A Bright Future for Ithaca Startups

by Tom Long, MBA’12 (8/28/11)

Tom Long, MBA’12

The Johnson Core and the SGE Immersion provide a strong foundation for work in renewable energy and sustainable startups.

As the wind howled and the freezing rain and snow battered Sage Hall, I kept hearing stories of a better Ithaca: an Ithaca that was sunny; an Ithaca with flowing water and green grass where the birds and squirrels frolicked among wildflowers and where children laughed and played in beautiful gardens; an Ithaca with outdoor festivals, concerts, and farmer’s markets.  In the midst of my first winter at Cornell, I was suspicious of these stories, but at the urging of friends, I decided to see for myself and work here for the summer. 

Despite its small size, Ithaca has a strong startup community as a result of a high standard of living and a surplus of intellectual capital.  My first gig out of undergrad was with a tiny wind development startup in Colorado, and later with a rapidly growing solar integrator, so I was excited at the prospect of joining an Ithaca-based startup.  A fellow classmate and SGE immersion member, Alex Green, learned of my experience in renewable energy startups and brought me along to an advising meeting with AIBC International, a startup company involved in the design, manufacture, and distribution of LED lighting systems.  I was offered an internship and advising role, which became my primary obligation during the summer.  Plus, second year SGE student, Alessandra Zielinski, put me in touch with a friend of hers who took ownership of a small local wind development company, Enfield Wind.  Subsequently I agreed to help them over the summer and throughout the following school year. 

AIBC International is the brain child of Dr. Mark Cui, a PHD from China, who came to work for Cornell as a researcher in biotechnology.  Leveraging his strong connections in China he decided to establish a US based LED lighting company.  When I joined in the summer his US office consisted of two employees – himself and one other person who served as the administrative assistant and director of marketing and operations.  AIBC had already achieved success in the online marketplace, and they were looking to expand to offline markets.  I was tasked with helping to establish a strategy for doing so.

Following a semester of market and strategy analysis for a battery manufacturer, as part of my immersion in Sustainable Global Enterprise, I was well prepared for such a task.  My experience working in a small team on a complex, open-ended project eased the transition back into a startup, where the environment was quite similar.  The methods of teamwork, problem solving, and organization that I learned and developed throughout both the SGE immersion and the Johnson Core were instrumental to my success at AIBC.  I also continued to leverage my connections from the SGE immersion and gained valuable help and insights into the fields of green building and high efficiency lighting from both classmates and faculty.  In the end, we began building a network of independent salespeople, developed new product lines to meet customer needs, and developed a long term sales strategy that I believe will help AIBC rise to the top of the LED lighting field.   

In addition I was able to step outside of my specific job-role and provide further value to the company.  I helped them establish a more comprehensive accounting process and develop a customer relationship management system (CRM) in order to maintain a better relationship with their customers and investors.  I also introduced them to “inbound marketing,” a term I learned in Core Marketing class, which helped lure additional business to the website.  I even posted employment opportunities, conducted interviews, and helped to shape and maintain a productive culture using the concepts I learned in Managerial Leadership and Organizations. 

As I leave AIBC to return to my last year at school, I take comfort in the fact that I am leaving the company better then when I started.  Things are going well at Enfield Wind as well, and it looks like the company is well on its way to constructing a utility scale wind development sooner than expected.  I plan to continue meeting with and advising both companies throughout the school year, and I look forward to their ultimate success.  Startups and small companies are the foundation of the US economy, and the skills, tools, and contacts I gained through both the SGE Immersion and Johnson Core helped me to build on that foundation. 

Also, the summers in Ithaca easily live up to the rumors.  The weather is beautiful, the waters are pleasant, the festivals and markets are exciting, and the golfing is excellent.  Overall, it was a summer experience I will always remember, and hopefully one that helped to make Ithaca a better place.