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Reflections on Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit

Reflections on Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit

We got home from Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit late last night. It was a great chance for the team to leave Ithaca for a while, meet old friends and make new ones, and be challenged with big thoughts on the future of entrepreneurship – “Beyond the Horizon”, as it were.

This is the third year for Summit, a fall book-end in New York City to the always great Cornell Entrepreneurship Celebration, held in Ithaca in the spring (set your calendars for April 15 – 17, 2015!). It was gratifying to see not just a large turnout by Cornell alumni, but also over 100 current students and a number of folks who were attracted to the content and the vibe but with no other connection to Cornell. Over these three years the event has grown from being a Cornell entrepreneurship event to a Cornell event about entrepreneurship, an expansion of vision that is a great implementation of Cornell’s land grant mission.

There were a number of highlights from the trip, but four of the day’s great speakers really hit home to me:

Joanne Wilson gave a great talk about her work supporting women entrepreneurs. While I don’t agree with her view that there are intrinsic differences between women and men that lead to differences in skills and ability, her points about the shocking gender gap in the VC community and in the population of VC-funded startup founders were right on. She is leading the way by serving as an angel investor, often being the critical first money in to a growing portfolio of companies, many of which are led by women. Making sure that the Rev community is as open as possible is really important to us. We’re always thinking about how we can make sure we have events and programs that not only don’t push people out, but that pull underrepresented populations in. Her talk was an inspiring call to action, and we are looking forward to redoubling our efforts on that score.

Matt Blumberg is the founder and CEO of Return Path and has been blogging about the startup life for as long as just about anybody. As his company grew, they rapidly started adopting a lot of traditional big company policies and behaviors, until Matt and his team realized that they had a chance to be the ones to break the mold. Now, Return Path has a four word expense policy (“use your best judgment”), unlimited vacation (just ask for it), and a six week sabbatical for employees after five years of service. They share all their board decks and monthly financials with the entire team. Performance is high, retention is through the roof, and travel and vacation expenses are no higher than they were before. It was a very inspiring story of what can happen when you trust and empower people – and a reminder that as entrepreneurs we have the right, if not the obligation, to break the bad parts of the mold and to do it right this time.

Kegan Schouwenburg is co-founder and CEO of Sols Systems. She gave an impassioned and high energy talk about the disruptive power of new manufacturing systems like 3D printing – and how these tools combined with great design can lead to outstanding new products. This resonates deeply with us, as we believe Rev and its prototyping space can be a nursery for a number of new product-based businesses in Ithaca and around Upstate New York. There was also a practical entrepreneurship case study in it for me; I am familiar with a company founded several years ago that had worked on commercializing a product that has a lot of similarities to what Sols is doing now. They did a lot of work in the shop, but never successfully launched. The lesson is a combination of Mookie and Phil Knight – yes, do the right thing, but eventually you have to just do it.

Hamdi Ulukaya spoke about what it means to be an entrepreneur in a way that bordered on the spiritual, and was a great way to end the day. Hamdi took Chobani from a run-down empty factory to $1bn in revenue in 5 years and is the most successful entrepreneur in Upstate New York in a generation. (I am struggling to think of any New York City CEO that created as much value in the same time either.) His core message is that entrepreneurship is a hard and illogical pursuit, but if it’s your calling, you can find success by being true to that vision and authentic to your customers. As we continue our branding and marketing work for Rev and the Southern Tier Innovation Hot Spot, this lesson about being the authentic embodiment of a brand really hit home. His paraphrase of the Turkish poet Emre was a great way to cap both his talk and the day – it’s not that everyone is a drop in the ocean, but the ocean is in every drop. It was a profound way of describing the potential in each one of us.

I’m already looking forward to Cornell Entrepreneurship Summit 2015, which I’m sure will be even bigger and better. I hope to see you there!