EII at SXSW: Entrepreneurship vs. MBA and Pitch Perfection
Johnson's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute (EII) filled rooms with engaged audiences at two events at the world-renowned South by Southwest Interactive Festival, attended by over 30,000 people.
Do you need an MBA to be a successful entrepreneur? Current
and aspiring entrepreneurs addressed that question in a panel
discussion held by EII March 15 at South by Southwest (SXSW)
Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, "Entrepreneurship vs. MBA:
Mutually Exclusive or Not?" Panelists included Jeff Chemeres
and John Villwock, both MBA '15 (Executive MBA Americas
program, formerly the Cornell-Queen's Executive MBA). Allen
Lising, managing director at Dymaxium, and Erica Swallow, an
MBA student at MIT Sloan, also spoke on the panel. EII Executive
Director Rhett Weiss served as moderator.
Describing it as a lively, high-energy event, Chemeres, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Pulse Infoframe, reported that "67 percent of the 80+ members in attendance were considering a postgraduate business degree and came hoping our panel could help them in making a decision."
"People were really interested in understanding what an MBA will do for their startup," noted Villwock, a director at Answers Cloud Services, who says he pointed to "the value of community connections, market credibility, and the well-rounded skills gained to build a lasting company." In response to one person who asked about learning MBA principals without an MBA program, Villwock said panelists told him that "most of our learning came from our cohorts and classmates, not just the content of the classes."
Chemeres agreed, calling the network you build while earning an MBA an "incredibly valuable" asset that "can help increase the odds of entrepreneurial success." Chemeres also said that an MBA "legitimizes your ability to run a business and imposes less risk for investors."
"Here's the Pitch!" — EII's second session at SXSW — was a Shark Tank-style pitch event emceed by Weiss that showcased an array of new ideas from Cornell's entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. At it, three Cornellians pitched their startups in front of an SXSW audience: Lauren Talbot, Cornell Tech MEng '14, computer science, with AdvisorConnect; Pablo Borquez, MBA '15, with Produce Pay; and Michael Santiago, PhD candidate in mechanical engineering, with Flora Pulse. The judges included John Balen '82, MBA '86, partner at Canaan Partners; John Ciecholewski, MEng '12, MBA '13, CEO of Sunn; and Paul Roman, director of the Executive MBA Americas at Queen's University.
Borquez won the day with his startup, Produce Pay, a financing solution that provides farmers who grow fresh fruits and vegetables with immediate access to liquidity and financing. Borquez went on to win BR Venture Fund's Cornell Venture Challenge at Entrepreneurship at Cornell Celebration 2015 April 16.
In picking a winner, the information Ciecholewski listened for included: Why this problem? Why you? Why now? "Pablo's presentation was the winner based on those aspects," he said. "The problem he's tackling is one that he himself faced. His domain expertise was made apparent when he rapid-fired answers to John Balen's questions regarding the business model, which only an MBA with a finance concentration and a background in agriculture could truly appreciate. Lastly, he has the connections abroad and stateside to pull something like this off."
"All of the presentations were high quality," added Ciecholewski. "Usually when I hear a pitch, I can instantly pick out multiple reasons why it might not work. But in all of these presentations, I struggled to find reasons why their startups wouldn't work."
Santiago, who pitched Flora Pulse, was amazed at how much useful feedback he received from VCs, professors, technologists, and the media about where to take the business, who to talk to, and how to improve his pitch. "This event was, quite simply, life-changing."
"Our SXSW innovation showcase was truly a unique and memorable experience," said Weiss. "The event was a testament to the talent of Cornell students and their ability to launch innovative businesses and products that can compete in today's global economy. EII is committed to working collaboratively across all of Cornell to help move student ideas to market."