overlap.”
Facing our fears
A surprising theme for me in all of my conversations with student entrepreneurs was their candid admission to the fears they each had to face head-on in order to pursue entrepreneurial paths over the summer (and to continue pursuing them this year). For Champagne Beirne, this kind of reaction is not only normal, it’s also one of the most important motivating factors an entrepreneur can hone in to figure out what it is that’s truly driving them.
By seeking to aggregate and ground data across the myriad channels she’s now working, Champagne Beirne hopes to be able to systematically analyze the human dimension of the entrepreneur story. To take from the coaching parlance, she says that her drive comes from having a big enough “What for?” Understanding that drive has been a powerful motivator, but the next iteration of the question that Champagne Beirne is now focusing on is “What if?” This, she says, is what makes working with entrepreneurs so special. Now, she’s living by a mantra she once scribbled in a notebook that now also serves as the mission statement for 645 Ventures: “Bringing the invisible to life.”
Her closing thoughts, “Every person has a vision of how they think their world could be or should be. [Entrepreneurs] just have one that other people don’t share yet.”
What do a tilapia farm, a former pro-NFL player, outgoing NYU President John Sexton, under-construction Stern conference rooms, and a first-of-its-kind innovative training hotel in Harlem all have in common? They were all integral parts of the incredible ride that Ethan Underhill and Varun Mishra (MBA Class of 2016) experienced this past summer after founding Tiger Strategy Partners in May.
Underhill and Mishra met at LAUNCH during MBA1 orientation, “and we’ve been friends since then!” says Underhill. It wasn’t until May of the following year, however, that Tiger Strategy Partners came into existence. Mishra recalls, “When everyone was taking time off before their internships, we were starting up that first Saturday after final exams ended.”
Tiger Strategy Partners was initially set up with the aim of being a consulting service for small, entrepreneurial-minded firms. Their first project was with a tilapia farm that was researching the pros and cons of adding another species of fish. “We worked on it from the Stern basement,” Underhill reminisced. “It was actually a big blow to our company when they closed it for renovations!” he adds with laughter.
The tilapia project was a relatively quick turnaround, and ushered in a few similar small-scale projects. The bulk of the team’s summer, however, was spent on a project called the Harlem Hospitality Initiative.
Consulting, Constructing, Connecting
In late May, Underhill and Mishra were connected to ex-NFL Player Duke Fergerson, a Harvard MBA on a mission. Fergerson wanted to enlist the team’s help in moving forward with an education-focused passion project called the Harlem Hospitality Initiative. The project ties together education and hospitality in an innovative model, through a self-contained campus consisting of a charter high school, vocational school, a functioning hotel, and full-service restaurant.
Almost overnight, Underhill and Mishra were integrally involved in the project pitch, connecting key players and constructing the business plan for the business from scratch.
“Making use of our MetroCards”
Over the course of the summer, the partners found themselves taking meetings all over the city. From the steps of the New York Public Library to the office of NYU President John Sexton, the team described the process of getting the organization off the ground as equal parts preparation and perspiration. (Okay, they may not have used those exact words. I’ll claim editorial license).
On the preparation side, the team constructed a comprehensive business model, complete with Mishra’s robust financial models to pave a path toward success. The plan was received very well by core constituents, and for the team demonstrated both the value and limitations of classroom concepts as they applied to entrepreneurial life. This kind of reception, says Underhill, is what made the entire summer come together. Perspiration took on two forms: the physical hustle of running around the city, and the laborious work of doing due diligence, furnishing reports, and setting up the meetings in the first place.
Tying it Together
Both gentleman concurred, however, that over the course of the summer the myriad lessons learned were often valuable due to the unpredictable, interconnected nature of the project at hand. Mishra may have summed it up best when he surmised, “It’s truly been a real-world business education. There’s the academic side we learn when we get here, but when you’re out there talking to counterparts, you don’t talk to them about how a beta is a bottom-up beta.” Adds Underhill, “The thing you learn when you’re building a company from nothing is that you have to find a good balance to focus on the critical path, because there’s always more we wish we could do in every aspect of the business…You’ve got to do the best with what you have in any given moment.”
The team is optimistic that they’ll be able to tell you a lot more about the Harlem Hospitality Initiative very soon. As of publication, negotiations were scheduled with the landlord for the proposed site.