Columbia Women Entrepreneurs Share Advice on “She Opened the Door” Panel

Mar 06 2018 | By Joanne Hvala | Video: Columbia Video Network

As part of Columbia University’s three-day, “She Opened the Door” women’s conference in February, Columbia Engineering Dean Mary C. Boyce moderated a panel on entrepreneurship that brought together three accomplished alumna, representing Columbia Business School, Columbia College, and Columbia Engineering.

Watch the full panel conference led by Dean Mary Boyce

Dean Boyce described Columbia’s “culture of entrepreneurship” and outlined several programs that Columbia Engineering introduced that foster entrepreneurship and the translation of research into ventures. In addition to fostering entrepreneurship at the School level, under the University umbrella, there is a large and growing entrepreneurship ecosystem that encompasses students, faculty, and alumni. More than 350 faculty innovations are evaluated each year. Alumni serve as mentors, advisors, and the source of funding for many ventures.

Dean Boyce asked each of the three panelists—Yael Alkalay ‘97BUS, Anna Brockway ‘92CC, and Jessica Tsoong ’08—about her individual path to entrepreneurship.

Alkalay, who began Red Flower, a natural beauty company, in 1999, said, “You need a catalyst to take a risk.” After working in Tokyo at the Japanese cosmetics company, Shiseido, she returned to the US to pursue her MBA at Columbia, and suffered a stroke that left her without the ability to speak or move her arm. A friend’s gift of mint-scented shampoo was the spark that provided the insight into the healing power of scent, rekindling her interest in botanical extracts and natural cures. “Moments when you take care of yourself matter,” she said.

For Brockway, who was vice president of world-wide marketing for Levi Strauss & Co. for 11 years before devoting the next 10 years to raising her three children, home decorating projects and the experience of buying and selling in the online furniture space led her to the realization that there was a business in her passion for decorating. With her husband, who was experienced in startups and securing venture capital, she launched Chairish.com, a fast-growing online destination for “chic and unique” furniture and art. The site attracts more than 2 million monthly users and has 300,000 items. She said the business is “what I want to do when I’m not working,” and advised women entrepreneurs to “put paint on the wall,” in other words, get the product into the market so that you get customer feedback and can refine it.

Tsoong’s path to co-founding WIFISLAM, a company offering technology for indoor, location-based services that she sold to Apple in 2013, took her first through finance. After graduating from Columbia Engineering, she worked at Merrill Lynch in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Seeking more autonomy and control over her career, she pursued a Master’s degree in environmental engineering at Stanford, where she met her three co-founders, and was able to call on a number of professors for advice as they built the business. “We did not start our company to get acquired,” she explained. “We were lucky.”

The women shared their individual experience and advice with the audience, and engaged in a lively Q&A session, with agreement on key points about starting a business:

  • If you have a co-founder, make sure that there is a clarity of roles and no duplication
  • Set ground rules with your co-founder
  • Choose people whom you trust and who have the ability to execute
  • Get your product out early for consumer feedback and improvement

Dean Boyce summed up, saying, “This has been a fantastic panel.  We’ve learned to take your passion and your idea and to be persistent and follow through.  Don’t be paralyzed by overthinking or over-researching—just ‘put some paint on the wall’.”