A Company I Admire

Cognitive ToyBox is committed to developing solutions that help every child reach his or her potential. We know that the secret sauce to scalable early education tools lies at the intersection of technology and better support for educators and parents. We also recognize that to develop something that is effective, we must start with first principles: research on how a child’s brain develops. This is why we start with research first and use it as a launchpad to build our products.

One organization that shares this philosophy, and that I deeply admire, is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. CZI is committed to undertaking the research and development efforts to understand what works. Moreover, I deeply admire CZI’s co-founder, Priscilla Chan. Her experience as a pediatrician, educator and philanthropist makes her an early childhood education “triple-threat”. She is well-versed in the importance of early childhood from both a health and education experience. She also has the operational experience as a former teacher to understand how to implement solutions. Finally, she has the resources to provide the risk capital to prove out the efficacy of the most promising opportunities. I am so glad that there are individuals like Priscilla Chan who serve as advocates in helping all children realize their full potential.

CZI does inspiring work in the field of education and gives me hope for the future. I am very glad that some of the brightest minds of our generation, like Priscilla Chan, are working on solutions to support children in their earliest years.

Tammy Kwan, Cognitive Toybox

Smart Risks

There’s this image that people have of what a “real” entrepreneur looks like:

Step 1: Quit your job

Step 2: Start your company

Step 3: Eat ramen for many, many years

Step 4: Hope

I’ve never seen the logic behind this approach, and because of that, I figured the (entrepreneur)ship—sorry, couldn’t help myself—had sailed given the first few decisions I made after graduating from college (e.g., small things like going to law school, becoming a lawyer).

Thankfully, one of my mentors shared something that totally changed my outlook: Real entrepreneurs don’t seek risk, they calculate it and they mitigate it. 

Sure, founders by definition are risk-takers. But, the only way to beat the odds is to take smart risks.  Quitting your job before you even know if you’ve landed on a solution that people actually need and want, before you’ve established your business model, before you’ve identified your customers? That’s an objectively not-so-smart risk. 

Entrepreneurship doesn’t need to be experienced in a pressure cooker of your own making, where you can’t choose the strategy that’s smartest for your business because it also means that you can’t pay rent next month.  In fact, a team of researchers studied this exact issue, setting out to determine whether you should quit your day job if you want to do something entrepreneurial. They concluded that those who kept their jobs while pursuing another venture were 33% less likely to fail than those who quit their jobs altogether.  They explain that a staged approach, where entrepreneurs can take the time to gain important knowledge about their new businesses “has important implications for new business survival.”

It’s a trade-off, of course, and there’s something very valid to be said about passion and throwing caution to the wind, especially if that’s your particular M.O. and it results in your best work.  But, learning that there are other options that fit my style and instincts opened up a totally new, dynamic path to entrepreneurship that works for me.  

However, for the record, ramen is delicious.

Divya Jayachandran, Grocer8

Success is a Long Game

I had a mentor once tell me “Expect to succeed, but don’t be surprised when you fail along the way.” This is one of the most succinct and accurate sentences I have heard used to sum up the experience of entrepreneurship. To me, there are three interpretations of this quote:

In order to get anywhere with a startup confidence is paramount. When starting a business there are so many variables that are out of your control. There is so much unpredictability. There often is a great amount of risk. It takes an almost blind confidence in yourself, in your team, in the idea, and in luck to be able to put all of the unknowns out of your mind and work every day towards the goals of the project. From a psychological perspective an expectation of success and a willingness to brush off pitfalls is immensely important to keep morale high and to keep pushing forward.

Confidence is contagious. No startups were built alone. Every team has had help from outside resources. At the beginning persuading outside resources is incredibly difficult because there really is no solid proof that your idea can transition from the ether to something tangible. Convincing anyone to join your team, to partner with you, or to invest in your company, in the absence of hard proof, is left to their perception of you. As the expert on your idea an air of confidence goes a long way in lowering the perceived risk in others’ minds. “I know this will work” is always better than “I really hope this works.”

Finally, success is a long game. If we interpret this advice to mean success over a career rather than success of a single startup we dive into the reality of successful entrepreneurs: many of them have had failed businesses before they found a successful one. Personally, I am on my third project. Yesterday I was talking with someone who had eight before he had one that worked. But that is part of the process. My current venture is further than my second and my second venture made it much further than my first. The reason for this is that failing is one of the most effective learning tools. By evaluating why something didn’t work out you gain skills to avoid the same issues in the future. Embrace failure when it comes. Every successful entrepreneur has experienced it. If you look at a failure as a process to collect and hone new skills it becomes a partial success. I like to tell people that my startup has already succeeded because I have learned more from this experience than I ever have in any other way before. And though I am fully convinced my current venture is the one, if it isn’t I will continue to work on more.

Ryan Gary of emcee

Work ≠ Success

Before mentioning the best startup advice I’ve received, I’ll state the worst. One friend, an early employee of a now-successful men’s grooming company, told me, “I’d never want [to be a founder], there’s way too much work!” How ridiculous. Revising that statement, I’d say, “I’d never want to be the founder of a company I’m not passionate about.” Inherent in starting a company is the creation of work. But cultivating something I believe in has been exhilarating, and fun.

During a time when the thought of starting a company like Fortify Rehab was less realistic to me than our president’s hair color, I read the book “Rework,” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeir. Absorbing some of those lessons helped make the process less intimidating, and sparked in me a glimmer of hope. A few takeaways have stuck with me in the few years since I’ve read it.

“The core of your business should be built around things that wont change.”

As a medical student, this aspect of the book inspired me to think about the major health problems many people have, and will continue to have forever. Andrew and I were both horrified at the magnitude of physical decline many of our patients, and grandparents, faced while on bedrest. Aging people are especially vulnerable to this problem, as they cycle in and out of hospitals, permanently losing a portion of their strength and mobility with each bout. Our population is only getting older. And exercise will always be an invaluable way to improve health.

“People like real flowers that wilt, not perfect plastic ones that never change.”

Another major takeaway was to remain confident, especially if you believe in the importance of the problem you are solving for others. Idiosyncrasies should not be hidden, they should be flaunted. We’ve found that the more we tap into the powerful emotions encompassing the issue at hand, the more people respond and are willing to help.

And finally, my favorite:

“Our culture celebrates the idea of the workaholic… not only is it unnecessary it’s stupid. Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more.”

This tenet of the book helped shed the intimidation factor of starting a company for me; it solidified that problems are solved with creativity, and not the brute force of time. Of course, creativity is no substitute for the hours required to pass through the thick brush of red tape in our way. We still have a lot of hacking to do in that respect. That being said, maintaining focus on our ultimate goal (helping people maintain their independence) and the most immediate issues at hand have kept us from getting overwhelmed (for the most part), and have kept this from being “work.”

Will Small of Fortify Rehab

Half Down, Half To Go: What Grocer8 Has Been Up To (And What’s To Come)

Time is flying. Graduation came and went over a month ago, we’ve passed the halfway mark for 2018, and SVF is officially five weeks in. It’s hard to keep up with the days passing by so quickly, but Grocer8 is staying the course, advancing towards our upcoming trip to San Francisco, and the milestones that will accompany.

Long before summer kicked off, my co-founder and I sat down to map out the next 6 months. We wanted to give ourselves real milestones to accomplish and work towards, as we learned early on that we are both deadline oriented and motivated by setting and achieving goals. Our first milestone, we decided, was our SVF trip to San Francisco, an opportunity to network with entrepreneurs, investors and mentors. With that, we knew we needed to refresh the current state of our site so we could get to a point where we were ready to onboard users. We would need to work quickly, and identify new hires and designers who would be able to help us, but we were confident we could make the mid-July deadline work.

Five weeks into SVF, we are on track to meet our goals. We have brought on an incredible engineer to join our team, as well as a summer intern. We have brought on experienced front-end designers to refresh our current site, and update our features to ensure we have an engaging, user-friendly platform. In the short-term, we are focusing on building an audience on social that we will use as a touch point to our brand to grow awareness and drive users to our platform via compelling visuals and knowledgeable product advice. Come August, we will be in full user acquisition mode, using a variety of techniques to build our first community on the platform, who we can engage and learn from as they interact with the site. We are also in the process of identifying brands to partner with for some early studies, and have already locked one partner who is interested in working with us and excited about the data and insights Grocer8 will provide.

It is an exciting time for us, as we build out what has for so long been an idea in our minds. As fulfilling it is to check off our to-do lists with accomplishments, we know our tasks will only multiply as we bring Grocer8 to life – and we can’t wait to see what’s next.  

Emily Wallen of Grocer8

What's Luck Got To Do With It?

On a scale of 1 to 5, how lucky are you?

This, I would learn at Project Entrepreneur, is Rent the Runway Jennifer Fleiss’ favorite interview question to ask candidates. And not because of some deep spiritual reason. But because she wants to know whether, faced with rejection and failure, you will be a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty kind of person. When it feels like you could hit rock bottom, do you trust your gut and continue to create opportunity, or just call it quits?

Moments before attending this conference, I was listening to NPR’s “How I Built This” podcast with Guy Raz during my morning run. I noted that almost all of his interviews ended with a final question: “How much of your success do you attribute to your skill, your intelligence, your hard work—and how much of it to luck?”

Each answer was pretty telling of the entrepreneur’s personality. One that resonated with me, from Instagram’s Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger:

“I have this thesis that the world runs on luck; the question is what you do with it. Everyone gets lucky for some amount in their life and the question is are you alert enough to know you’re being lucky or you’re becoming lucky? Are you talented enough to take that advantage and run with it and do you have enough grit, do you have enough resilience to stay with it when it gets hard?”

As a Latina woman in business, I always rejected that the idea of “luck” played any role in my success. A McKinsey associate once told me, “I don’t think you realize how lucky you are to be a minority: If you perform as well as your male counterpart, you’ll get the promotion over him because The Firm values diversity”. Nah… Hard work was going to get me that promotion, not luck.

But as an entrepreneur, I’m beginning to embrace the meaning of luck on a different level. Yes, entrepreneurs want to know that their perseverance, preparation, and talent (things they can control) impact their success. But to some extent, entrepreneurs also have to feel lucky. It’s the illusion of luck that fuels the confidence needed to move mountains when all odds are against you, when you have to listen to a thousand no's before getting a single yes.

Thinking back on the past few months, I look at Pepper’s progress and feel extremely lucky! Here’s a quick update (I’ll let you decide if it’s due to luck or hard work ;) )

1.     We got accepted into NYU’s Summer Launchpad, a two-week intensive accelerator that trains students on Steve Blank’s Lean Startup methodologies, and won the Stern Venture Fellowship, an immersive summer program that offers incredible workshops, mentorship, and resources to advance our venture. We’ve had the opportunity to meet advisors from amazing startups like Zola, CourseHorse, and Birchbox.

2.     We were featured on MSNBC’s Your Business with JJ Ramberg. Being on TV was definitely a once in a lifetime experience! And the best news is that the judges loved our concept, awarding us a spot pitching at the BlogHer Conference in front of thousands of influencers.

3.     We received our first two term sheets, one from a micro-seed fund and another from an angel investor. After a lot of soul searching, we ended up walking away from the former offer because the terms weren’t right for us. (We were incredibly lucky to have had proper legal counsel). We took this as a huge learning experience that gave us clarity on what the ‘dream’ partner looks like for Pepper. This led us to form a long-lasting relationship with our first ever angel investor, someone who possesses not only the strategic thinking we need but who also showed passion, patience, and respect for our team.

4.     We’re working with (the best) sample-making fashion studio in New York to create our next style: a comfortable, well-fitting, and supportive wire-free bra designed with the small-chested frame in mind.

5.     We partnered with a handful of social media female influencers who are committed to advancing Pepper’s mission around body confidence and are helping us spread this movement.

Lia Winograd of Pepper

Building Strength and Legitimacy

Aside from some workshops, legal help, exposure to venture capitalists (and other such influential people), and while I was super excited to be chosen as a fellow, I didn't see what was coming.

My business partner and I have the eternal chasm that plagues most sales vs. operations relationships which is - the salespeople believe that they need to go go go (which is true) and the operations people look at the bigger picture and the mechanics of the business. They don't treat the day like a catch as catch can, but look more at the strategical projects. While I'm racing around getting in front of wine buyers, Alec is often taking care of the controls of the business. These are 2 functions that heavily rely on each other - but which don't always mold together perfectly. Such as, for me, getting back to a client and having ample inventory is #1. But that can take all of your time and leave the foundation building fallow. We once said our goal is to have global operational excellence. Of course we can't build that unless we have revenue and hence, sales.  So being forced to sit down and hammer out a solid plan with projections and structure, not just for ourselves but for our mentors in the program, has been an exercise that I, as a true salesperson, had undervalued.

Our company structure is increasingly fortified with every workshop and exercise we do. We have now looked at our myriad issues from many different angles and what we see is that we have a real business on our hands. Thanks to the fellowship, the foundational work that has always been an afterthought has become the centerpiece of what we are doing, and we find ourselves happily working until 8 pm on a Friday night. For the summer program, while I also have a full time job to pay the mortgage (I am the eternal Taurus) I don't have a lot of time to do the day to day sales. Luckily, I built in a foundation that has allowed for a doubling of our numbers every month while I can focus on the lessons of the fellowship that look at, you name it, brand strategy, online presence, forecasting, legal agreements, etc. We are in 6 states now and we have annuitized business at this point. When we go back to the sales side in a major push, likely as the fellowship concludes, we will have infinitely more strength and legitimacy. 

Mary Taylor of Mary Taylor Wine

Flatiron Health, Mark Cuban and Fortify Rehab

Before we head off on our trip to Silicon Valley, we were asked a few questions. What company do you admire and why? Who is one entrepreneur you admire and why? Here are my responses below:

Company: Flatiron Health - The successful NYC Health Tech Startup provides an electronic medical record and comprehensive tools for oncology healthcare providers. This company demonstrates that early focus is essential to a young company’s growth. Having a niche allows Flatiron to compete successfully with larger electronic medical records. Additionally, I admire their commitment to scientific advancement. Their goal is not to disrupt the medical research environment, it is to provide tools that translate research knowledge to the everyday physician. In devising Fortify Rehab, these are ideals that we hold as well.

Entrepreneur: Mark Cuban - Entrepreneurship is supposed to be fun. I think Mark Cuban best exemplifies that. He has been able to work in industries that he has expertise, create well-designed solutions, and market them better than competitors - all while having a good time. I admire his commitment to innovation and his hustle working on his early ventures. Who doesn’t like to watch him yelling at the refs when the Mavs are down by 20 to the Rockets?

As young entrepreneurs in the Stern Ventures Fellows Program, having role models as people and companies is helpful. If we are successful, we must determine what type of founder and manager we will be. Having clear company ideals and leadership is important to the management of any startup (or larger company).


Andrew Adelsheimer of Fortify Rehab

Managing Trade-offs: The Importance of Impact

In business school, we’re taught that CEOs should maximize profit and increase shareholder value. As the co-founder and CEO of an early childhood education company, this lesson is central, but I also want to ensure that the work we do is socially impactful. My team is fortunate to work closely with academics to ensure that our platform reflects the best in class research on how children learn. Through this approach, our work is inherently impactful for learning. Moreover, by serving large and diverse communities, we ensure that every child has the opportunity to live up to their potential.

One question I often get asked is how to manage trade-offs between maximizing revenues and impact. What I learned, was that with the right business model, we do not need to make these trade-offs. The right business model for a socially-minded company is one in which the social impact is embedded within the business impact. As one of my advisors puts it, “social impact business models need to pass the most evil CEO test: if the most evil CEO were to run this company, would she choose the same business model, because it is the best path towards maximizing revenues?”

At Cognitive ToyBox, we take this guiding principle seriously. Our platform is sold on an annual subscription basis to districts and community-based organizations. We chose this path because it represents the largest market size and has the most straightforward distribution channel. This path also happens to have impact embedded within it: because districts and community-based organizations serve income-qualified children through a combination of federal and state funding, we are able to reach the children who can benefit most from our research-backed solutions.

I am still learning a lot as I continue on my entrepreneurial journey, but one thing I do know is that impact should never come at the expense of revenues. Social impact happens because of business impact.

Tammy Kwan of Cognitive ToyBox

An Open Mind and Remaining Dynamic

The biggest obstacle in creating a business has been remaining open-minded throughout the process, especially in the beginning. Helping people who are bedridden maintain their strength and independence became a passion of mine as I witnessed it firsthand with my grandmother and the patients I treated as a medical student. I was excited about devoting my time to this important issue, and felt committed to our initial “solution.” It required a lot of energy to remain dynamic in my thinking early on because of the ownership I felt over the idea. However, as we learned more about how the problem affected different stakeholders, continual adjustments to our mindset were required.

By recognizing the need to be open-minded, Andrew and I have been spending the majority of our time seeking out advice from experts in relevant fields, including physicians, physical therapists, patients, and experienced entrepreneurs. We were surprised at how willing these now trusted advisors were to offer up their time. It was only through the integration of these invaluable discussions that the foundation of a business truly started to form.

Part of this challenge has been identifying and focusing on our limitations, the most glaring of which remains the conversion of an idea into a finished physical product. Communicating our ideas to the talented engineers we’ve been working with has become more refined over time. And our final product will be the physical manifestation of the hours we’ve spent seeking out advice. 

It is daunting to pursue a non-traditional career path, but the commitment to my goal drives me past that discomfort. The loss of a person’s independence affects them and their families dramatically, and can deal substantial blows to their bank accounts. The validation we have gained by speaking with those who have been affected by this issue has been a powerful force allowing us to persist. Though remaining open-minded is difficult, it will continue to be an essential tool moving forward. 

Will Small of Fortify Rehab

Being a Non-Technical Founder

The biggest obstacle to pursuing my startup idea was being a non-technical founder. When I first started conceiving the original idea behind Grocer8, it felt like there was nothing I could do to move forward without an engineer. But, one of our mentors gave me some advice that I continue to keep in mind: Move forward with what I actually CAN do myself, and stop focusing on what I can't.  

In reality, there was a ton to do before we got to the point where an engineer was crucial. This included everything from market research to branding to overall company strategy. We used various NYU resources as well as the Lean Startup Methodology (shout out to David Rose's book, The Startup Checklist), to develop a compelling business model.  We interviewed potential users, connected with people across the CPG industry, and spent lots of time immersing ourselves in existing food communities. Grocer8 changed many times over during this process, and had we put up a site on Day 1, we never would have arrived at some of the most exciting elements of our current business plan.

Plus, we learned how to do many of the things we had previously considered "technical" or outside of our skill sets. We designed and wire-framed several versions of the site using simple tools (e.g., Powerpoint and Acorn), imported our prototypes into Invision for user testing, and even put up an initial site on our own to gather some data and test out our branding ideas. We worked on building a great story, and got lots of feedback on our plan by taking advantage of every opportunity to practice pitching, whether in the classroom, in competitions, or with friends and family. We also found technical advisers, and they helped us figure out how to recruit the right teammates, and gave us the tools we needed to communicate our needs effectively. Recruiting was so much easier once we had a solid plan in place; people actually started approaching us!

Ultimately, building a company is all about problem-solving, and there are lots of problems that need solving but don't require serious technology. Focusing on what I can accomplish and learning how to keep moving forward, even if it feels like a stretch, has been the most rewarding part of entrepreneurship.

Divya Jayachandran of Grocer8

Peer Leadership and Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs are fighting to solve the world's problems everyday.  As a recent MBA graduate of NYU Stern, I am humbled and prepared to join the fight and I want to start by helping my peers secure their financial futures.  That is why I co founded Emcee - a platform for new investors to synchronize their investments and knowledge with their peers and lead one another to financial security and literacy. The world is filled with leaders whom, like entrepreneurs, aspire others to willingly follow them and through this process they elevate the next generation of leaders before them. We hypothesize the same to be true for the next generation of investors and savers and it is a hypothesis that is unfortunately lost on the financial services industry.

But why do we care?  Because millennials are saving less than earlier generations making them the least invested generation in history.

Today’s young adults are falling behind their parents and grandparents when it comes to building wealth and saving for retirement. The graph below compares the ratio of income to wealth for late baby boomers, Gen - Xers, and millennials at the same ages.

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 9.56.22 AM.png

he “robo” revolution that disrupted the financial services industry was meant to address this meta problem, yet to much disappointment. For nearly a decade, the industry leveraged technology to provide sweeping accessibility to global markets for income earners of all levels by reducing investment minimums to virtually nothing. Some digital investment advisors focus on gender based investing (ElleVest)  and others on socially responsible investing (Swell Investing) while many relied on simplifying investing through gamification and game theory (Stash). Even so, the problem is getting worse and while many socioeconomic factors are at work, the fact still remains - 60-80% of millennials don't invest in anything and even less in stocks, the best retirement vehicle available to them.

Our solution addresses the psychological reasons stunting millennials that we’ve identified through our customer discovery process, notably the fear of investing, a lack of confidence, a general distrust of financial institutions, and financial illiteracy. These psychological impediments fuel one another that turns into a cycle of procrastination and deferment:

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 9.56.29 AM.png

Our research shows that millennials are 75% more likely to invest in assets that are relatable to them by varying degrees of connections.  One way to drive this type of engagement is to matchmake millennials with assets that they can relate to, but even more profound is to make the experience of investing relatable. This is the value proposition of Emcee. Not only do we create a social experience for investing, we also provide the incentives and matchmaking for peer leadership and activism to be the driving force behind what is driving engagement on our platform. And the experience doesn't stop with investing, but rather continues with the life cycle of the user into retirement and savings accounts.  There is an opportunity to redefine personal finance.

Screen Shot 2018-07-03 at 9.56.38 AM.png

I am passionate about solving this problem, but there is more to it than that. Leaders are the ones who answer a calling or feel a sense of duty or responsibility. As a former US military service member I've experienced it first hand.  Entrepreneurship is no different and I feel a sense of responsibility to help my peers secure their financial futures in the best way I can.

Arash Asady of Emcee

Great Food, Great Idea: How Wanting to Eat Inspired Grocer8

In a crowded world of fourteen versions of gluten-free garden vegetable quinoa or multiple versions of low-carb, high-protein mini pizzas (it’s a thing), people are forced to make decision after decision as they stroll down grocery store aisles. There is no question that 2017, in addition to introducing us to the Starbucks Unicorn Frappuccino, fidget spinners and Salt Bae, also ushered in a new wave of decision fatigue – that is, the idea that the more decisions people have to make, the worse people will be at weighing all the options to make an educated choice because of energy depletion and impaired self-control. We’re already halfway into 2018, and the fatigue persists (Yanny or Laurel?) at every turn – including in our grocery stores. Do you spend $12 on the organic spelt bread from Whole Foods because you know it’s better for your diet, but you’re not sure if you’ll actually like it? Or do you just stick with the $2.39 Wonder Bread because it’s not that bad?

When it comes to food, sticking to diets is tough – we can all attest. In fact, 60% of the U.S. adult population can attest. Approximately 195 million people are watching what they eat by eliminating one more nutrients from their diet (carbs, fat, sodium, etc.). No doubt some are having an easier time of it than others, but if even 1 million of those people are anything like me or my co-founder, Divya, it would be a heck of a lot easier to stay on a diet if one of the gluten-free garden vegetable quinoas out there tasted like pepperoni pizza.

Out of this is where Grocer8 was born. We realized that the key to both helping people stick to their diets (by finding foods that tasted good to them), and helping combat decision fatigue (by helping make the decision for them) was right in front of us all along. By building Grocer8, a “Yelp for Packaged Food,” that sourced community ratings of foods and helped make personalized recommendations based on diet, taste, and flavor preferences, we could actually inform people whether or not shelling out the $12 for the spelt bread was going to be worth it. By attacking the problem head on with this initial concept, we have evolved, grown, zigzagged, and changed in every which way to get where we are to date. But what never changed was our commitment to helping people find their path to eating well, and eating great food – because at the end of the day, I want to eat well, and eat great (Gr8!) food too.

Emily Wallen of Grocer8

The Details that Matter: My Pepper Journey

We take so many details in our lives for granted. Think of buttons. They serve a very basic, functional need in the garments we wear. But where do these buttons come from? Who’s responsible for making them? How are they made?

My grandfather, a Polish Jew, fled Europe as a child before the Holocaust. He didn’t speak a word of Spanish when he stepped off the boat in Colombia, but got by on the generosity of Jews who had migrated ahead of him. After dropping out of high school to support his younger brother, he spent decades working his way to the top of a button factory and—later, as its owner—transformed it into a successful business that provided for my family and generations to come. The company’s tagline became, “buttons, far more than a detail”.

My grandfather’s story inspired me to become an entrepreneur.

The idea of Pepper came together about a year ago when my coworker and I were talking about how badly our bras fit. Bra prototypes, we found out, are typically manufactured using a mold that’s based off of a woman with an “average” bust (36C), and then those designs are shrunk down to smaller sizes. However, since the initial designs are made with a different shape of breasts in mind, it creates numerous fit issues for women with less breast tissue, including falling straps, digging underwires, and, most significantly, a bra gap. So her and I began working after hours and weekends (we both had a full-time job) to create Pepper, not just to meet the needs of an underserved, $4B U.S. market, but to help marginalized women feel confident in their own skin. We’re on a mission to “close the gap” for small-chested women, both literally and figuratively.

One of my primary goals in entrepreneurship is to expand the possibilities available to emerging Hispanic business leaders in both the US and Latin America. Pepper, which more than quadrupled its Kickstarter fundraising target, could not have made it this far without the relationship I built with a female-owned, sustainable manufacturing firm in Medellin.

I always knew I would be a business owner. But I never expected to be known as the “bra lady” in my MBA program. What inspires me about Pepper is that beyond creating bras, it’s championing the conversation around body confidence for small chested women in a society where women hear insults like "boy body" while growing up.

And it’s these very details that make it all worth it.

Lia Winograd of Pepper

Meeting Developmental Psychology and Assessment Technology

I’m Tammy, co-founder and CEO of Cognitive ToyBox, and I am thrilled to be a Stern Venture Fellow this summer. Cognitive ToyBox is a combination of my two interests in developmental psychology and technology, and I feel so fortunate that I get to do what I love every day.

I started the company with my co-founder, Dr. Brenden Lake, to bridge the gap between cutting-edge research done in academic labs and early childhood technology products. There are 80,000+ apps for children marketed as “educational,” but most are nothing more than digital candy. At the same time, there is immense potential in using technology to support early learning, if implemented in the right way. Our mission is to develop research-backed technology that can most effectively support early childhood development.

Through conversations with hundreds of early educators, parents, children, pediatricians and other stakeholders, we learned that one of the biggest pain points in early childhood education is around assessment. Currently, observation-based assessment is the most prevalent approach in Head Start and state-funded Pre-K programs. However, it is also the most burdensome for teachers, who spend 4-6 hours per week writing notes on student development, transcribing the notes into an assessment system, and then scanning for patterns within the anecdotes to guide instruction. Through technology, we know that we can not only make assessment easier for early childhood educators, but also provide more actionable data to improve childhood outcomes, especially for the most vulnerable children.

We have had the opportunity to successfully pilot our assessment technology with some of the most innovative early childhood organizations and districts. This summer, my goal is to better understand the needs of larger school districts. To do this, I will be visiting district leaders around the country to learn more about their challenges and see how our platform can best support them.

Speaking of traveling, I am already counting down the days until our Silicon Valley immersion week in July. I am excited to spend the week with David Ko, the SVF team and the rest of the cohort to learn more about the CA fundraising landscape. Until next time!

Tammy Kwan of Cognitive ToyBox

The Forest from The Trees

As Mary Taylor Wine begins the journey with the Stern Venture Fellows program, we have a lot to be grateful for and a lot to look forward to. 

I'm grateful for a number of things and we've checked off a lot of boxes already. I've been lucky with this business insofar that we chose a great product idea (luck, strategy, you decide). Our package compels retail buyers. My business partner and I work well together, and have done so for almost two years. The market is responding with enthusiasm. However, as I am accustomed to do, I am running around like a headless chicken making sales and managing the day to day necessities which is driving short term results. It's all a balancing act, in staying grateful for what we've accomplished so far and continuing to charge ahead.

One unique opportunity that the Stern Venture Fellows program is allowing Alec and I to have is to take a step back and look at the big picture - to see the forest from the trees, if you will. I am excited to build in a rock solid foundation in terms of legal, operations, finance, marketing strategy, a business plan. Then I want to learn how to translate that to investors and scale the business so that I'm not the one always beating the street (although I may never stop doing that's. It's in my DNA). I am excited to be able to properly determine if we even need investors, how to value ourselves at various stages and negotiate throughout. It is such a gift to work with all of these mentors and not feel that they genuinely want us to succeed. It's what being a part of the Stern community has to offer.  

As I look back at everything we've accomplished, I'm incredibly proud, but we also acknowledge we have a lot more to learn. This summer, I have a few hard goals including setting up a legal foundation, rewriting our marketing and business plan, redefining our elevator pitching, gathering feedback on customer interface, and so much more. These goals are complemented by more of our overarching goals such as how to attract top talent, the art of growing my network and creating lifelong contacts, being a mentee of David Ko and discovering new opportunities available to small businesses and women-owned businesses.

We have a lot to be proud of, and I'm excited to see how much further we can grow this summer. 

Mary Taylor of Mary Taylor Wine

Prototyping in the Healthcare Space

Creating products in the healthcare setting results in many different types of users. The administration must see a return on the value of care to purchase the product. The doctors must understand the medical benefit to prescribing this intervention. The use of the product must fit with the practice of nurses and physical therapists. Patients must find the device enjoyable enough to actually exercise! In order to address the numerous classes of users, we are continuing to conduct customer research and interviews. We aim to arrive at a design that meet user needs and determine the correct patient population and initial target market. The viability of our venture depends on creating a physical product that is functional and clinically useful. Therefore, one of our primary summer goals is to iterate on our prototype to create a product that is usable by patients.

As a company, Fortify Rehab aims to provide resistance training exercise devices to allow aging patients to maintain strength. Once we create a product that is usable by patients, we will be able to pilot our products at healthcare facilities this fall. Coming into the summer, we have an initial prototype of our first product, BedTrainer, which is a tool attaches to the guardrails of a hospital bed and allows for a variety of upper body movements.

Because we are making physical products, our venture is relatively capital intensive. Once we arrive at viable product, we will incur costs to design our product and legal fees to protect our intellectual property. We will also have to offer pilot institutions samples to test our products. These pilot studies will offer us invaluable data in demonstrating our value to the healthcare community. We expect this to be costly, so we are interested in discovering fundraising opportunities. We view ourselves as both a startup company and clinical research endeavor, so fundraising could come through investment or research grants. We want to exit the summer with a plan to finance manufacturing for pilot studies at our initial partner hospitals.

Andrew Adelsheimer of Fortify Rehab