Model Programme for Cash-strapped Entrepreneurial Students: Jonas Weil Fellowship

The two years of business school can be an ideal time to start entrepreneurial ventures

-Brad Miller MBA ’06, M.D. ’06, Weil Fellowship recipient and founder of  Square6 Group

Today the Academic Entrepreneur (AE) will highlight the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurial Fellowship programme at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Spearheaded by Professor David BenDaniel in 1996, the Weil Fellowship has funded over 70 alumni entrepreneurs.  For full disclosure, the Academic Entrepreneur was a recipient of the fellowship after graduating from the school in 1999 and co-founding his own financial services internet company for the hospitality industry, iLodging, in 1999 in Palo Alto.  He is also an alumnus of Cornell University and the school itself. .This writing is not just about the Weil Fellowship and Cornell University, but also about an Entrepreneurship Professor who made a big difference in the business of an alumnus; used alumni cases in entrepreneurship pedagogy and took the initiative to make things better for entrepreneurial students and solved market inefficiencies in the process. It’s also about alumni relations and development as well, providing a snippet of best practice.

 

The Academic Entrepreneur has asked around and conducted online research and have yet to find a similar programme at another university anywhere in the world. Yet, its simple and sensible one that could be applied through a whole spectrum of higher educational institutions worldwide. Anywhere there might be students with debt and the possibility that some of these students will start companies within 5 years of graduation.  Such fellowships could be arranged to cover debt expenses of graduating students and thus provide more of them with entrepreneurship as an option within the first five years of graduation. Thus the student loan excuse no longer becomes a valid one for not starting a company.  The Academic Entrepreneur has been recommending this programme ever since benefitting from it, including to his PhD Supervisor at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Richard T. Harrison, PhD. 

 

THE STUDENT ENTREPRENEURIAL RISK FINANCE GAP

As uncovered in AE’s PhD work, the student entrepreneurial venture finance gap is a problematic one. However the amounts needed to “lubricate” the system which will lead to more output in terms of new ventures from higher education settings are relatively small. GBP 25K or $25K can make a big difference to a student entrepreneur; 50K to 100K amounts are ideal. However, there is a constraint in the current venture capital model that makes it extremely difficult for firms to invest early in student ventures, leaving it to angels to cover the gap. Unfortunately, angels are not very active in this space either for a host of reasons, and they are generally in short supply. Thus the Weil Fellowship, and hopefully future versions of it, essentially intervene in a space where there is a market failure.

 

 HOW THE WEIL FELLOWSHIP WORKS

Essentially, the programme covers student loan payments (both principal and interest) for up to 5 years. When the Academic Entrepreneur was a recipient, the number was capped at $25,000 over 5 years, with up to $5,000 being paid in any given year.  The requirement for the programme was that the entrepreneur had to have at least some founding stock or stock options in a new venture. There were yearly reporting requirements that were minimal, and  a thank you note to Jonas Weil, an Alumnus himself, was required too. The Academic Entrepreneur can remember hand writing such cards and sending them off.

 

THE PEDAGOGICAL INNOVATION OF PROFESSOR DAVID BENDANIEL

The Academic Entrepreneur was fortunate enough to have taken Professor David BenDaniel’sEntrepreneurship and Enterprise” course (as it was called at the time*) as an undergraduate student and wrote a business plan with teammates John Lin and Rob Kelly. That was all it took to send him down the entrepreneurial path. As an MBA student, he took the graduate-level version one semester, and served as its TA the next. The course format was unique and innovative during this era: Alumni entrepreneurs and their businesses were used as case studies, with these cases being written by MBA students who benefited through the exchange with these entrepreneurs. The Academic Entrepreneur wrote the case on Chuck Feeney, founder of Duty Free Shoppes and a variety of other businesses, during his MBA years, for example.  It should be noted that Professor BenDaniel may have learned this method during his stints in Boston as a scientist and venture capitalists, perhaps from Harvard and MIT. However, it was the application at Cornell that was innovative at the time.

David BenDaniel has been the Don & Margi Berens Professor of Entrepreneurship since 1984 at Cornell University. He has been running his course there for 30 years, more or less, and its practically an institution itself. Many entrepreneurs can trace their inspiration (or is that corruption) back to the time that they took the course. It is that powerful. I’ll attempt to explain why its pedagogy is so effective.

The course was formatted so that the first half covered theory and the academic piece of learning about entrepreneurship so the students had some basic concepts nailed. The second half was all about case studies. This more or less followed Johnson School pedagogy at the time — 1/2 theory and textbook, the other 1/2 application through the case study method. The alumnus / alumna entrepreneur was invited to the class when his or her case was discussed, and sat in the back row at the tippy top of the room of 200 students while the case was argument ensued. Halfway through the analysis, she or he came to the front of the classroom (the first one was always a surprise) and joined the discussion. Students were assigned a one page write-up on the case due at the beginning of the next class. However, that was only the half of it. After the class, a wine and cheese party ensued with the visiting entrepreneurs. All students were invited, both undergraduate and graduate students at the time. Usually a good 20 or so would attend (Cornell students are busy people). This gave the students the opportunity to informally talk with the entrepreneurs and learn more. Also, on top of this, each student was invited to a dinner with the entrepreneur of his or her choice. The dinners were a class act and held at the Statler Hotel, on either a Tuesday or Thursday night.  While students were only supposed to go to one, the Academic Entrepreneur somehow managed to go to many, seemingly through “seat arbitration” of last minute cancellations. Jeffrey P. Parker, BS ’65, MEng ’66, MBA ’70 was always a favorite.  These interactions with alumni entrepreneurs were not only intellectually rich, but they were also inspirational and motivational.  Students went away from the wine and cheese and dinner events with a sense that “Hey, I can do this too. This guy (or gal) was in my shoes as well not too long ago”. Having that conversation occur in one’s head thus fulfilled one of the key course objectives.

The interactions through the wine and cheese parties and the dinners reflected Professor BenDaniel’s teaching philosophy: First, that network building was a crucial part of his role. He told us that we were to form networks that lasted the rest of our lives, not just there at Cornell. He instilled the importance of networking in our learning. Second, that the real entrepreneurial learning was done around the dinner table. It was informal. It happened in families, or family-like atmospheres, which he sought to create at Cornell through his entrepreneurship courses and the dinners that he somehow managed to find the money for over a long period of time.

This alumni case study method also played a role in alumni affairs and development. They kept alumni involved with the university through student and faculty interaction. The alumni saw benefits to their business in terms of student interns and employees; and through faculty advice and connections. Students got role models, advisors, mentors, and even investors in their start-up companies. The university also benefited through gifts, such as the Weil Fellowship from Jonas Weil, ’58, MBA ’59, whose case study on Office Plus was an object of study in Professor BenDaniel’s course.

 

ALUMNI RELATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT FOR ENTREPRENEURIAL ALUMNI – A SHORT CASE

Today this email was received by the Academic Entrepreneur and this prompted a gift of course.

He was impressed by the alumni affairs and development office yet again. It may seem that the horn for Cornell University is being tooted again, but there is a lesson here for others wishing to develop their own entrepreneurial alumni.

 

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Dear Michael,

I know what it’s like to start a business. It takes a good concept, a little luck, a lot of courage, and timing. It also takes financial resources.

I established the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurial Fellowship to help recent Cornell MBA graduates pay down student loans so they can keep their focus on starting new businesses. Since the first fellowships were awarded in 1996, more than 70 of you have received fellowships.

Please click here to support the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurial Fellowship today.

  • A Weil fellowship gave Adam Tow, MBA ’12, the funds and encouragement he needed to grow Seraph Robotics, a project he started while still a student, into a viable business which sells 3-D printers to biomedical researchers who are doing ground-breaking work in the “printing” of body parts, such as heart valves, for transplants and implants.
  • Receiving Weil fellowships in 1997 and 1998 allowed Steven Kropper, MBA ’86, to take a risk on his startup, Domania.com, which opened the way for consumer access to property databases such as Zillow.com and Eppraisal.com.
  • Gaye Tomlinson, MBA ’05, received five Weil fellowships starting in 2009, when she was working to launch Vaha Group, a California-based firm that works with businesses and homeowners to cut down on wasted energy, and to install sustainable energy sources, such as solar. “Getting the grant is a stamp of approval,” she says.

I am delighted when I hear that former Weil fellowship recipients received encouragement as well as financial support from the Weil fellowship. As a Weil Fellow, you also know how much that financial edge and that stamp of approval can mean.

You can support Johnson’s promising entrepreneurs by making a gift to the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurial Fellowship here.

We aim to reach an initial goal of $100,000 by June 30. Your gift will enhance the fellowship endowment, allowing more fellows to receive larger awards.

I salute you for pursuing your entrepreneurial projects, and I ask you to give the same gift to other Johnson graduates. Thank you for giving back to the Jonas Weil Entrepreneurial Fellowship.

Sincerely,

Jonas Weil ’58, MBA ’59

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THE WEIL FELLOWSHIP REVIEWED BY CORNELL UNIVERSITY

Below you will find a reprint of the article about the programme as published in the Spring 2014 issue of Ezra Magazine from Cornell University.

The link is here:  http://ezramagazine.cornell.edu/SPRING14/WorthSupporting1.html

 

The Jonas Weil Entrepreneurial Fellowship: Launching new businesses when the time is right, but cash is tight

Jonas Weil

Jonas Weil ’58, MBA ’59. Photo: Provided. See larger image

Jonas Weil ’58, MBA ’59, comes from a line of entrepreneurs. His grandfather, who immigrated to Kentucky from the Alsace region of France, built an empire around livestock, butchering and tobacco by seizing good opportunities at just the right time.

Weil’s father took over this enterprise. By the time young Jonas Weil had earned his Cornell degree (from the then-School of Business and Public Administration), however, the family’s assets had been liquidated, and his opportunity to take over the family business was gone.

“The timing was wrong,” he said.

A successful entrepreneurial venture, Weil knows from experience, takes a good concept, a little luck and timing.

In the 1990s, Weil was ahead of the times when he founded Office Plus, a chain of temporary office spaces and services for traveling executives. Located near airports in strategic cities, including St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Boston, Office Plus offered telephone, printing and board room space for business people while they were on the road.

“This was before other people went into the same business,” said David BenDaniel, the Don and Margi Berens Professor of Entrepreneurship at Johnson. He said Weil came up with a good concept in the era before cell phones and laptops; still, Office Plus, like any new business, had its problems.

“He was always cash strapped,” said BenDaniel, who invited Weil to Ithaca to present his case in classes. For five years, students in BenDaniel’s entrepreneurship classes worked on Office Plus as a real-life case study, coming up with ideas that helped the business grow.

When Weil sold the company in 1996, students gave him a standing ovation in the classroom.

He also made a major profit: On BenDaniel’s recommendation, he sold Office Plus to a competitor for more than triple the price he’d originally estimated. “We did in fact cash out at the top of the market,” Weil said. “The timing was right on.”

Within a few years of that sale, the dot-com bubble burst, desktop publishing emerged, and executive road warriors started carrying their own mobile phones.

BenDaniel encouraged Weil to found a fellowship with some of the profits to support future entrepreneurs. Since 1997, the Jonas Weil Fellowship has helped nearly 70 Johnson graduates pay off their school loans, allowing them to focus on starting new businesses. “We are the only school in the country that has such a fund,” BenDaniel says.

The two years of business school can be an ideal time to start entrepreneurial ventures, said Brad Miller, MBA ’06, M.D. ’06, a Weil fellowship recipient, but finances can be tight. He founded Square6 Group, a consulting firm that helps the medical and health care industries use data, while his Johnson classmates were taking middle management jobs and drawing regular salaries. “That’s a hard gravity to get out of,” Miller said.

A Weil fellowship gave Adam Tow, MBA ’12, funds and encouragement to grow a project he started while still a student into a viable business. His company, Seraph Robotics, sells 3-D printers to biomedical researchers. His customers, most of them at universities, use such machines to lay groundwork. Some day, said Tow, they will “print” living body parts, such as heart valves, for transplants and implants.

Receiving Weil fellowships in 1997 and 1998 allowed Steven Kropper, MBA ’86, to take a risk on his startup Domania.com, which opened the way for automated consumer access to property databases through sites such as Zillow.com and Eppraisal.com. “Without that scholarship, public access to public information would have been delayed significantly,” Kropper said.

Gaye Tomlinson, MBA ’05, said the emotional and psychological impact of the Weil fellowship is huge. She received five Weil fellowships starting in 2009, just when she was working to launch Vaha Group, a California-based firm that works with businesses and homeowners to cut down on wasted energy, and to install sustainable energy sources, such as solar. She and her husband started the business in a recession year, when even their families doubted their plan.

“Getting the grant is a stamp of approval,” she said.

Kate Klein is a program assistant for Alumni Affairs and Development.”

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*Professor BenDaniel’s entrepreneurship course is now called “Entrepreneurship and Private Equity” and can be found here.

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