Synapse Boston 2023 by Katie Dahlen
On Friday, April 21, 2023, we had the opportunity to host Synapse Boston, a trip that had not taken place since 2018. Our day started at 8:45 AM at the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, where we all gathered. We then boarded the 9:15 AM train to the Back Bay station, where we were greeted by Mike Cummins, the CEO of Percy, a Boston-based recruiting automation platform that leverages artificial intelligence to help companies find and hire top talent. Percy’s clients range from startups to large enterprises, and the company has raised several million dollars in funding from investors. Mike, who is a Brown Class ‘08 alumnus, has a background in education and shared his passion for teaching entrepreneurship to students with us. After getting to know each one of us, we discussed current AI trends, future predictions for job markets with the increasing use of AI, renewable energy, and solutions to environmental issues. Mike emphasized the benefits of working for a startup and being heavily involved in its success. His kindness and passion were an inspiration to all of us.
Next, we walked to Maggiano’s Little Italy, where we had lunch with both Mike and Ben Karlin, co-founder and director of Q Mixers, and a Brown Class of ‘98 alumnus. Q Mixers is a premium mixer brand that enhances the flavors of spirits and cocktails. Unlike conventional mixers, which are often made with artificial ingredients and high fructose corn syrup, Q Mixers are made with high-quality ingredients such as agave, ginger, and citrus. Ben shared the story of how Q Mixers became such a successful company, earning over 100 million in sales annually. He talked about the challenges he faced during the company’s development, the ins and outs of manufacturing, and current trends in the beverage industry. Ben’s main message was about redefining risk and pursuing your passions, even if others discourage you. He encouraged us to break out of the mold and follow our dreams, despite societal expectations.
Our last stop of the day was at Veson Nautical, a Boston-based company with offices in Japan, Singapore, London, and Houston. John Veson, a Brown Class of ‘96 alumnus and CEO of Veson Nautical, gave us a tour of their office and explained how they use technology to increase the efficiency and sustainability of freight voyages. Veson Nautical’s platform helps shipping companies plan their trips, manage their finances, and monitor their voyages. They have around 350 clients worldwide, including various shipping companies and workers in the maritime industry. One interesting technology they have developed measures emissions and the amount of time ships spend in restricted areas for wildlife protection. This software helps companies reduce the costs of emissions and operate more sustainably. John’s advice to us was not to be afraid to make mistakes or take unexpected paths, just like a boat on a voyage.
Overall, we had an informative and inspiring day, learning from successful entrepreneurs and traveling through Boston. We are looking forward to hosting more Synapse trips in the near future!
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 this year’s recipients are Hamzah Ansari PRIME ‘09 (left) and Troy Henikoff ‘86 (right).
Hamzah Ansari has been a tremendous resource to the Brown and local entrepreneurial community for years and in particular, the Nelson Center since we opened in fall 2016. It is common to find him mentoring student startups in various Nelson Center and Engineering programs, sponsoring independent studies for students focused on entrepreneurship, and often being asked to judge pitch competitions. He consistently raises his hand to mentor students. Hamzah currently teaches the technology commercialization and entrepreneurship course in the PRIME Masters Program, and students in his class consistently comment on his dedication to them and their venture ideas. This was especially true during the last summer when he served as our inaugural Entrepreneur in Residence for the 2020 Breakthrough Lab (B-Lab) cohort, and met weekly with four venture teams, helping them all accelerate their ideas and take them to the next level.
Troy Henikoff has also been affiliated with the Nelson Center since the very beginning. First through mentoring students in office hours, speaking on campus back in 2016, and getting involved in the early stages of Van Wickle Ventures, the student-run venture fund, supported by the Nelson Center. From day one he was a teacher and mentor for the founding group of students as they launched the fund, and remains committed to working with the group as an Investment Committee Member.
They have both been generous with their time mentoring Brown students and have been instrumental in their success.
Join us on Thursday, May 6 at 4:00 pm ET 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 you 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.
TROY HENIKOFF ‘86 Troy is Managing Director of MATH Venture Partners. He was a Co-founder of Excelerate Labs, which became Techstars Chicago in 2013 where he was Managing Director through 2016. Troy also helps manage the FireStarter Fund, teaches Entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Business, and is on the board of the Chicago-land Entrepreneurial Center. Prior to Techstars Chicago, Troy was the CEO of OneWed.com, President of Amacai, and co-founder and CEO of SurePayroll.com. Troy built the technology for Jellyvision (creators of “You Don’t Know Jack!”), was the President of Systemetrics, and his first company was Specialized Systems and Software. Troy has an undergraduate degree in Engineering from Brown University and a Masters Degree in Project Management from Northwestern.
HAMZAH ANSARI ’09 Hamzah is a Lecturer in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Brown, as well as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the School of Engineering. In these roles, Hamzah mentors, coaches, and advises student and alumni ventures on topics such as strategy and due diligence; as well as on the development of soft skills such as effective communication, critical thinking, and professional networking. He also teaches highly intensive and experiential undergraduate and graduate-level classes on Technology Commercialization and Entrepreneurship within the BEO and PRIME programs, where students use lean venturing methods to take their business ideas from drawing board to marketplace. Finally, he also served as a B-Lab Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Nelson Center, this past summer in 2020.
Outside of Brown, Hamzah serves as a Senior Advisor with Rhode Island-based innovation group “The Innovation Scout”. Previously, Hamzah started Accelereach, a developer of health and wellness coaching software, right after graduating from Brown in 2009. Accelereach’s software has helped thousands of people around the country lead 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.
Tephi is the Innovation Dojo Demo Day Winner!
Congratulations to Innovation Dojo Demo Day winners Juliana Lederman ‘23 (left) and Valerie Aguilar Dellisanti ‘23 (right)! They pitched their venture Telphi, an interface designed to streamline the process of deciding what to watch. It matches user viewing preferences with the content of 240+ streaming services, allowing both individuals and groups to discover new movies and shows that they will love. Watch the demo day recording here.
WE@Brown Pitch Competition Winners!
Congratulations to the WE@Brown Pitch Competition winners! First prize went to Tiffany Thomas ‘22 (left) and Neha Mukherjee ‘22 (right) for Infotopia, which seeks to address misinformation and inform communities through technology and outreach campaigns.
Second prize went to Christine Han ‘23, for Asian Diversity Initiative (A.D.I.), a student-led nationwide nonprofit dedicated to equipping Asian American high schoolers with leadership and soft skills with a focus on cultural diversity
Fan Favorite went to Olivia Brokaw ‘22 (left) and Annika Sigfstead ‘22 (right) Glo-X, a subscription and education service that sends out a bi-monthly box with essential vitamins and protein powder for women.
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 email@example.com.
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.