Meet Hamzah Ansari, the B-Lab 2020 Entrepreneur in Residence!

We are thrilled to welcome Hamzah Ansari (Brown/ PRIME ’09) to the B-Lab team this summer! He has been supporting B-Lab ventures as an informal mentor from the beginning of B-Lab, back in 2015 and we are happy to officially welcome him to the B-Lab staff for this summer. He will be one of our lead in house mentors, along side Jason Harry, B-Lab director and Jonas Clark, Associate Directer at the NCE.

In addition to being the 2020 B-Lab Entrepreneur-in-Residence, Hamzah is an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Brown’s School of Engineering, and a Lecturer in Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship. As EIR, Hamzah coaches student, faculty, and alumni ventures on business development, product development, lean methodologies, fundraising, and capitalization. He teaches a class in technology commercialization and entrepreneurship in the PRIME Masters Program. Outside of Brown, Hamzah serves as a Senior Advisor with Rhode Island-based innovation group “The Innovation Scout”, as well as a Partner in real estate private equity firm Denwood Capital.

Previously, Hamzah started Accelereach, an angel-funded developer of health and wellness coaching software, in 2009. The company’s software helped thousands of people around the country lead to healthier and more fulfilled lives. He advised the Rhode Island Health Insurance Exchange on developing new lines of business, growth strategies, and additional sources of revenue. Finally, he has advised United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on legislative policy governing immigration reform, economic development, and funding for small businesses.

Want to get in touch? Email Hamzah at hamzah_ansari@brown.edu.

Roundtable Recap: Terri Cohen Alpert ‘85, Founder of Professional Cutlery Direct and Uno Alla Volta, Discusses How to Build a Differentiated Brand with High Customer Retention

Written by Chuck Isgar ‘21 

On February 24, 2020, The Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP hosted Terri Cohen Alpert ‘85 for a roundtable discussion as part of the Roundtable Discussion Series moderated by Chuck Isgar ’21. Alpert shared lessons learned through the process building Professional Cutlery Direct and Uno Alla Volta, in particular the importance of creating a brand that connects emotionally with customers.

From Morgan Stanley to Starting a Business on $8,000

Going back to her time at Brown, Alpert has been willing to go off the beaten path. At Brown, she was one of few female concentrators in Physics. 

Alpert began her career after Brown at Morgan Stanley. While she helped Morgan Stanley in building out software, she missed not having the opportunity to help make decisions that would drive the business. She decided to use the safe cover of maternity leave to begin a company.

She asked herself: “What niche could I offer better selection and inventory than anyone else?”

At the time, her husband was looking for his first great chef’s knife, prompting her to look into the kitchenware space. The efficiency of ordering and shipping kitchenware tools was not efficient at the time, presenting an opportunity to Alpert. She had a vision: if someone could place an order by phone by noon, they could get it shipped that day. 

Putting $8000 into the business, Professional Cutlery Direct was born. The company began to grow significantly. 

From Initial Success to Significant Challenges

Professional Cutlery Direct doubled year over year and Alpert felt that it was too easy. She thought that if she could do it, so could other people. Along these lines, Alpert cautioned entrepreneurs that financial statements are the rear-view mirror; they don’t represent what’s ahead. She realized that it was costing her more and more to acquire customers worth less and less, prompting her to do significant thinking about the company’s CAC (customer acquisition cost) and LTV (lifetime value). 

Alpert admitted that the business came to the point that they were proving markets for the competition, including giants such as Williams Sonoma. “We were their R&D department, at no cost to them, and handed them the results on a silver platter.” After realizing that she was essentially building other people’s brands for them, she knew that they needed to develop proprietary brands. Some people began to see the company as the “Consumer Reports” of kitchen tools.

Building Uno Alla Volta with a Focus on Differentiation and Branding

While Alpert continued to run Professional Cutlery Direct, she launched Uno Alla Volta with the hopes of overcoming the obstacles that Professional Cutlery Direct was facing. 

Alpert realized that a proprietary product would be instrumental to allow Uno Alla Volta to differentiate itself and gain pricing power. As customers became more expensive to acquire, she realized that they would need to maximize the lifetime value of their customers. 

To increase customer lifetime value, Alpert discerned that they needed to be able to go to different aspects of their customers’ lives. In particular, they needed to create an emotionally meaningful brand that wasn’t restricted by product category. They needed barriers to entry, and in order to maximize the customer lifetime value they would need to have a nearly infinite supply of new products.

A Big Lesson for Alpert in Management

As Uno Alla Volta was working towards these goals, Alpert made one of the biggest mistakes in her entrepreneurial career: bringing in a professional management team. While she was optimistic that doing so would change the issues at the top of the company, she realized that was not the case. 

She did this at the same time as her company was hit with a 35% increase in its biggest cost, catalog postage (due to an act of Congress) and the great recession. This team was not only expensive, but they built silos in a company of just 65 people and created brand destruction.  Fundamentally, Alpert recognized however, that this was less the fault of the team than the CEO who hired and empowered them. Alpert,  while transitioning from the role of entrepreneur to CEO was focused on what not to do, micromanage, as opposed to what she must do: lead a team with a common vision.

One by one, she got rid of the executives, worked to change the culture, and to get the brand right. It was a six to seven year process, during which the company’s revenues shrunk from $14 million to $8 million, the customer base shrunk, and the company built up over $4 million in debt. During this time, there were several things she had to figure out: how to dramatically increase gross margins, developing more proprietary products, and creating a greater story around the product. 

Uno Alla Volta’s Growth

With many questions to solve, Uno Alla Volta figured things out in a big way. The company introduced one thousand SKUs per year, but still needed to flesh out the artisan stories behind the product. In an effort to create an emotional connection with the customer, they started to create personalized certificates corresponding to the items a customer purchases. They also worked hard to increase the company’s brand, in particular its name recognition. 

Alpert shared that “retention is most important of all.” In a matter of a few years, they brought the 12 month retention of a newly acquired customer from 23% to over 50% retention. The first year value of a new customer rose from $20 to $56, thus allowing the company to spend significantly more money to acquire new customers. Alpert taught every member of her team how to interpret the company’s key metrics and financial results and the team celebrated each small win and learned how the math would compound. The team delivered on their brand promise to every customer every day, growing Uno Alla Volta to a $20 million top line with a 10% EBITDA margin.

Alpert encouraged entrepreneurs to look at customers, not channels. While customers who engage on multiple channels are often the most valuable, Alpert focused on asking herself: “how do we make each group of customers the most valuable?” She stressed that at the end of the day, relationships with customers need to be human. 

Focus on learning how to interact in organizational environments

Alpert has done a lot in her career: she was one of few females in her time to study Physics, she went from Morgan Stanley to launching her own business as a project on maternity leave. She realized that hiring a management team won’t solve problems. And, of course, she also built a company with over a $20 million top line and a healthy bottom line. With all these experiences, the students in the room were curious about her recommendations for their continued journey at Brown and beyond.

She said that if she could go back, she would have studied leadership and organizational behavior much earlier. Over time, she learned that a leader’s job is to help people get emotionally attached to the goal.

While the corporate environment at Morgan Stanley wasn’t right for Alpert, she learned about how to get things done, and she also learned how to engage in a large organization. Along these lines, Alpert emphasized the significance of understanding how big companies operate. She suggested the importance of routinely looking for ways to move laterally to get more breadth with the goal of creating new mental pictures. 

Treat every experience as valuable

Alpert left students with a few parting words which might help take the pressure off of those worrying about what’s next: she believes that all experience is relevant. Being out in the world helps you see where there is white space. With a reference back to her scientific background, she shared that everything is a hypothesis; she suggested treating what you’re thinking about as an experiment.

Despite the challenges she had to overcome, Alpert shared that she wouldn’t change the way she did things. Within that sentiment might lie the greatest lesson that Alpert shared with the group of students, albeit indirectly: everything you go on to do will be a part of your collection of experiences and learnings that will allow you to succeed in the future.

 

Professor Jennifer Nazareno receives several mentoring & research awards this semester

Professor Jennifer Nazareno receives several mentoring & research awards this semester

We are proud to announce that Jennifer Nazareno, Assistant Professor of Public Health & Entrepreneurship, is the recipient of all the 2019-2020 awards listed below. We congratulate Professor Jennifer Nazareno on all of her success!

The Dean’s Excellence Awards recognizes faculty leaders in the School of Public Health who demonstrate a commitment to excellence in teaching, mentoring, and research collaboration that goes above and beyond the usual call of duty. Professor Nazareno was awarded the 2020 Dean’s Excellence in Teaching Award and she is the first faculty member to win this award in two consecutive years.

The Hazeltine Mentorship in Entrepreneurship Award recognizes someone who embodies the leadership and commitment to entrepreneurship that Professor Hazeltine has exemplified for so many years at Brown. Professor Nazareno and Professor Don Stanford ‘72 ScM ’77 were recipients of the award this year.

The Primary Care-Population Medicine (PC-PM) Research Mentor Award from the Warren Alpert  Medical School at Brown (voted by 4th-year PC-PM medical students). The Primary Care-Population Medicine (PC-PM) program is an innovative, dual-degree curriculum that prepares students for a career in medicine while providing comprehensive, longitudinal training in population medicine. Graduates are awarded both an MD degree and a Master of Science in Population Medicine.

 

Congratulations to the 2020 Hazeltine Mentoring in Entrepreneurship Award Recipients

Congratulations to the 2020 Hazeltine Mentoring in Entrepreneurship Award Recipients

Professor Barrett Hazeltine has been mentoring and inspiring Brown University students for decades. In honor of his dedication to student mentoring, and in particular, his mentorship of aspiring entrepreneurs, a group of alumni came together to start the Hazeltine Mentoring in Entrepreneurship Award.

We are excited to announce that Professor Jennifer Nazareno (left) and Professor Don Stanford ‘72 ScM ’77 (right) are this year’s recipients. Professor Nazareno has been affiliated with the Nelson Center since we opened in fall 2016. She currently has a dual appointment with the School of Public Health and the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, where she teaches UNIV 1089: Global Dynamics and Critical Perspectives on Immigrant Entrepreneurship in the United States. The students in her class raved about her generous mentoring, dedication to inclusivity and her steadfast commitment to Brown’s entrepreneurial mission. Outside the classroom, you will find her hosting faculty-led discussions and mentoring student entrepreneurs on their ventures, among many other responsibilities.

Professor Don Stanford has been teaching and mentoring students for decades. Barrett Hazeltine was one of the first members of the faculty that Professor Stanford met when he came to Brown in 1968 as a first-year. And I have been friends ever since. Clearly, Professor Hazeltine’s love and passion for mentorship inspired him. Professor Stanford has been teaching computer science for decades and mentoring student entrepreneurs. He has been on the Breakthrough Lab (B-Lab) selection committee for 4 years, and always volunteers to mentor student applicants. Many of whom have gone on to win the Brown Venture Prize and raise significant capital. They have both been generous with their time mentoring Brown students and have been instrumental in those students’ success.

Join us on Thursday, April 30 at 4:00 PM for a virtual happy hour to celebrate the recipients of the award, as well as get a chance to say hello to Professor Hazeltine. We invite your to join us and raise a glass from your home to honor the winners. RSVP here. A Zoom link will be sent to you.

Read more about the recipients below.


Professor Jennifer Nazareno  is an Assistant Professor of Public Health & Entrepreneurship. She has a dual appointment at the Center and in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences in the School of Public Health. Jennifer’s specialty areas include medical sociology and health; qualitative methodology; women’s migration, labor and entrepreneurship. She received her PhD from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in 2015 and was an AHRQ and Presidential Diversity Post Doctoral Fellow at Brown. Her dissertation won the UCSF Anselm Strauss Award for Most Distinguished Qualitative Dissertation and was the first study to examine the lived experiences of immigrant Filipino women who emerged as owners of health and long-term service-related businesses.

Jennifer is currently completing her book manuscript, Hidden Health Care: Immigrant Filipina Nurses Building Businesses in the Shadows of the U.S. Long-Term Care Industry. It’s the first book to examine the emergence of immigrant Filipino women entrepreneurs in the United States starting as early as the 1970’s.

Jennifer organized the Center’s first one-day conference, “Entrepreneurship at the Intersection of Diversity and Inequality.” Her vision for the conference engaged the intersectionality of race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, differently-abled bodies, and immigrant status, and how these different social statuses shaped the pursuit of entrepreneurship. Jennifer’s peer-reviewed publications can be found in the International Journal of Health Services, Social Science & Medicine, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Medical Care, and the International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research.

She is the 2019 recipient of the prestigious Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Professor Nazareno’s courses taught through support of the Nelson Center:

– PHP 1680U Intersectionality and Health Inequities
– UNIV 1089 Global Dynamics and Critical Perspectives on Immigrant Entrepreneurship in the United States

Professor Don Stanford ‘72 ScM ’77  is a founding member of GTECH and began working for GTECH’s founders in 1979 as Manager of Software Development. Over 30 years, he has held every technical leadership position, including Vice President of Advanced Development and Chief Technology Officer. Don guided the growth of GTECH’s technology organization from a software staff of four in 1979 to its current worldwide deployment of over 1000 technology professionals. From 1986 until 1989 Don served on the GTECH Corporation Board. Under Don’s leadership GTECH advanced the state of the art in both transaction processing and wireless communications which enabled it to dominate its industry worldwide and install systems on 6 continents. Don earned a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations in 1972 and a Master’s in Computer Science/Applied Mathematics in 1977 from Brown. Don serves on several boards including Times Squared Academy Charter School, Spectra Systems and the Business Innovation Factory. He is also a member of the R.I. Science and Technology Advisory Council.

In 2001 Don was appointed Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brown and has been teaching undergraduates since 2002. He is also an Adjunct in the School of Engineering and and is an instructor in the Program in Innovation, Management and Entrepreneurship (PRIME). He serves on the Brown advisory councils to the President and the School of Engineering.

In 1999 Don received the Black Engineer of the Year Award for Professional Achievement. In 1999 he also received the Honorable Thurgood Marshall award for community service from the NAACP. In 2002 he received the Brown Graduate School’s Distinguished Graduate award and the R.I. Professional Engineer’s award for Community Service. Don and his wife Jane live in Pawtucket, R.I. and St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.

Student Recap: 2020 WE@Brown Conference

On March 7, 2020, over 100 young professionals gathered for the fourth annual WE@Brown conference, organized by the Women’s Empowerment team within the Brown Entrepreneurship Program (Brown EP) to celebrate and empower women in entrepreneurship. The theme of this year’s conference was Uplift, and the day began with keynote speaker Kristen Ransom, Boston Magazine’s Top 30 Rising Tech Star and founder of IncluDe Innovation, captivating the audience with her message of “dream big, be ambitious, and follow your purpose.” (See her on stage below).

 

Following the keynote speaker was the female founder pitch competition, where six student-founded ventures pitched their big ideas to attendees and a panel of judges to win $500 and $250 respectively to go towards their ventures. At the end of the day, the winners were announced. The first-place winner was LapSnap, co-founded by Diana Perkins ’20, Hannah Mintz ’20, and Chloe Rosenberg ’20. And the second-place winner was ResusciTech, co-founded by Abigail Kohler ’20 and Greg Fine ’20.

 

LapSnap has designed a grocery shopping bag for wheelchair users. Currently, shopping for food is a major hassle for people who use wheelchairs, and there is no affordable solution that works for all chairs. The LapSnap bag was designed in collaboration with real wheelchair users, and the hope is that it will improve lives by giving people a tool for greater independence.

 

ResusciTech has created a real-time CPR feedback app to help responders perform higher quality compressions and save more lives. There are 400,000 out of hospital cardiac arrests annually, and 90% of those result in death. The ResusciTech app will give people the confidence and capability to act in these emergencies by giving real-time feedback on the rate and depth of chest compressions, allowing people to adjust to proper CPR protocols.

During lunch, attendees were joined by 19 inspiring female-identifying entrepreneurs and industry professionals, who hosted roundtable discussions to further uplift and connect the attendees through the topics they are most passionate about.

The afternoon workshops this year were led by senior IDEO Co-Lab designer Shuya Gong on “Designing the Unseeable”, CEO and founder of Cheryl Overton Communications, Cheryl Overton on “Beyonce Taught Me: Five Killer Business Lessons from the Queen Bee Herself”, Brown Persuasive Communication professor Barbara Tannenbaum on “Powerful Communication”, and founder of The Art of Fate Jackelyn Decanay on “How to Make Space for All Womxn – In Business & Beyond”.

 

 

The day ended with the announcement of the pitch competition winners, as wells as an ice-cream social + startup fair.

WE@Brown 2020 is brought to you by the Women’s Empowerment Team at Brown EP, led by Maggie Bachenberg, Xinru Li, Claire Heiden, Emily Kompelien, Mali Dandridge, Thin Su San, Karolyn Lee, Liz Wells, Kerry Harrington, Serena McDermott, Trisha Ballakur, Amanda Levy, and Ashley Chon. This year our sponsors included: 305 Fitness, Yerba Mate, Health-Ade Kombucha, Gracie’s, Hint, Shake Shack, Ceremony, Canva, Kabob and Curry, Brown University Bookstore, PVDonuts, Chobani, Sticker Giant, Blue State Coffee, Avon Theatre, and The Flex Company. Supported by the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship and Brown EP.