So You Want to Start Your Own Business

Emory is creating tomorrow's entrepreneurs by giving them access to both brains and backing

By Scott Henry

Stephen Nowland

Chris Dardaman 16MBA (right, with Sid Mookerji) came to earn a degree from Goizueta and wound up becoming an entrepreneur in residence and a volunteer coach for business students.

In 2002, after eight years of running his own Atlanta-based business-to-business software firm, Sid Mookerji 04MBA would’ve been considered a successful businessman by most reasonable standards. After all, his company, SPI, or Software Paradigms International, boasted 110 employees and was used by a number of large clients to help with supply chain management and sales analytics.

Still, he decided to enroll in the executive MBA program at Goizueta Business School.

“I thought I didn’t need any more knowledge,” says Mookerji, who had spent five years as a software development consultant in his native India and the US before founding SPI in 1994. “I went back to school for the networking contacts—but the program really changed my mind.”

At Goizueta, Mookerji came to realize that he’d never really developed an effective growth strategy for his company. After graduating in 2004, he was able to use the skills he’d learned at Emory to expand his business, refocusing his products for the retail market. By the time Mookerji cashed out in 2016 after a successful merger, SPI had acquired fourteen other companies, established offices in eight countries, employed more than three thousand people, and had a client list that included some of the country’s largest department retailers, such as Macy’s.

Last year, Mookerji leveraged his success by becoming an angel investor who provides early infusions of cash to fledgling companies—and by joining Goizueta’s Entrepreneurs in Residence program, in which he and other start-up veterans meet informally on campus with undergrads and MBA students to tell their business stories and answer questions.

“It’s important to establish a bridge between academia and the start-up ecosystem,” Mookerji says.

Of course, the challenge for business schools—arguably more so than for, say, history or chemistry programs—has always been to balance foundational education with preparing students for the ever-shifting demands of the business world. And that challenge has intensified in an era when more and more graduates want to acquire an entrepreneurial skill set that will enable them to build ventures, both inside and outside of traditional corporate structures.

To meet that challenge for its eight hundred undergrads and six hundred MBA students, Goizueta not only started the Entrepreneurs in Residence program, but a range of entrepreneurship initiatives, partnerships, and seminars that offer mentoring, business incubation, and, potentially, actual investment money for students, faculty, and the broader Emory community.

Andrea Hershatter, Amelia Schaffner

Stephen Nowland

GOIZUETA LEADERS ANDREA HERSHATTER (LEFT) AND AMELIA SCHAFFNER

COORDINATED EFFORTS

Andrea Hershatter has taught entrepreneurship at Goizueta since the late 1990s. She organizes the annual two-day Emory Entrepreneurship Summit, most recently held in April, where successful alumni speak, mingle with neophyte entrepreneurs, and critique student “elevator pitches.” This year’s keynote was Jim Lanzone 98JD/MBA, whose information-retrieval website was acquired by Ask.com in the early aughts. That success helped propel him to his current job as president and CEO of CBS Interactive.

“We’re looking to train the industry disruptors of tomorrow, and this event is a great way for students to see what’s possible,” says Hershatter, who also is senior associate dean of undergradate education at Goizueta.

Emory President Claire E. Sterk’s strong support is feuling the focus on entrepreneurship, says Hershatter. “This is a moment when entrepreneurship and innovation are being embraced at every level of the institution,” she says—from student clubs to a Goizueta–sponsored student-run micro-lending venture to the Office of Technology Transfer, a department that helps Emory faculty members market their inventions and intellectual property.

In an era when the next high-tech breakthrough seems as likely to come from a young person in a hoodie as from an old guy in a Bell Labs jacket, there’s no denying that start-ups have become very sexy. Hearing about recent grads who traded in their skateboards for seats in the board room is likely to start any business major dreaming about his first IPO. But Rob Kazanjian, the Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Organization and Management, says Goizueta hasn’t expanded its entrepreneurship offerings simply to meet demand from the next generation of would-be Elon Musks. Many of the skills that enable people to launch their own companies will also serve them well in other areas of business.

In fact, Kazanjian says, “The principles of entrepreneurship are being adopted by big companies who want to attract employees with a mindset for innovation.” There’s even a term for employees skilled at developing new business platforms within a corporation—intrapreneurs—and they’re much sought after by headhunters.

Charles Goetz, Rob Kazanjian

Stephen Nowland

Charles Goetz (left, with senior associate dean for strategic initiatives Rob Kazanjian) vets student pitches to decide who gets the sought after start-up spaces at Atlanta Tech Village.

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED, FAIL

Entrepreneurial drive, of course, isn’t all it takes to create a successful company. It’s helpful to have strong grounding in accounting, finance, marketing, strategy, operations, and other business school foundations. But Goizueta builds upon these with several programs designed to give students experience with the real-world challenges of launching a start-up.

Amelia Schaffner, who spent fifteen years with IT consulting giant Accenture, joined Goizueta last fall as its first director of entrepreneurship, serving as a liaison for the business school, outside faculty, and the Atlanta business community as a whole.

Schaffner coordinates campus visits by local entrepreneurs and venture capitalists—some of whom are Emory graduates—to share their own start-up experiences and offer advice and mentorship. “It’s an incredible opportunity for the students,” she says. “They get exposure to a large number of brains.”

It’s not only brains that are made available. Every six months, the university sponsors the RAISE (Retention and Advanced Investment for the Southeast at Emory) Forum, where the founders of young companies pitch potential investors for up to $5 million in funding. Any who receive more than $1 million in new capital are asked to commit to staying in Atlanta at least five years.

The entire model for bringing a product to market has changed just in the past decade with the emergence of the “lean start-up” paradigm, Schaffner says. Instead of spending months or even years trying to perfect a product they hope will sell, today’s entrepreneurs are encouraged to “fail fast”—that is, embrace a trial-and-error approach in which early versions of an idea are shown to consumers to confirm whether the company is targeting the correct market or even that there’s demand for the product at all.

One of Goizueta’s recent initiatives that replicates this back-to-the-drawing-board process is the Emory Start-Up Launch. The free, ten-week accelerator program sees teams of rookie entrepreneurs—anyone can take part, but at least one team member must have Emory affiliation—pitch ideas and collect real-world feedback to help hone their potential products and develop a business model. Out of fifty-five applications, eleven teams were selected.

Ed Rieker 04MBA, a self-described “serial entrepreneur” who graduated from founding his own companies to providing seed funding for start-ups, came aboard Goizueta in 2014 as an adjunct professor and now helps oversee Start-Up Launch. Among the ideas selected for the program is a smartphone app to tell you whether a skin splotch is melanoma, a service to help winemakers source the appropriate grapes, and software to help disabled employees more easily navigate their workplace. Some of the ideas are likely to change dramatically over the weeks, but that’s the point, says Rieker. “This program helps them define who the buyers and users are, and then finds a solution for them,” he says.

Eboni Freeman 18BBA, whose five-member team developed software to help disabled workers navigate the sometimes complex process of requested workplace accommodations, says the launch seminar has been useful for showing them how to pitch investors and refine their product through interviews with potential customers.

“It’s shown us where we need to grow on our business model concept,” she says. “We’ll feel more comfortable launching our company with the data in our back pockets.”

Chris Dardaman 16MBA, who cofounded the wealth management company Brightworth in 1997, is, like Mookerji, a business veteran who came back to earn a degree from Goizueta and wound up becoming an entrepreneur in residence and a volunteer coach for the Start-Up Launch teams.

“It’s been great to watch people learn and go through the steps to tweak their ideas to become more responsive to the market,” he says. “I’ve loved being around students and sharing the experiences of my twenty-five years of building a national firm.”

DAVID CUMMINGS (STANDING, FAR RIGHT) with MADUKA CHIDEBELU-EZE 18B, VIK OTRA 18B, ADLAI PAPPY 18M 19B, REKHA ANANTHANPILLAI 18B, AND IGNACIO AGUIRRE ARANA 18B

Stephen Nowland

DAVID CUMMINGS (STANDING, FAR RIGHT) WITH GBS STUDENTS MADUKA CHIDEBELU-EZE 18B, VIK OTRA 18B, ADLAI PAPPY 18M 19B, REKHA ANANTHANPILLAI 18B, AND IGNACIO AGUIRRE ARANA 18B (SEATED) AT ATLANTA TECH VILLAGE.

ATLANTA CONNECTIONS

Another major Goizueta initiative is its partnership with the three-year-old Atlanta Tech Village (ATV), the country’s fourth-largest tech incubator, whose founder, David Cummings, is also an entrepreneur in residence. Through a program cheekily dubbed Pitch the Professor, students compete each semester for eight spaces that Emory maintains at ATV in order to develop their ideas.

A light-filled building with the open feel of a campus student center, ATV plays host to panel discussions, peer roundtables, on-site mentoring, and weekly networking lunches to provide members with ample opportunities to share ideas, get advice, and form partnerships.

“Having hundreds of entrepreneurs under the same roof creates what I call ‘engineered serendipity,’ ” says Cummings—in other words, the perfect environment in which to shape a concept into an actual product.

Business major Ignacio Arana 18BBA spent this past semester at ATV nurturing his idea for an interactive online course to teach teenagers how to manage their personal finances as they prepare for college. He doesn’t yet have his business model worked out, but Arana says being at ATV has been a great experience, providing both inspiration and shared wisdom.

“You’re exposed to people here who can help you figure things out,” he says. Cummings, in particular, has been helpful in making introductions with other possible mentors, says Arana, and suggesting that he discuss his idea with one hundred potential customers.

Goizueta professor Charles Goetz helps vet student pitches to decide who gets the sought-after spaces at ATV. Out of around forty winning ideas in the past few years, he estimates that about 30 percent have led to new product launches. But even those who don’t immediately start a company will be well-served by their experiences. “The same skills they learn about how to build a business are the ones they’ll need to evaluate a business or launch a division,” Goetz explains.

One reason Goizueta’s focus on entrepreneurship is so welcome, says Dardaman, is that the skills one learns to launch a company can be applied in a number of professions. Instead of immediately creating a start-up, most recent business graduates will work in the corporate world for a while before striking out on their own.

“Statistically, the more successful entrepreneurs are older, with some business experience,” he says. “What students gain from an entrepreneurial education is an integrated view of business that can help them down the road.”

The cross-pollination now occurring between Emory, local entrepreneurs, and incubators like Atlanta Tech Village is exciting, Dardaman says. “There’s a lot of positive energy and momentum right now,” he says. “Emory is becoming a big part of the business ecosystem of Atlanta.”

Email the editor