From Nigeria to Hong Kong to Belgium, and points far and wide, exceptional alumni make startup magic in every corner in the globe.
- May 01, 2017
In June 2014, after five years in the marketing department at Coca-Cola, Jonas De Cooman, ’16 (EXP-21), felt stalled intellectually. He was ready to push his boundaries. He planned to pursue his MBA while continuing at Coca-Cola. Then unexpected policy changes at work eliminated continuing education support for De Cooman, and it looked like his plans were crumbling.
So he sold his apartment.
With two small children, De Cooman and his wife carefully weighed their options and the risks involved. Selling their apartment in Belgium provided the only way to afford his MBA. “I decided to pursue an MBA to kickstart my personal learning curve,” he said.
De Cooman realized that he wanted to gain more control over his career and make his own mark in the global marketplace as an entrepreneur. With an extensive consumer marketing background, a global perspective, and a promising business idea, he also saw knowledge gaps he needed to fill in order to launch and operate a scalable new business.
“I am driven by personal growth and I felt that I was not learning at the same pace that I used to be learning at the start of my career,” he said. “I chose to study again because I didn’t feel equipped enough to be an entrepreneur.”
Honing the Pilot at GNVC
When De Cooman started the Executive MBA Program Europe in 2014, he had an inchoate idea for a startup—a platform that would make it possible for consumers to buy what they see on their favorite shows. But he had little idea of how to bring that idea to life.
The Global New Venture Challenge provided just the crucible he needed to forge a core team and a refined business proposition. Dubbing his idea Appiness, De Cooman—together with his cofounder Michel De Wachter—assembled a team with Max Grimminger, ’16 (EXP-21), Omri Krigel, ’16 (EXP-21), Erez Mathan, ’16 (EXP-21), Bertrand Mignot, ’16 (EXP-21), and Christian Wolff, ’16 (EXP-21).
“GNVC gave us the structure we needed around milestones that ensured we looked at every aspect of the business,” De Cooman said. “We had access to key people with the relevant domain knowledge to help us get a deep understanding of what we needed to succeed.”
By collaborating with highly experienced partners in all of the key areas of the business, from marketing to tech, finance, and legal, he was able to flesh out his original idea, an app for consumers.
“The NVC process is so powerful because you cannot pitch a business well unless you really understand the business at its core,” said Waverly Deutsch, clinical professor of entrepreneurship. “We’re not just teaching these people how to write an investor deck or a business plan, or how to pitch to their investors. We’re teaching them how to understand the core elements of their business model.”
“The ability to pitch to high-caliber investors, learning from other teams’ experiences and iterating what you’re doing in a safe environment, is priceless,” Mathan added. “It saves time and costly mistakes entrepreneurs make all the time that no other startup-success book can save.”
De Cooman’s Appiness concept had a strong technical and marketing foundation that impressed his colleagues at Booth. Wolff was immediately drawn to the idea for Appiness. “It was clearly a brilliant idea,” he said. “Not just the marketing idea, but the technology that would be leveraged.”
Wolff’s background in banking and his no-nonsense approach to risk assessment made him a great foil to De Cooman’s innovative vision. The Appiness team used the GNVC experience to look at every aspect of the business and create a plan for launch and growth that could withstand the challenges of the media, tech, and entertainment markets.
“When I started at Unilever in 2005, marketing was a right-brained form of art, where the focus was on storytelling . . . . By 2015, marketing had turned into a left-brained science.”
What Is Appiness Anyway?
Imagine you are home on the couch, having a beer in front of the TV or relaxing with your family, watching a popular sitcom. You see your favorite character from, say, The Big Bang Theory enter a scene wearing a jacket you just have to own. You want to buy it, but how?
De Cooman had imagined just such a scenario, and he set out to build the mechanism to get you your coveted garment. With more than eight years of experience in consumer product marketing before he came to Booth, De Cooman had honed a keen sense of how the continuing changes in consumer habits create new opportunities.
“When I started at Unilever in 2005, marketing was a right-brained form of art, where the focus was on storytelling, and ensuring the ‘story’ had a large enough audience,” De Cooman said. “By 2015, marketing had turned into a left-brained science.” The explosion of digital channels had shifted the focus toward a return on marketing investment.
Sensing a market opportunity, De Cooman—with De Wachter and the rest of the Appiness team—developed a suite of tools that make it possible for television viewers to buy products that appear in the shows they are watching—a new kind of product placement for the new millennium. With one such tool, the consumer-facing Spott app (spott.tv), you can synchronize your phone with the TV content. You can browse the cool clothes the character is wearing on The Big Bang Theory. With a few taps, you can select that awesome jacket and buy it online, all while sitting on your couch. Banking on people’s predilection to do everything—eat, work, work out, watch TV—with a phone in hand, Appiness has opened up a new avenue for advertising and e-commerce retailers to reach multitasking shoppers.
Appiness developed not only the Spott smartphone app for consumers, but the back-end business platform that makes all the content connectivity magic happen. At the core of the technology powering Appiness sits an algorithm developed by the University of Ghent. De Cooman and team licensed the algorithm to build the Appiness platform. The next step required assembling a technology team to design the business-side platforms that would ultimately create new e-commerce opportunities for advertisers in the entertainment and media industry. De Cooman leveraged his marketing expertise to position those business platforms strategically to capitalize on evolving consumer behaviors. In turn, Wolff helped the group create a sustainable financial structure and intelligently manage the risks and reflect the impact when accessing new business opportunities with potential media-industry partners.
Along the way, De Cooman has taken care to keep the Appiness team focused on the job at hand. “In the media industry, everything looks shiny and great. It is critical to prioritize opportunities,” De Cooman said. “Within Appiness, my role is often to bring the group down to Earth.”
Appiness Takes Flight
The early stages of a startup are critical, particularly for one trying to survive and thrive in the media industry. During this critical period of germination, Appiness had one crucial resource: the remarkable Chicago Booth network. Of the $3.44 million raised to date, $1.18 million came from Booth alumni, including many Chicago Booth Angel Network investors. Fifteen Chicago Booth alumni worldwide have invested in the company so far. The early seeding has been instrumental to the smooth takeoff of the nascent company vying for opportunities within a highly competitive industry.
Through accelerator programs and investor support, Appiness has been able to open offices in Brussels, London, Brazil, and Seoul, Korea. In Brazil, a partnership with Brazil-based FSB Communications has served as a springboard for the Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo offices, led by De Cooman’s Booth classmate Diego Ruiz, ’16 (EXP-20).
The office in Seoul—the Asian epicenter for entertainment and K-pop generator to the world—is notable as the only Appiness outpost so far established without a direct Chicago Booth leg up. In a pool of more than 2,400 burgeoning businesses, the Appiness team participated in the new South Korea–based accelerator, K-Startup. The government-sponsored startup competition offered Appiness the opportunity to earn its way to break ground in Asia. Appiness was one of 20 new globally based businesses-in-development awarded funds and office space to enter the market.
The expansion around the globe plays a key role in making more headway in the United States, where Appiness has already made inroads through partnerships and investors. “The challenge is to have reached a certain level of market penetration in Europe, Latin America, and Asia when conquering the US market,” said current board member and original GNVC team member Wolff. Through established relationships with several large business partners in North America, Appiness is already eyeing the huge potential for future business growth in the United States.
Happily ensconced with his family in a new home in Belgium when he’s not traveling the globe, De Cooman has seen Appiness grow into a startup to watch, perhaps coming to a channel near you. Stay tuned.
—By Eva Yusa
With her Lagos, Nigeria-based startup She Leads Africa, Afua Osei, MBA ’13, MPP ’13, is coaching young African women on how to realize their dreams.
The judges of the Social New Venture Challenge were very mean to me!” said a laughing Afua Osei, MBA ’13, MPP ’13. “Maybe there was a bit of tough love present.”
Osei and her team were asking for feedback on an early version of her startup, She Leads Africa, a digital media company that provides networking and career coaching to young African women. “When you talk about a business focused on women, people already are not sure what you’re talking about,” Osei said. “When you talk about Africa, people are like, ‘Do they even have internet there?’”
But those critical questioners forced Osei to carefully refine her business plan and pitch strategy—valuable preparation as she gets ready to approach investors next year.
After her first year at Booth, Osei worked at a mobile-technology company in Lagos, Nigeria. She saw a colleague passed up for a promotion, and Osei thought the woman would have been more successful if she had access to coaching and development. At Booth, “there’s a whole career services department focused on your success,” Osei said. “I wanted to work on a resource to help young African women with mentorship.”
“You have to have that internal motivation and that internal push . . . if you want to reach these exceptional goals.”
Though her team didn’t win the SNVC, Osei carried the idea to her postgraduation job with McKinsey in Lagos. There, she met Yasmin Belo-Osagie, who worked with her to launch She Leads Africa in 2014.
“I see all the opportunities I have in life as building blocks,” Osei said. “I wouldn’t have gotten the job at McKinsey if I wasn’t at Booth. If I wasn’t at McKinsey, I wouldn’t have found my cofounder. Booth was an important stepping stone to give me access to other opportunities.” Two colleagues from her Social New Venture class even came to Lagos during the first She Leads Africa training boot camp to work with the entrepreneurs.
Today, She Leads Africa reaches 250,000 women across 30 countries. Its pitch competitions for startups headed by female entrepreneurs give women a chance to present to potential investors and win funding.
In 2016, the company hosted events in seven cities spanning six countries and three continents. This year, it plans to continue those events and add new digital features such as podcasts.
She Leads Africa recently launched a partnership with Facebook to train women in digital marketing skills. The company also will host a beauty accelerator for L’Oreal South Africa to identify new product ideas. Osei hopes to connect with people in the Booth community who want to develop business opportunities in Africa.
Her graduate work prepared her for the long hours and sacrifices that running a startup entails. When she applied to Booth, she already was studying at the Harris School of Public Policy. She prepped for the GMAT on Friday and Saturday nights and gave up her spring break to take the exam. “You have to have that internal motivation and that internal push,” she said. “If you want to reach these exceptional goals, you have to do the work.”
In January, She Leads Africa hosted the SLAY Festival, where more than 1,200 young women learned about innovation, culture, creativity, and technology. “We want to build this as a pan-African and global destination for coming up with new products and ideas,” Osei said. “In a couple of years, I hope we will have 100,000 people.”
—By Amy Merrick
With Hong Kong-based IvySpace, Caroline Hsiao Van, ’83, helps international students make their mark at America’s finest institutions.
Caroline Hsiao Van, ’83, inherited from her parents a sense of adventure and a strong desire to bridge cultures. Those traits have inspired her travels, her global career, and her entrepreneurial projects.
Van’s father came to the United States from China on a Norwegian cargo ship in 1943, during the Sino-Japanese invasion. Her mother made a similar passage five years later on an American war ship. After earning their PhDs, they worked at the University of Minnesota—her mother did research in the biochemistry department, her father taught—and they would gather the entire local Chinese student community at their house for the New Year’s celebration.
Van’s parents wanted their children to learn firsthand about other places in the world. When her father was lecturing in Eastern Europe and Asia, sponsored by the Academy of Sciences, the family moved around with him for five months in 1973. Van lived in Hungary, Poland, the former Yugoslavia, Romania, and China. “We visited 25 countries before I went to college, and also drove across America from one Holiday Inn to another,” Van said. “The adventure of seeing the world was so rich.”
In 1979, Van graduated from Yale and looked for a job where, as a US-born woman with Chinese parents, she would be judged on the quality of her work rather than on her background. “I figured that if you can get the markets right more than wrong, then no matter your gender or race, your performance will dictate your success,” she said. She joined what was then the First National Bank of Chicago and was accepted into their First Scholars program, attending night classes at Chicago Booth. One of the last classes she took was Small Business Management, which required a final group paper on a business plan for an entrepreneurial project. In 1982, entrepreneurship was “kind of a new idea,” Van said, “and it was probably the most fun class.”
“For all the ills that we’re dealing with in this world, education is the most important cure.”
Following a series of finance jobs, Van moved with her husband in 1988 to Hong Kong, where she helped Morgan Stanley open its foreign-exchange business. Eventually, she left banking, raised her four children, and turned her attention to volunteer work. “I was interested in startups because I had started two businesses for Morgan Stanley, one in New York and one in Hong Kong,” she said. “It takes several years to build something up and reap the profits, but I really enjoyed that whole startup mentality, because it enabled one to instill one’s own value system.”
In recent years, Van volunteered with a nonprofit organization that has become Future Generations University, which trains community leaders worldwide on change strategies, and which a decade ago helped to start a youth-based environmental movement called the Green Long March in China.
Van also spent four years on the Yale Alumni Board, where she met a couple of young Yale grads working on IvySpace, a startup aiming to disrupt Asia’s college-consulting and test-prep industries by utilizing a more peer-to-peer approach. IvySpace pairs students with aspirations to study in the United States with mentors from Ivy League and other top-tier universities for live one-on-one mentorship in English improvement, academic tutoring, and authentic admissions guidance from those who have “been there and done that.”
“It’s like Airbnb for mentorship,” said Van, who became a founding partner of IvySpace and helped the company raise more than $500,000 in its angel round of funding in 2015. Thousands of students and mentors from around the world have already connected using the platform.
IvySpace has become a way for Van to support the values her parents instilled in her. “For all the ills that we’re dealing with in this world, education is the most important cure,” she said. “When people are educated and compassionate, they can talk more knowledgeably about things in a way that can lead to peaceful resolutions and understanding.”
—By Amy Merrick
Leaving behind a molecular genetics lab, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia–based retail entrepreneur Noura Abdullah, ’08 (EXP-13), saw her startup designs come to life in home-furnishings venture Aura Living.
Noura Abdullah, ’08 (EXP-13), lives in Riyadh. On the day of our interview, however, she’s in London, working on a new project that she’s excited about but can’t discuss publicly yet. She’s also developing an e-commerce site for Aura Living, the Saudi Arabian home-furnishings brand that she launched in 2011. And she’s negotiating plans for a new Aura Living store that she expects to open in August in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
As she explains how she juggles all these ideas, it’s hard to imagine Abdullah in her previous career in molecular genetics, working in isolation day after day. “Although I adore genetics, sitting there in a lab working on my own was not really right for me,” she admitted. “I like being in an environment that is interactive. Doing my MBA helped in expanding my horizons, so that I could do what I was passionate about—design and retail.”
When Abdullah brought Aura Living to the Global New Venture Challenge in 2014, the judges were skeptical that she could successfully transform from a scientist to a brand maven. Her team didn’t make the finals, but it left the competition with a fully formed business plan, which helped the team get funding afterward. Abdullah was convinced that the Saudi retail business was lacking homegrown design. The industry, she said, operates largely as an oligopoly, with a handful of companies working on a franchise model to bring well-known global brands such as IKEA to local consumers.
Western brands “do not cater to the tastes of a Middle Eastern audience,” she said. “Our best-selling bed at Aura Living is a king-size, royal-blue velvet bed. Our best-selling table seats 12.” It’s hardly typical merchandise for a Pottery Barn.
“Doing my MBA helped in expanding my horizons, so that I could do what I was passionate about—design and retail.”
Today, Aura Living has three locations in Saudi Arabia and a recently opened store in Doha, Qatar. While Abdullah can’t disclose sales figures, she said revenue excluding new stores increased 25 percent in the most recent fiscal year, at a time when other retailers in the region have reported declines of 15 percent to 30 percent. Her goal is to cover the rest of the Middle East and North Africa in the next five years.
Creative marketing tactics and colorful magazine features have helped to spread the word about the brand. Lacking the funds to buy billboard space, Abdullah customized a truck with clear acrylic walls, put furniture inside, and has it driven around town. Customers who take a picture of the truck and hashtag “#auraliving” on Instagram get a chance to win dinner inside it.
Aura Living also has been featured in about 150 publications in the Middle East, including Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, Architectural Digest, and Martha Stewart Weddings. But the good PR also caused some problems in the beginning. “When people walked past the store, they thought we were high end,” even though the target market is middle-income customers, Abdullah said. While those who came in often ended up buying, she wanted more people to examine the merchandise. She started displaying tasteful signs showing the items’ prices, and the number of customers entering the store increased dramatically.
That willingness to constantly tweak her ideas is an important element of Aura Living’s success. “People tend to have an emotional attachment to their idea,” she said. “The Booth network is very willing to help and quite honest in terms of their feedback.” Her advice: “Try to distance yourself a little bit, and listen to what people are telling you, and keep improving your concept.”
—By Amy Merrick
Juan Cartagena, ’12 (EXP-17), found a way to track and share trustworthiness online with his Madrid-based startup Traity.
Juan Cartagena, ’12 (EXP-17), was fuming. He had purchased a laptop through an online classifieds website in the United Kingdom similar to Craigslist. He’d already paid the guy. But as time passed, and the computer failed to arrive, he had to admit that he had been scammed.
In the Executive MBA Program, Cartagena’s frustration fueled conversations with Matthew S. Bothner, at the time a Booth associate professor of organizations and strategy. Bothner’s research focuses on the measurement and consequences of social status. “We started to speak about what reputation was, how reputation worked offline, and how we could bring reputation to things that matter online,” Cartagena said.
Those discussions guided Cartagena and two cofounders to form Traity, a Spanish company that compiles and assesses online information about its users to build a reputation score. That score can be used to verify a person’s identity and trustworthiness when two people who don’t know each other want to enter a transaction. Bothner became an early investor.
More than 4.5 million people have signed up for Traity’s reputation “passports” since the company launched in 2012. But transparency, Cartagena discovered, isn’t for everyone. When he spent time in Silicon Valley working on the business, he said he learned that companies such as Uber and Airbnb don’t want a score that can travel with you—including to a competitor’s app. They want you to stay in their own service, building your history through repeated purchases. Silos are good for their business.
“My salary is $30,000. I have no house, no car. Traity could close, and I could get nothing for years of work. . . . But I would not change it, because I am already in the circle, and I love it.”
Insurance companies have been more receptive. Traity is exploring microinsurance: insurance with low premiums and low caps. In 2017, the company launched a microinsurance product, a chatbot called Kevin. Let’s say that Cartagena wants to try again to buy a laptop online. He and the seller would contact Kevin, which would research the identity of both parties and issue a recommendation. If Kevin says the deal looks good, but Cartagena gets scammed again, he would be reimbursed up to $100.
Traity is based in Spain, but, Cartagena said, “I live on a plane,” rarely spending more than two nights in the same place. Most of the engineering team is in Madrid, and the 12-person company also has an employee in Hungary, one in London, and a new hire in Australia. Its investors hail from places such as Hong Kong, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, and the United States. “We call ourselves a micromultinational,” Cartagena said.
Traity has raised three rounds of funding, for $50,000, $700,000, and $4 million. If the company successfully completes its latest round at the end of this year, Cartagena plans to expand Traity to more countries, including the United States.
As he plans his next steps, Cartagena relies on his Booth education. “Every time my team and I discuss strategy, we do it in terms of game theory, which might not be the case if I had not studied at Chicago,” he said. But no course, he adds, can prepare students for how hard it is to launch a company.
“You should not look at the books of [Virgin Group founder] Richard Branson,” he said. “My salary is $30,000. I have no house, no car. Traity could close, and I could get nothing for years of work. It’s really not for everyone. But I would not change it, because I am already in the circle, and I love it.”
—By Amy Merrick
Meet the newest member of the NVC family, serving graduates from across the University of Chicago and from all over the world.Polsky Center Launches Accelerator for Alumni-Led Startups