Each year, over a hundred HBS MBA students participate in an immersion program to build on their skills to become an early-stage entrepreneur by starting a venture. Yvonne Ferrier (MBA ’22) talked with five founders-to-be about their venture ideas and aspirations.
2020 was a year described as a pause, standstill or hibernation time, but, in the startup scene, nothing has been further from the truth. As seen many times before, challenges are actually a catalyzer for change and innovation. Not only have vaccine lead times been shortened to an impressive eight-month timespan, numerous startups have popped up to address the new needs in working remotely and connecting at a distance. Therefore, it is no surprise that this year’s HBS Startup Bootcamp had as many applicants as any other year. With the guidance of seasoned coaches, senior lecturers at HBS Martin Sinozich, Allison Mnookin and Christina Wallace, 40 teams of first-year MBA students have kicked off 2021 by trying to make their ideas a reality. The Harbus interviewed five aspiring founders about their ventures and what drove them to the bootcamp.
Lauren Edelson (MBA ’22) has many talents, ranging from baking sourdough bread to playing the guitar to being a DJ. You might see her playing the air guitar during classes, as she found this as one of the most active ways to practice a new instrument. Her music preference ranges from indie and folk to rock. As much as she likes music, she would have loved to become a librarian, as she enjoys reading and the unique way in which librarians can connect to people. Personal connections are very important to Edelson, and her favorite HBS moment so far is meeting her sectionmates in small, personal gatherings.
Another big passion of Edelson is science, so she studied human biology, biomedical informatics and computer science at Stanford. In her studies and during her work at Facebook, she has seen the beautiful things that science can do, but also got concerned with the unintended negative consequences of new domains such as artificial intelligence. A trigger point for her was watching the documentary Coded Bias during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City. The documentary unveiled many AI applications that unconsciously discriminate against specific demographic groups. In later conversations, she was surprised that many of her data science peers acknowledged the existence of such bias, but did not seem to grasp the severity of the situation. Luckily, she found a like-minded soul in Apurv Suman (MBA ’22) during one of the early HBS Zoom introductions during the summer. Suman had experienced the struggle during his time at Microsoft and together they decided to make a change.
During their first semester, Edelson and Suman validated the enormous need to tackle this issue by talking to many HBS professors and industry experts. They decided to participate in HBS Startup Bootcamp to understand the core problem and envision a solution. They asked Ariel Carmeli (MBA ’21) and I to join the team as we were both passionate about reducing bias in AI. The team clicked right from the start. Besides that, “mutual respect, clear communication, and flexibility makes us a great team,” says Edelson, who also believes it is just as important to have fun as a team. She therefore initiated many happy hours with other teams to create a fun bootcamp network.
Edelson worked at a 20-person startup for a year and is thus used to wearing multiple hats when trying to build a business. However, she acknowledges that starting oneself is a completely different skill, as is making an idea go from zero to one. The many customer interviews during the first phase of the bootcamp have proven to be very helpful. “Many companies just don’t even know where to start in tackling this issue. There is a great need for education and ongoing support on this topic,” shares Edelson. The team decided to focus on financial services as a first step, a decision that proved to be fruitful as a first pilot customer is ready to sign. “We decided to start with a co-creation phase with customers to develop our tool whilst we learn from supporting our very first customers. Fortunately, our bootcamp coaches have been very supportive of this plan.”
The future of Fair seems promising, and thus Edelson believes the team will continue to work on their venture idea, as she truly believes this is the right team at the right time.
Jake Benedict (MBA ’22) always had a passion for cooking and food. Known by many classmates for his Sunday dinners and remote cooking classes, it is no surprise that his childhood dream was to once become the next Emeril (“BAM!”) Lagasse. During his undergraduate studies at Cornell, he pursued his passion for food with adventures to South Africa working on a tomato and avocado farm and importing calamansi (little limes) from the Philippines to the United States. He paused his culinary dream for some years to work in management consulting and PE to have a formal business training, a trade-off familiar to most HBS students. However, food has always been a central part of his life, and it is also how he met his partner, Sophia.
During the lockdown in New York, Benedict could not enjoy the outdoor lunches his work provided anymore and, for the first time, he had to think about preparing lunch himself. He noticed daily take-outs easily add up in costs but his busy schedule did not allow for extensive cooking. As doing groceries was also made more difficult due to the pandemic, he relied on his staple salad from mostly canned products: chickpeas, lemon or tuna. This is when he realized that “cans don’t have to suck, but cans can be made cool.” The idea for his new venture was born.
At HBS, he met a mutual food fanatic, Isabelle Lubin (MBA ’22). After just one coffee at Schwartz, they realized they both clicked and would be great potential co-founders. They started exploring the market during the fall and decided to join HBS Startup Bootcamp to have dedicated time to work on their venture. Looking for additional teammates, they interviewed interesting candidates, until Natalie Bruno (MBA ’22) and Nicole Krantz (MBA ’22) joined The Goods. According to Benedict: “Great teams are comfortable with disagreement, appreciate diverse opinions, but move in the same direction. Bootcamp is also a social experience, so getting along is very important. We had some great team events before the fall, such as blind ranking different canned food options. Isabelle and I were also very conscious to have different skill sets in our team, so we have both food fanatics, but also people with marketing and startup experience.”
The first part of Startup Bootcamp focuses on customer exploration by doing as many customer interviews as possible. This is where Benedict validated his hypothesis that people are looking for high quality lunch options that are within budget but also quick and healthy. One great example was the “sad two hard eggs day” as an interviewee explained his pain of having days in the week in which there is just no time to make a nice lunch. The Goods wants to address its customers needs by providing high quality, easy and delicious Mediterranean canned food options.
So what will the future of The Goods look like? A final decision on how to move forward will be made at the end of Startup Bootcamp, but the future looks promising. Benedict is dedicated to making it work and spending time on his new venture during the spring and summer. If you cannot wait to enjoy his cooking skills, make sure to visit Oleana in Boston, where he cooks a couple of nights per week.
Esther Park’s (MBA ’22) voice is a welcome contribution to the class of 2022, although getting a word in over Zoom remains difficult for the star of the HBS Cabaret and A Capella group. She is an avid member of section GOAT and also a member of two unofficial sections K: Korean and Koala. Born and raised in Seoul, Korea, Park and her family moved to Philadelphia when she was 11. Her parents wanted to give her the freedom to explore everything she desired and Park made great use of that by pursuing three majors in PR, French and global and international studies at Pennsylvania State University while pursuing music. After college, she joined L’Oréal, where she worked on brands such as Viktor & Rolf (“Flowerbomb”), House 99 by David Beckham and Lancôme. Her work for Lancôme left a deep impact on her as she had to “protect all shades of [skin] color” in a makeup portfolio optimization effort, an experience that sparked her desire to pivot into social impact for her career.
This desire was supplemented by a big influence in Park’s life: her strong, independent and encouraging mom. Moving from Seoul to Philadelphia was not easy, as her parents needed to rebuild their lives and careers from scratch. But her mom persevered, using her resilience and optimism to continue her English studies, teaching piano and raising her children in a loving environment. Recognizing that her own strength stemmed from the presence of her role model, Park was inspired to start a business to support all the strong women out there who are combining work and family, which solidified her decision to apply to HBS.
The idea of Hibiscus Motherhood was born: a venture to help millennial moms maintain the momentum of their success in work and in motherhood, with the hope to propel them to the most visible positions and inspire the next generation of girls to see that possibility for themselves. With this vision in mind when entering HBS, participating in Startup Bootcamp was the logical next step to acquire the right tools to start a business and be surrounded by entrepreneurial spirits. The bootcamp taught Park how to focus on the problem instead of the solution; after many customer interviews, the team realized that new moms’ unaddressed difficulty is in the first three to four weeks after giving birth, as the physical and emotional challenges occur in parallel to taking care of the child. This insight made the team realize they had to revisit the solution and refine to meet the needs, by providing expert help during the postpartum phase. The long-term vision of a one-stop-shop to cover the full motherhood journey from prepartum planning to career counseling, networking and peer-to-peer coaching is still there but, as each successful startup does, Hibiscus will first focus on helping with the most critical pain point for “Mama Megan” (the customer identity created by the Hibiscus team—Megan is the most popular m-name for millennials).
Park is proud to be part of a dream team of four successful ladies with diverse backgrounds in healthcare, consulting, investing and retail that share a passion for women’s health. Courtney Hardy (MBA ’22), Danielle Leavit (MBA ’22), Nancy Cai (MBA ’22) and Park found each other during one of the bootcamp’s matching sessions. Together, they all show the skills of what Park would call a great team: transparency, co-creation, passion and commitment. Entering the last week of Startup Bootcamp, one of the team’s objectives has already become a reality: becoming a group of four amazing friends. This seems to be the perfect starting point to create a solution that makes a real difference in the world. Reach out to Park if you would like to learn more about this exciting and much-needed new venture.
Dre Cunningham (MBA ’22) was born and raised in the Midwest, where he also did his undergraduate studies at Minnesota State in finance and psychology. As the oldest of three and the first in his family to go to college, he was determined to set an example and get the most out of his education. His double major is the result of his strong belief that business touches many peoples lives and therefore should be used to do good in the world at scale. Outside of the classroom, you can find Cunningham either on the sports fields (football, wrestling and track & field) or in the music room playing the viola. Like many young boys, his childhood dream was to be a professional football player, but during his undergraduate studies Cunningham decided that instead of focusing on football, he would have a bigger impact through entrepreneurship, setting his mind to go to business school.
His passion for entrepreneurship drove him to try three venture ideas before coming to business school: a marketplace for in-home chefs, a learning platform for athletes and a community-based app that monitors encounters between the police and citizens. These venture ideas were worked out during Startup Weekends in different cities organized by Google for Startups Program. To continue the entrepreneurial roller coaster he was riding, HBS Startup Bootcamp was the logical next step. Connecting with high caliber people and pushing each other to create interesting things is what brought him to HBS in the first place.
During conversations about start-up ideas, Cunningham met via Zoom with Henry Pan (MBA ’22), who envisioned the future of drones. Together with Shardule Shah (MBA ’22), an old basketball teammate who wanted to explore the entrepreneurial landscape, the three got together. Their new venture, Flash, envisions the wide adoption of drones in the hospitality service to support faster and more streamlined services. In the first part of the bootcamp, the team made sure to grasp the customer needs in this space and discovered that golf courses would be a great first step given their widespread areas. And, to be fair, who does not want their beer delivered by a drone to the 10th hole?
To win in this space, the team has the perfect combination of complementing expertise. Pan has a strong background in aerospace engineering, Shah can translate his service mindset from healthcare to this new area of hospitality and Cunningham knows from consumer products how to work in a fast-environment business. “Great teams have common ground, alignment of skills and passion, and a strong and complementary set of skills. Plus, Henry’s genuine passion for drones keeps us all engaged.” On top of that, the bootcamp program supports the team to go from theory to application and pushes them to really try to understand the root cause of customer problems, providing great insights, such as “niches get riches” (startups perform better if they know how to serve a specific group very well).
Cunningham has set his mind on starting a company, may it be during HBS or after school. For Flash, the team has decided to see the end of Startup Bootcamp as a reflection point and will decide in what capacity they will continue, given each member’s risk tolerance and summer internship opportunities. For the moment, the team keeps dreaming, with their drones zooming around Michael Jordan’s golf course in their mind.
The Equity Network
Jordyn Turner (MBA ’22) is another musical talent and athlete turned entrepreneur at the HBS Startup Bootcamp. Originally from Philadelphia, she went to Dartmouth for her undergraduate studies, where she studied Asian studies and government. Her interest in foreign affairs in China and her talent for languages (Portuguese, Mandarin, Italian, English) made her think seriously about a career in the public sector. However, she decided to pick a more structured path as the start of her career by joining Bain & Company in Washington D.C. This also gave her the opportunity to do an externship at the UN World Food Program, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent revival of the Black Lives Matters movement made her think about her aspirations during HBS. She realized that instead of focusing on foreign affairs, she wanted to play a role in solving domestic issues. At the same time, Turner sees HBS as the perfect opportunity to step out of the structured career trajectory and try new things in a risk-free environment. The HBS Startup Bootcamp is definitely a big part of exploring new opportunities and finding your inner entrepreneur. It was therefore a no-brainer when the Equity Network asked her to join their team.
The Equity Network is a three-sided platform that strives to solve the inequality of access to quality networks that disproportionately affects underrepresented minorities in the US. Today, many employers hire based on referrals of current employees. Although this guarantees a certain level of quality of the new hire, it often leads to bias by friendship recommendations, which provides a barrier for minorities who are not as well connected in their current business environment. The Equity Network aims to connect college students and recent graduates who identify as Black, Latinx or Native American (mentees) with business professionals committed to supporting minority mentees and championing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the workplace (mentors) and employers committed to diversifying their workforce. Mentors will support their mentees in the entire journey of the job search, from resume checks to interview prep to career progression advice, while employers will have access to this great talent pool of diverse mentees. This idea originated the summer before HBS, when founders Kristina Hu (MBA ’22) and Shelby Schrier (MBA ’22) met. Inspired by the Black Lives Matters movement, Hu had committed 100 hours of mentoring minorities that were interested in a career in technology. To increase her impact, she partnered with Schrier to launch a startup in the diversity space. They decided to try the idea within their own network, asking the HBS Class of 2022 for volunteers to be mentors. Their post went viral, and they knew immediately that they were onto something great.
The team expanded quickly with the addition of Isa Oliveres (MBA ’22), Olivia Melendez (MBA ’22) and Turner. She believes they have a strong team because everyone is very passionate about DEI, everyone is a strong communicator and they all complement each other’s skills. In their final pitch deck, they even emphasized their various roles with superpower taglines: Kristina the Product Guru, Shelby the Data Nerd, Isa the Tech Operator, Olivia the Process Designer and Jordyn the Strategist.
“I am happy to have found out that entrepreneurship is something I can really see myself doing. For the Equity Network, [HBS Startup] Bootcamp was only the beginning and most of us will definitely continue,” says Turner.