If Not Now, When? Entrepreneurs at GS

If Not Now, When? Entrepreneurs at GS

If not now, when? Cover illustration, The Owl 2014. Train in a switch yard.


GS has always been a haven for military veterans and retired dancers and performing artists, yet in recent years it has also become a switchyard for entrepreneurs with an intellectual bent.

By Alexander Gelfand

That was the question facing Aaron Hagedorn ’05 one morning in 2008. At the time, Hagedorn had a job as a researcher at a financial firm in Manhattan; and while he’d managed to follow orders for five years as a helicopter rescue swimmer in the Navy before returning to school, the idea of working for someone else held little long-term appeal. That might have had something to do with his family history: Hagedorn’s grandfather had been a serial entrepreneur, and most of the Hagedorn clan had worked in the furniture and appliance store he established in southern Indiana. In any case, the opportunity to do something different seemed tantalizingly close at hand. Each weekday, as Hagedorn and his wife, model-turned-financial strategist Katarina Maxianova ’04 GS, ’05 SIPA, walked to the subway station near their East Village apartment, they passed a shoe repair shop that looked like the perfect location for a Central European-style coffeehouse modeled after the ones in Maxianova’s native Slovak Republic.

Now, suddenly, the repair shop was shuttered, the space was for rent—and the moment of truth had arrived. The couple drew up a business plan, and armed with Maxianova’s annual bonus, a veteran’s loan from the Small Business Administration, and the assistance of partners Alex Clark and Lenka O, they launched Ost Café. (Ost is German for East, as in the Ostblock, or Eastern Bloc, evoked by the old Communist posters on the walls of the café.)

The first three or four months were brutal, with Hagedorn and Clark slinging java from behind the counter 12 hours a day, seven days a week. As the café matured into a mainstay of the lower Manhattan coffee scene, however, the partners were able to hire others to handle the barista duties. Today, Hagedorn spends most of his time working from his apartment, where he can concentrate on developing the business.

Hagedorn’s story might sound like a fairytale for grown-ups: military veteran from the Midwest graduates from Columbia and builds a successful business on a dream and a lot of hard work. But it’s not as rare as it might seem, at least not for GS alumni. The college has long eyed prospective students in much the same way that a venture capital firm might treat a promising start-up, investing in those who want a nontraditional path to an Ivy League education, and giving them the flexibility and support they need to achieve their goals. And it tends to attract students with a similar appetite for risk. Students for whom the decision to attend Columbia often involves confronting the same question Hagedorn did—if not now, when?—and making the same leap of faith.

Some of those students begin their entrepreneurial careers after leaving GS. Others arrive in Morningside Heights with fairly deep resumes, and treat the School as a kind of academic oasis where they can broaden their intellectual horizons without having to put their careers on hold.

Scott Brinker ’05, for instance, had already secured a place in tech history by helping to build one of the most important computer and telecommunications companies of the pre-Internet era. In the mid-1980s, when Brinker was a high school student in South Florida, he began coding multi-player adventure games for Galacticomm, the company behind The Major BBS, a prominent commercial bulletin board system. (Galacticomm sold the modems and software required to let multiple users communicate via computer before the advent of the Internet.) Soon after, he established his own BBS and software development company; five years later, he dropped out of the University of Miami, agreed to a formal merger with Galacticomm, and went to work for the company full-time, becoming president and CEO by the time he was 21.

Before enrolling, Scott Brinker '05 had already secured a place in tech history by helping to build one of the most important computer and telecommunications companies of the pre-internet era. 

In the late 1990s, Brinker refashioned himself as an Internet technology consultant and cofounded ion interactive, a web development agency whose roster of clients included Siemens and Office Depot. Nonetheless, when he enrolled at GS, Brinker did so with a chip on his shoulder. For all his success, he still considered a college degree to be table stakes for becoming a productive member of society. And he hadn’t yet ponied up.

The former programming prodigy arrived at Columbia with a bit of a math phobia, and his first foray into theoretical computer science—a class with the renowned mathematician and computer scientist Jonathan Gross—“scared the bejesus” out of him. Terror was soon replaced by fascination, however, and Brinker took every course in the subject that he could, racking up credits part-time while working full-time at ion. His conversion was so complete that he picked up a master’s degree in computer science from Harvard after earning an MBA from MIT.

Brinker’s Columbia courses weren’t of direct use to him at work, but they did allow him to return to his real-world puzzles with fresh eyes. And the intense collaboration he enjoyed with his fellow students—all of them huddled around a whiteboard, struggling to solve problems together—served as a model for the kind of dynamic he wanted to create at ion, which he and his partners had decided to take in a new direction. (Since 2007, the firm has specialized in building cloud-based software tools to help online marketers create and manage sophisticated websites.) Perhaps more than anything, Brinker’s experience at GS reinforced his belief that the greatest gift an entrepreneur can possess is the ability to recognize that things can be different; that the way the world works today need not be the way it works tomorrow. To Brinker, who had always assumed that an Ivy League education could only be had straight out of high school in a single, four-year dose, GS offered proof that “no, actually, this can work entirely differently.”

Red train in Columbia GS switch yard

That sense of possibility appealed to Fabian Pfortmuller ’11, as well. A native of Switzerland, Pfortmuller spent a couple of semesters at the University of Zurich a decade ago, before leaving to pursue other interests. In high school, Pfortmuller had been heavily involved in student politics at the canton and federal levels, and had gone so far as to establish his own event management company in order to mount some of the largest student gatherings in the country—an experience that got him thoroughly hooked on “the whole entrepreneurial game.” Eventually, he graduated to corporate events, and spent several years building offline communities for the European social network XING.

After a while, Pfortmuller concluded that he did not want to spend the rest of his life as an event manager. “What would be the social impact of that?” asks the former political activist. So he decided to leave Switzerland and return to college in order to broaden his horizons. As a twentysomething who hadn’t cracked a textbook in five years, however, Pfortmuller feared being the proverbial “stupid old kid in class.” When he stumbled across GS, he couldn’t quite believe that such a place existed. He applied in April of 2008, arrived in New York City in August, and began classes one week later.

Pfortmuller’s visa required him to study full-time, but he still managed to launch two new enterprises while pursuing a degree in Middle Eastern studies. “It was an intense three years,” he says. Sandbox, a social networking service that connects more than 800 under-30 overachievers to a global community of peers and mentors, came close to bankruptcy several times. “We had absolutely no business model when we started,” Pfortmuller says. Today, however, Sandbox attracts corporate sponsors for its annual events and charges consulting fees to companies that are eager to brainstorm with its dues-paying members, who are organized around hubs in 25 cities on three continents. And Holstee, which began life as an online apparel company with an emphasis on sustainable design and a single product—t-shirts featuring giant, holster-like pockets–has since moved into accessories and artwork.

Some GSers begin their entrepreneurial careers after graduating. Others arrive in Morningside Heights with fairly deep resumes and treat the School as a kind of academic oasis where they can broaden their intellectual horizons without having to put their careers on hold. 

While he is sometimes described as a social entrepreneur, Pfortmuller himself—whether out of modesty or brutal honesty, it’s hard to tell—disputes the claim, insisting that he has never been motivated by the desire to solve a particular societal problem. Instead, he says, he has simply sought to do things that he enjoys; though as he admits, the activity he most enjoys is “building things that have an impact on other people.”

Joshua Gordon ’04 is less equivocal. “I want to change the world here and now,” says Gordon, who was born and raised in Israel but has built his life, and several businesses, in New York. Gordon made his first trip to the city after completing his mandatory service in the Israeli army, and fell in love with it immediately. But he only learned about GS while studying in Paris, where he met a group of Columbia students from Reid Hall, the University’s foothold on the Left Bank. Gordon enrolled, went premed—“I took a look at the contract that I had with my mother that said I had to be a doctor,” he says—and was well on his way to finishing his medical degree at NYU when he decided that he did not, in fact, want to practice medicine. So he began experimenting with other pursuits: organizing events for his fellow medical students, founding the Middle East Medical Association with the goal of coordinating healthcare throughout the region, and studying finance on the side. As graduation neared in 2008, Gordon was interviewing for a position as a healthcare analyst in the banking sector. But the global financial meltdown intervened, and he decided to go the entrepreneurial route instead.

For someone who hailed from a family of academics rather than businesspeople, and who graduated from med school with more debt than cash, the experience of trying to start a business on his own was “frightening as hell.” Nonetheless, armed with nothing more than a credit card with a $10,000 limit, Gordon soon had his first venture up and running: Nios Spa, a hair removal clinic. Gordon then used the revenue generated by Nios to fund two additional businesses. The first of these, Noya, comprises a line of all-natural kosher lip balms—a product category that existed in Israel, but remained foreign to the American market. The second, Nios Shield, is a line of SPF-rated hairstyling products. Gordon got the idea for the latter when he went to the beach one day, came back with a sunburn on top of his head, and discovered that there was as yet no such thing as hair-care with UV protection. So he invented it. The result, he says, is an entirely new category in beauty—one that aligns with his world-changing ambitions. “Hairstyling with SPF is perhaps a small start, but six per cent of cancers occur in the head and neck, and very few people think of protecting those regions,” says Gordon, sounding every inch the doctor.

Green train in Columbia GS switch yard

Gordon’s trajectory from physician to personal-care innovator might seem rather circuitous, but it’s all par for the entrepreneurial course. “Sometimes, life takes you on a path that you don’t fully plan in advance,” he says, articulating a concept with which many GS alumni are familiar. “The truth is,” he adds, “in business and entrepreneurship, nothing works according to plan—and that’s the first thing you learn.”

Judging by the long, varied, and still-evolving career of Elaine George, ’85, it may also be something that you never stop learning. Fascinated by biology but also by subjects like art, music, and anthropology, George was disappointed by her initial college experiences, and left school to work in a corporate health clinic in Manhattan. It wasn’t until her co-workers persuaded her to complete her education that she found her way to GS and discovered that she could earn a BS in Biological Sciences without abandoning her other interests—or her job. The research skills she picked up at Columbia served her well during the 10 years she spent doing clinical research for pharmaceutical companies Purdue Pharma and Schering-Plough. And they served her just as well when she decided to reassess her priorities, leave Big Pharma, and strike out on her own.

A lifelong athlete with a love for the outdoors, George picked up a masters’ degree in physical education and sports science while working full-time on drug development. Travels throughout the wilds of her home state of Connecticut, meanwhile, led to a concern over the loss of old-growth forest and native tree species, while visits to the American West gave her an appreciation for how deforestation has affected wildlife. So in 2007, George founded two ventures: Odyssey Sport Technology and Silk Tree Gardens. The first offers serious athletes help in applying the latest sports science and technology to their training regimens. The second, which occupies the bulk of George’s entrepreneurial efforts, is a container tree nursery and landscaping business with a serious environmental mission: to revive and propagate native tree species, like white birch, that have largely vanished from the scene. “Is it something that’s going to make a million dollars for me? I’m not so sure,” says George, who also works as a substitute teacher in Norwalk’s public schools. “But it’s important to me personally.” And though she muses that her career might have unfolded differently had she found her focus earlier, she evinces no regrets about following a path that has brought her closer and closer to the things about which she cares most. “As I’ve gotten older,” she says, “I’ve been allowed to pursue what I really wanted to do.”

After a while, Fabian Pfortmuller concluded that he did not want to spend the rest of his life as an event manager. "What would be the social impact of that?" asks the former political activist. 

At first blush, Jon Snyder ’92 GS, ’93 BUS, owner of the high-end gelateria Il Laboratorio del Gelato, might seem to embody a very different entrepreneurial trope: the innovator who finds his passion at an early age, and pursues it with single-minded intensity. In reality, though, his story is much more complex. “I’ve struggled with what I wanted to do with my life,” says the man who introduced New Yorkers to the joys of artisanal Italian-style ice cream back in the 1980s.

Snyder’s grandfather was a contractor who built many of the Carvel ice cream shops in the New York region, and he kept the last one he erected—a drive-up stand in Peekskill, NY—for himself. Snyder grew up working summers there alongside his siblings and cousins (his grandmother and, later, his mother ran the operation); but he didn’t go straight into the frozen-treat business. A strong science student with an interest in the stock market, Snyder spent the year after high school working as a margin clerk on Wall Street, then enrolled in the Colorado School of Mines to study engineering. A summer trip to Italy between his freshman and sophomore years sparked a gelato obsession, however; and though he returned to New York to continue his studies at Brooklyn Polytechnic, the die was cast. After pulling in a couple of cousins as helpers and raising $25,000 from family and friends, Snyder left school in 1984 to launch Ciao Bella, a wholesale gelato supplier in lower Manhattan.

Carving out a niche for the city’s first purveyor of small-batch, handcrafted gelato was a long and grueling process. Three years passed before Snyder could take any money out of the business, and for the first four he did pretty much everything from making the gelato to delivering it. By the time he sold the company in 1989, Snyder was selling gelato to some 60 restaurants and generating revenues of approximately $200,000; but he was also thoroughly burnt out, and had little desire to ever handle an ice cream scoop again. (The new owners turned Ciao Bella into a national brand, and moved the company’s headquarters to New Jersey.)

By then 25 years old and unsure of what to do next—“there was some mourning to do; Ciao Bella was really my life,” he says—Snyder knew that he wanted to stay in the city. He also wanted to finish his education. So he turned to GS, ultimately completing the college’s combined program with the Columbia Business School. There followed seven years in the financial services industry, first at Lehman Brothers and then at ABN Amro. But Snyder wasn’t happy trading equities, and his old entrepreneurial urges eventually began to reassert themselves. It wasn’t until the events of 9/11, however, when his brother narrowly avoided the collapse of the World Trade Center, that Snyder's own “if not now, when?” moment arrived, and he felt compelled to open another business in Manhattan—and to return to his roots in ice cream.

By the time he sold the company in 1989, Jon Snyder was selling gelato to some 60 restaurants and generating revenues of approximately $200,000; but he was also thoroughly burnt out, and had little desire to ever handle an ice cream scoop again.

Thus was born Il Laboratorio del Gelato, which follows in the wholesale footsteps of Ciao Bella—the company supplies more than 250 flavors, many developed in collaboration with local chefs, to more than 500 restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn—but adds a hip retail storefront on Ludlow Street. Though Snyder says he embarked on his second act in the gelato business with limited expectations, Il Laboratorio does more than $2 million in annual sales. And it’s another family affair: Snyder’s sister helps with the books, and his mother, now 80, lives in an apartment above the shop and comes down seven days a week to lend a hand. (A former night-shift nurse, she’s often the first one in at 3am.)

It’s been a long, winding road from ice cream to finance and back again. But throughout, Snyder followed his bliss as best he could, letting his interests lead him where they might. In the end, his take on the late-stage success of Il Laboratorio could be read as a life lesson for entrepreneurs in general—and perhaps for anyone who isn’t quite sure where they’re headed in terms of job or career, much less how they’ll get there.

“You find your passion,” says Snyder, “and the money will find you.”