Executive MBAs dive into innovation and entrepreneurship
In December, Johnson’s Executive MBA Metro NY Class of 2018 wrapped up a semester-long, five-credit course called Innovation and New Venture Creation. The course culminated in an event held on the newly-opened Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, where student teams presented their entrepreneurial visions to a panel of venture capitalists and angel investors.
The course is designed to help students apply foundational principles learned throughout the Executive MBA curriculum toward solving a real-world business problem.
“We use the same basic principles as the entrepreneurship programs we teach in residential Johnson courses or to Cornell engineers and inventors,” says Tom Schryver, MBA ’02, visiting lecturer at Johnson and executive director of the Center for Regional Economic Advancement. “The difference with the Executive MBA program is course duration—we start in July and end in December—and the fact that the Executive MBA teams are made up of mid-career professionals.”
According to Schryver, this immersive approach allows students to participate in a “live case study” where they can learn from the professional skills and experiences of other members of their teams.
“Like any good course, we basically leave you with a set of frameworks, processes, and procedures,” says Steven S. Gal, senior lecturer of management, and lead instructor for the course. “It is a handbook for innovation and entrepreneurship.”
“The course gave us the tools and process to come up with a new business and explore it from start to finish in a way that could be replicated over and over,” says Colleen Krieger, Executive MBA Metro NY ’18.
Focusing innovation on the eldercare crisis
The Innovation and New Venture Creation course has been offered for six years. This year, for the first time, faculty selected a topic for the course: the “eldercare crisis.” According to Gal, this broad theme represents a massive, underserved market with significant challenges and growing needs.
Each team of six students focused its efforts on a specific aspect or subsector of eldercare. Krieger’s team chose to develop a new business model for funeral service, called Stagewell. According to Krieger, the concept will help to modernize funeral planning, by offering mourning family members easy-to-understand options and a simple pricing system. The idea won first place in the competition.
Krieger credits several factors for her team’s success.
“We picked a different angle on eldercare and found a market in desperate need of disruption,” Krieger says. “We found a true consumer need, and the way we addressed it through our business model is feasible. I think there’s a real opportunity here.”
Discovering your target market
Understanding the needs of your target market is a major focus of the innovation course.
“Customer discovery is the basis of everything we teach,” says Gal. “We live in a world where we can do everything through our electronic devices, so the need to actually contact a human face-to-face is rare. In this course, we call it ‘getting out of the building,’ and it is a fundamental skillset that comprises learning how to observe, how to interview, and how to conduct design thinking.”
Through the process of interviewing hundreds of people, one successful team discovered that older adults without children make up a much larger portion of the market than it originally assumed. The team recognized that this market represents a significant underserved opportunity, and decided to focus on helping these so-called “prime adults” combat their feelings of loneliness through active socializing.
“Throughout our customer discovery, we observed that perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the people we interviewed had no children,” says Ralph Patrone, Executive MBA Metro NY ’18. “So, we changed our customer discovery from the elderly population in general to focusing on the elderly population with no children. That led us to the common pain point of loneliness and the desire to be involved in social activities.”
Patrone’s team created a website called Prime Circle, which allows childless seniors to network with their peers. The company schedules events like brunches or seminars to facilitate face-to-face interaction.
Prime Circle placed third overall in the competition, which Patrone attributes to his team’s extensive customer discovery process and its uncovering of a previously unexplored customer need.
Incorporating market feedback
A third team sought to address the elderly’s discomfort with today’s consumer technology.
“We began by first observing the day-to-day actions of people who are 65-plus,” says Deepika Cattry, Executive MBA Metro NY ’18. “We observed and spoke with over a hundred individuals, and realized there are very specific problems that seniors have with their smartphone. The first aspect is understanding the language. What is a smartphone? What’s an icon? What’s an app?”
Cattry’s team decided to hold two live, in-person classes to address seniors’ challenges with using a smartphone. More than 20 seniors attended the first class, held in Flushing, Queens. The biggest challenge? None of the attendees spoke English.
“We ended up using Google Translate to communicate,” Cattry says. “We discovered that understanding a smartphone is a universal language, and we could just go through the basics of how to make a phone call, understanding contacts, and describing the purpose of each application or icon.
“We also realized that the questions the attendees asked were tightly focused on the specific user’s daily needs. A woman would ask how to get the bus app on her phone, because she lives in New York City and needs to take public transportation. These are problems you don’t recognize until you begin interacting with seniors in their day-to-day lives.”
Cattry’s team also discovered through the interview process that certain marketing techniques and cultural references resonate more strongly with seniors than with other groups. For instance, the team decided to change the name of its business from EZ Gizmo to Get Smarter based on a suggestion from an interviewee. The name references the popular 1960s TV show Get Smart, which featured a bumbling spy who spoke over a shoe phone.
Get Smarter also uses price points ending in $.99 for its three service options, in deference to its audience.
“Originally, we used price points of $25 or $50, but we quickly realized the concept of round numbers is a very millennial concept,” Cattry says. “Once we switched to prices ending with $.99, it really resonated with the seniors we spoke with, because they value even saving a penny.”
Into the “shark tank”
After months of customer discovery, building their business plans, and crunching numbers, 12 teams finally had the opportunity to present their ideas to a panel of venture capitalists and angel investors.
“The judges are split into three rooms for the first section, and each team presents over the course of a half hour to one of the judge panels,” says Schryver. “Each judge panel then selects a team to present in a final round to the entire class in a final ‘shark tank’ event.”
This year, the event was held at the newly-opened Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island. “Having it at Cornell Tech really made the event,” says Patrone. “Being on our brand-new Cornell campus, and seeing all the new tech, the beautiful buildings, and the great classrooms, generated excitement and definitely set the stage for our presentations.”
“It helped us feel connected and closer to another part of the Cornell community,” adds Krieger. “It felt like we were celebrating something momentous and significant to Cornell.”
Team building and professional outcomes
One of the unique aspects of the innovation course is that it leverages skills learned throughout the Executive MBA program. For instance, Cattry drew on skills learned in an earlier course, Leadership & High Performance Teams, to help in the formation of the Get Smarter team, which came in second place overall.
“You need a team that brings different backgrounds and skillsets,” says Cattry, a senior patient enrollment specialist at Bristol-Meyers Squibb. “It can’t just be your friends. You need to select people with whom you can be very honest and who are open to feedback.”
The structure of the Executive MBA Metro NY program itself is also conducive to developing a new business idea in a team setting. Over the course of the two-year program, candidates meet every other week on Saturdays and Sundays on the scenic Palisades campus, allowing teams to spend hours together developing and iterating their ideas. Faculty are also in residence those weekends and take part in intensive coaching.
“You’re with your colleagues for a day and a half,” says Cattry. “That experience is really important and a big differentiator from other [executive MBA] programs. You also get to connect with the professors one-on-one. Even though you’re in a classroom setting you could ask them questions and they’re there for you. No one’s running at the end of class to catch a train or a bus to go home. Everyone’s in it together.”
Although some students took the course without knowing if entrepreneurship was right for them, they took away several valuable and transferable skills, and in some cases, unanticipated benefits.
“The innovation course was an unexpected highlight of the program,” says Krieger, a content marketing strategist at Capital One. “I was one of the people who came in not thinking I wanted to be an entrepreneur or start something new. And I learned through this experience that it’s absolutely something that I want to do in my life.”
—Written by Ted Goldwyn, a freelance writer for the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business