Entrepreneurs say A&S skills invaluable in creating a company

When the Forbes 30 under 30 list comes out each year, it’s common to assume that the Cornellians represented there came from the Dyson School or maybe engineering.

But the College of Arts & Sciences was well represented on this year’s list --- with five of the alumni who were recently featured in a Cornell Entrepreneur Network livestream event coming from the college and this year’s Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year also an Arts & Sciences grad.

“An Arts & Sciences background is an incredible one to have going into venture,” said Ally Tam ’13, a principal at the New York-based consumer venture capital firm 14W. “The work is extremely analytical, but you’re also encouraged to do these deep dives into industries and think more qualitatively. That’s what I did every day for four years as a sociology major.”

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Tam, who said the honor showcases the many career paths you can take with a sociology major, was named to the 30 Under 30 list in venture capital.

While she concentrated her sociology studies in economic sociology and network analysis, Tam said she also took classes in Applied Economics and Management and was a member of the Cornell Consulting Group, experiences that offered her the chance to apply the sociology skills she had learned to analysis and research.

After graduation and some years covering technology equity research at Morgan Stanley, Tam set her sights on becoming an investor. When she first joined as an associate at 14W, she “sat in the shadows and listened, then I did everything I could to help our portfolio companies.”

She was named a principal in 2017 and has worked on over 30 deals for the firm representing north of $65 million in invested capital, personally leading investments in digital women's health startup Maven Clinic and Floyd Home.

“I love that I’m constantly asked to learn,” she said.

Reimagining women’s health care

Two other A&S alumni included on the Forbes list, Carolyn Witte '12 and Felicity Yost '12, have been friends since their freshman year and business partners almost as long.

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Their current venture, Tia, is a next-generation women's healthcare platform combining empathy and innovation to help every woman thrive. From their personal women's health advisor app to the Tia Clinic — a modern gynecology and wellness practice opening at the end of February in NYC — they aspire to reimagine women's healthcare end to end. The company was named to the 30 Under 30 list in consumer technology.

Witte, a College Scholar who focused on politics and technology studies, won the Big Idea competition her junior year at Cornell with a social enterprise business to provide malaria nets in Ghana.

“I’m a big fan of liberal arts and studying something totally different than you might end up ‘applying’ to the real world,” she said. “I learned how to think deeply about problems, tackle complex tasks and tell stories.”

Yost, who studied French, international relations and economics, said the college’s diversity helped her learn to appreciate different points of view, something she’s found helpful in forming her business team.

“The classes that I took that had people from all walks of life — athletes, engineers, economists, data scientists,” she said. “I learned how you could bring those people together to do group projects and build an interdisciplinary team that’s appreciative of everyone’s strength and interests.”

The partners started the business at their dining room table, talking with women across the country about their health care needs. That customer data helped them approach venture capitalists – they’ve raised $6 million so far.

“We’re tackling healthcare as two non-health care people.” Witte said. “But we have this insatiable curiosity that moved us to tackle this beast of healthcare and build something better.”

'Cornell taught me how to solve problems'

Jenna Kerner’s ’11 business, Harper Wilde, “takes the B.S. out of bra shopping” with a line of everyday bras offering simplicity, comfort and support.

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“We knew there was a problem for women that wasn’t being solved elsewhere,” said Kerner, who was a neurobiology major at Cornell before going to business school and meeting her partner Jane Fisher. “We were sitting there wearing bras that were 5-10 years old with underwires poking us in the side.”

Harper Wilde is on the 30 under 30 list for retail and ecommerce. The company has raised $3.6 million from backers including Charles River Ventures and M Ventures.

In the early days before they raised money, they found creative ways to test their hypothesis around redefining the purchasing process. They bought a slew of bras from leading producers, then invited women to look at five options, choose three to take home for free, try for a week and return the ones they didn’t love.

This helped them validate their business idea around how women would want to purchase this product, as well as determine what features were most important to women – comfort, fit, cost, and helped inform design for their own products.

"The most important thing I took away from my Cornell education was how to solve problems,” Kerner said. “People are always shocked to learn that organic chemistry was my favorite course. To me, it felt like a puzzle; I loved how there was very little memorization involved, and instead focused taking a few building blocks, and figuring out how to create something new from them, constantly testing and iterating until you figure out what works.

“That way of thinking has helped shape how I approach problems now as an entrepreneur.”

On their website, customers can also order three bras to try at home for free, only being charged for the ones they keep.

Applying neural networks to health care

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In the science category of the 30 Under 30 list, doctoral student Maithra Raghu, whose thesis advisor is Jon Kleinberg, the Tisch University Professor of Computer Science and Information Science, was honored for her research into deep neural networks and their applications to healthcare.

“All of the techniques we’re studying are to be used as additional tools that doctors can use to make more accurate diagnoses,” Raghu said.

Her work is aimed at determining whether a patient is likely to be misdiagnosed for a particular condition and is thus in need of a second opinion.

Other A&S entrepreneurs in the news

While Forbes was busy honoring entrepreneurial Cornellians, Entrepreneurship at Cornell, the university-wide program that connects all the nodes of entrepreneurship on campus, selected A&S grad Dr. Leonard S. Schleifer ’73 as its Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year for 2019.

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Schleifer, who majored in biological sciences with a concentration in neurobiology and behavior, founded Regeneron in 1988 and is currently its president, chief executive officer and a board member. He is also a licensed physician, certified in neurology by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Together with Dr. George Yancopoulos, founding scientist, president and chief scientific officer, Schleifer built Regeneron from a tiny startup into one of the world’s leading biotechnology companies. The company has had seven treatments approved by the Food and Drug Administration and 20 investigational medicines to help patients with eye disease, heart disease, allergic and inflammatory diseases, pain, cancer, infectious diseases and rare diseases.

Another A&S entrepreneur celebrating four years of business success isGillian Opatrny Muralles ’08, co-owner of Lilac Pâtisserie in Santa Barbara, Calif., a gluten-free bakery and café.

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A sociology major, Muralles worked in marketing for Johnson & Johnson after graduation before deciding to pursue a different dream and attending the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Los Angeles. A diagnosed celiac, Muralles couldn’t eat any of her creations, but she had the idea all along to open her own bakery.

“I wanted to learn about baking and feel the dough, to understand what baked goods should be like, then develop my own recipes that were gluten free,” she said.

After years working at another shop designing high-end cakes for clients like Kobe Bryant and Elon Musk, she opened her own shop four years ago with husband Alam Muralles. They now have 25 employees and a growing online business, as well as the café.

“We get a lot of customers who don’t even know that we’re gluten free and they love it,” she said. “I’m just so proud of our business. I love what I do and I love interacting with our customers.”

Muralles said she sees the usefulness of her sociology degree daily. “Understanding the way people tick was really interesting to me and understanding the right way to approach people has been very valuable.”

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