In the Bizcast episode above, Fahad Ahmed ’17 speaks with Lara Hejtmanek ’99, director of the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School.
The Lang Center is the hub for entrepreneurship and innovation activity at CBS. Since 2011, CBS student and alumni startups have raised $23 billion in funding and $226 billion in venture capital and private equity funds. About 726 venture-backed companies were launched in that period, with over 125 exits, and many of these companies received support from the Lang Center through investment, programming, or other resources.
In this episode, we hear from Hejtmanek about the Lang Center’s three-pronged approach of “launch, invest and scale,” and how it has become a destination for current and aspiring entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
She tells us how CBS’s world-class curriculum, programming, funding opportunities, and robust alumni network all come together to help students and alumni identify opportunities to engage in global conversations and drive value throughout the business world.
Watch or listen to this episode using the links above and read a transcript below.
You can catch up on old Bizcast episodes on our Podcasts page.
CBS: Lara Hejtmanek, welcome to the show, thank you so much for doing this.
Lara Hejtmanek: Thanks for having me, excited to be here.
CBS: Very excited to talk to you because you are the director of the Eugene M Lang Entrepreneurship Center, also a proud alum of Columbia Business School, is that right?
Hejtmanek: Yes, I am a huge Columbia Business School fan, I was class of 1999, cluster B. I was an art history major in undergrad, didn't know really where it was going, but I worked in a number of marketing roles and was on the founding team of three different marketing agencies throughout the beginning of my career. And through those agencies, I really eventually found myself working with a lot of founders, and early stage entrepreneurs, and found that that was something that I really loved the energy and the optimism of being around entrepreneurs. So it was always something that I kind of sought out. Started just out of my own curiosity, going to demo days around the city and talking to entrepreneurs to kind of just hear their ideas, and wanted to see where things were going in terms of technology and AI and how things the world was going to change, purely out of interest. And it just happened that one day this job sort of fell in my lap. A colleague from Columbia Business School, Jeremy Kagan, had taken over the Lang Center and I heard about it through mutual friends that he was hiring, and so I've met with him and here I am. And I'm thrilled to be back at Columbia working with the students and alumni, and it's been a really wonderful journey, been here for about three and a half years now.
CBS: Well, the Lang Center is the heart and the center of all things entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School. Can you tell us about what is the Lang Center? What's its purpose? What's the mission?
Hejtmanek: Yeah, I would add to being the heart of entrepreneurship, I would also add innovation and venture capital here. And so we, we help students and alumni launch their businesses, invest in startups, and scale those startups as well. And through that, we sponsor curriculum in both venture capital and entrepreneurship, and also a number of different programs, events and resources for both students and alumni in addition to that curriculum. So the paths, there is a very specific path with the curriculum launch, invest, and scale. And the co-curriculars go along with those support. So our mission is really to create an opportunity for everyone that comes through Columbia Business School to know what it's like to be an entrepreneur, to learn how to innovate and think big, come out with ideas that change the world. Ultimately, that will create jobs and create positive change in the world, and that's really what we want to do. and even if, let's say students come through the program, they pursue a startup and they, you know, not everyone's going to start a billion dollar company, but if you have the experience of thinking and being and acting like an entrepreneur, you can take that to many different parts of your life, no matter what it is that you do, you can work in an innovation role, role in a big company, you might innovate in your own life, you might work at a startup, or you might start your own business. And all those are things that we encourage and teach.
CBS: So let's talk about the curriculum for a second, right? So you said launch, invest, scale. If a student or a prospective student is looking to come here and let's say they just have an idea, then obviously the launch courses are the right things for them. But what about individuals who already have companies right now, is there a set way of going through the program that they have to go? Or can they sort of dive into the classes that make most sense for them where their company actually is?
Hejtmanek: Yeah, it's a great question. You can dive in anywhere, I say most entrepreneurs, aspiring entrepreneurs that come, do not yet have a company, and actually I would start by saying, people do come in with an idea, but we kind of ask you to just take a step back and think about, don't fall in love with your idea yet, fall in with love with the problem. Define your problem and iterate on solutions, talk to everybody that you can, take the coursework, talk to your classmates, talk to your professors. We have coaches, we have a lot of resources for you to vet that idea. So what we really encourages is students to come in with an idea, we often hear people come in and say, "I have an idea, I need to build it, I need an engineer." And what we say is, okay, focus on your core classes first term, because it's a lot of work. And then, but think about problems you want to solve, talk to everybody you can about it, and take your coursework, and through your coursework, you will learn how important customer discovery is. Don't just put a lot of resources and money into something that you haven't vetted out as an idea that has scalability, and that people are willing to put money behind, right? So you can do your discovery by doing a lot of interviews to actual customers, potential customers, you can, what we also encourage is creating an MVP, a minimum viable product. That minimum viable product could be a piece of paper with a drawing. It could be a cardboard box with stickers and glitter, you know, whatever it is that you can put in front of a customer and say, okay, how do you feel about this? How do you interact with it? What would you do with it? Is this going to be valuable to you?
Hejtmanek: Well, so how do you go about making those connections? Because that is so much of the value of, you know, being a part of the Columbia Business School community, is that you have this access to all these different perspectives and minds, and thinking, and everything that goes into really coming up with great solutions. Are there set ways in which the Lang Center facilitates making these connections.
CBS: Connections with professors, with alumni, with businesses, with other entrepreneurs, whomever it might be?
Hejtmanek: Yeah, the answer is yes to all. And I think most people who come through the school will tell you that the network that they have built has been incredible. And there's both formal and informal ways to do that, right? So you take your courses, that's wonderful, you work in groups, you get to know each other, but also look both ways. Go to happy hours, talk to talk to your students, everybody here has an incredible background and something of value to offer. So there's that informal talking to your classmates, going to your professor office hours. Come to the Lang Center, we're here on the sixth floor, in Geffen, stop by, and we welcome walk-ins all the time, and we're happy to talk to you. One of the main reasons why we exist is to connect you to other coaches or other students or professors that might be able to help you with what you're trying to do. And I just wanted to mention when we have a formal programs where we have a number of accelerator type programs where we will put you in groups with other students that are doing something similar, so there's peer support. And then we have a couple coaching programs that are one-on-one. So you can go and book half an hour with mostly alumni, but not all, and then they tend to be very accomplished entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who just come back to give back and to spend time with students and help them think through their questions.
CBS: Is that kind of what the Startup Lab is about?
Hejtmanek: Columbia Startup Lab is an incredible program, it's been around for about six years, it's down in SoHo, and it's for recent graduates to Columbia Business School, as well as other schools around the university, about 10 different schools or 7 different schools. So Columbia Business School has about half the seats down there, and you are sitting alongside other entrepreneurs from Columbia College, and CPA, and the law school, and the engineering school. And it's incredible community of sort of like cross pollinated ideas and skills. Is it the goal? Yes, its on its face, it's a co-working space. So the school will subsidize your space for at least a year, you can stay longer. And you get a desk, but it's not just co-working, it is almost, it is close to an accelerator program in that there's this wonderful community. There are coaches, there are professors that sit down there giving office hours. There are many professionals that come and give workshops. And it's very, very lively in terms of like social opportunities down there.
CBS: You've mentioned the engineering school a few times, and I was reading that there is a dual degree coming out? Between the business school and the engineering school is that right?
Hejtmanek: Yes, exactly. And I think it's perfect timing, we're very excited about it. I've seen since I've been at the school for three years, that students actually have become a little more technical over the time that they've been coming in, the entrepreneurs, more and more students have some sort of technical background, whether it's their undergrad or they took a bootcamp, which has been quite interesting and important to have both a technical and a business background, I think is really powerful. But this sort of formalizes that, and I think Dean Maglaras has really seen that as the future, we're going to be welcoming our first class of students, I believe, fall of 2023. So they'll be taking both MBA and engineering core classes. It's interesting what I've been seeing as a type of students that are entrepreneurs at the business school versus engineering is quite different. A lot of engineers will come in with a product that they sort of discovers and they think, "okay, how can I commercialize this? This could be really cool." And the business school students will come with an idea, and say, "okay, how can I find a product?" So putting them together is actually quite interesting, and people that can kind of think on both sides. So that's one thing. I think the combination of those approaches is very powerful, but, you know, as we all know on a bigger scale, tech is driving change in absolutely every single industry, only much accelerated by the pandemic. So, it is just the most critical and important time to be bringing those skills in and helping identify and give resources to the most promising types of tech entrepreneurs.
CBS: So we have, at Columbia Business School, we have some pretty well known companies that have been founded by alumni. So we think of, you know, from Siggy's, Compass, Zocdoc, how are we bringing this learning and the experiences of our alumni back to the school. So that hopefully they too can find themselves in a position where they are at the helm of, you know, pretty significant and valuable startups.
Hejtmanek: Yes, I'm very glad you asked that, in my view, our alumni are our most single important asset, and we try very hard to build those relationships with our alumni at all stages, whether they're just starting out and building a company, or whether they have exited $4 billion or more. And so we've been really working hard to create those relationships and engage them back with the school, and to provide a sort of virtuous cycle of bringing them to campus, having them speak to students, sharing their journey along the way, and giving them the inspiration and the energy that they had. And the students, I think, are very excited and motivated, and appreciate the time that the alumni give back. I sometimes I say that I feel like sometimes if the Lang center, if all we did was put our alumni and students in a room and we just stepped out, I think we would've done half our job. Well, Jon Stein from Betterment was just here for CBS Startups week. He knew he wanted to solve some of the friction that was going on financial services. He tried many different things, pivoted a number of times, got a lot of feedback of people telling him he was crazy, it was never going to work. And he kept going because he knew there was an opportunity. But he didn't know how at first to solve it. So he kept trying things, seeing, just to see what stuck, and ultimately he built, you know, Betterment, which is worth, I don't know how much, but several billion dollars, he said So just hearing his story and hearing his frustrations, the times where we're especially challenging and, you know, how did you find it in you to keep going when it seemed like everyone was telling you this is not going to work. Hearing that's really, really important to aspiring entrepreneurs.
CBS: You mentioned CBS Startups Week. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? We are recording in December, just happened maybe about six to eight weeks ago. Saw the posts on Instagram, it looks like a ton of fun, a great event for people to meet, connect with each other, pitch their ideas. Let me not lead you too much, like, tell us a little bit about it.
Hejtmanek: Well, we had all that, it is something we've done before, the last time was 2019. And of course, because of the pandemic, we sort of put it off or had it in lighter forms over the last couple years. So this is the first year that it's been back, and we just made it bigger and better than ever. We were really trying to create a big moment. It was partly the Javits Center. So what it was, we had an four or five on-campus events in which we brought back entrepreneurs like Elliott Robinson, who's a partner at Bessemer Ventures. Jon Stein, founder of Betterment, who I mentioned, we had David Kim, who's a founder of CityMD, among several other ventures, and some professors, as well as even student entrepreneurs coming to speak to students and on panels. And we hit topics that overlapped with kind of the pillars and ongoing trends. One with was healthcare and access, we had a talk on venture capital and investing diversity, and we had a healthcare panel that was maybe our most well attended on, I'm sorry, a fashion and sustainability healthcare panel. So, which we were tackling, we had four entrepreneurs talking about different ways they were tackling sustainability in fashion. So those were on-campus events, And to add to that, we had, thanks to the Columbia Business School marketing team, we sponsored TechDay at Javits Center, which is the biggest startup conference in the world or in the US maybe. It's big. We had over 40 Columbia Business school booths. Some people came to us and said, you know, it seems like Columbia's half the startups here. So we had CBS Alley, about 40 different startups exhibiting, at least, I think it was 15,000 people came through, and it was not just Columbia community, of course, it's open to anybody, startups, TechDay was open to everybody. So that was very exciting, where students alumni got to talk about their ideas, what they're doing, get live feedback, practice their pitch. And a couple times a couple of startups told us they signed their first customer while there, and a number of students also had follow up meetings with investors. So really, really great feedback and visibility for our founders. And we also had a tabling event on campus for people that were selling product, CBS founded products on, and that was for the CBS community people could come by and purchase for themselves or for the holidays.
CBS: That's so exciting. How does that make you feel? Because here you are, director of the Lang Center, this is a primary mission to really make Columbia Business School heart of New York City destination for entrepreneurship, you know, investment for making a destination for entrepreneurship and investment in venture capital, and you're seeing all the success coming out, we name those companies, you're seeing them, you know, the CBS Alley, great footprint at TechDay. How does that make you feel that we're really starting to hit on our goals as a program?
Hejtmanek: Of course, I'm super excited and proud, and there's no way I could have done any of this without the Lang Center team who worked extremely hard, all evolved, very, very busy getting ready, number of different things going on, a lot of planning went into it. So the Lang Center team worked extremely hard. I mean, one thing I would point out is that the entrepreneurship as a pillar of Columbia Business School, in a way, it's always been there, right? For the last 10 years, we've seen over 700 venture-backed startups come out of Columbia, either students or alumni. Over 120 of those have exited, they've raised collectively over $23 billion in institutional financing. It's just, it's always been there, the school and Dean Maglaras are kind of shining a bigger light on it right now and accelerating that entrepreneurship spirit.
CBS: Well, what do you think it says to prospective students, to maybe alumni who are looking to get into the entrepreneurship space? That it is one of our key pillars.
Hejtmanek: Yeah, oh, and I forgot to mention, during CBS Startups week, our end of week event was an alumni networking event where I talked about, it was a social event where I brought back all the alumni in our kind of like Lang orbit. Many, most of them were founders, but I mentioned some of these stats. We gave away product from some of our founders, and I had a lot of people coming up just very excited, they didn't know there was so much entrepreneurship coming out of CBS. And, you know, some of the products, and we talked about Mack Weldon, for instance, we had Thursday Boots. People, just didn't know they were CBS founding companies, so we just kind of have to talk about it.
CBS: And so what do you think that signals out into the market?
Hejtmanek: Yeah, so for alumni, I think they become even more proud of CBS and encouraged, especially if they are a founder getting started. It's quite a lonely journey, right? So for them to know, oh wow, this is a very active ecosystem at CBS, there are people that I can reach out to, the school is supportive, I think it means a lot, when you know that other people going through it, there's successes, there's failures, there's pivots, it's all there, and it's all okay, right? Because you kind of, you need to know that you're part of something bigger. For students, and especially prospective students our hope is that we reach a lot of prospective students who are thinking about business school and are interested in entrepreneurship or venture capital, and that Columbia is on their radar, because they see that we're serious about it., and that we have amazing opportunities and resources here.
CBS: So we have the Columbia Startup Lab, and we also just talked about the Columbia Startup Week as well, Columbia Business School Startup Week. We also just talked about CBS Startup Week. There's also Columbia Build Lab, can you tell us a little bit about what this is?
Hejtmanek: Yeah, Columbia Build Lab is a program's about three years old now, and it is a very cross-campus, it is one of the most well integrated programs that I know about at Columbia. So what it does is we take Columbia Business School founders, early-stage founders who are current students, and we match them with engineers from all around the university, from four different schools around the university. And those engineers spend about 10 to 15 hours per week with the founders that they are matched to, their skills are matched to each founder that is in the program, and help build out their prototypes and early minimum viable products, to really get those businesses launched. So that's been incredibly successful. Some engineers have stayed on and become co-founders, or they stayed on after the students graduate to work for the startups. And, you know, no matter what, the engineers get incredible experience working for a startup, they build up their credentials and their resume, and the business school students don't pay a thing for world class engineers at Columbia.
CBS: It just shows the power of the connections, not just at Columbia Business School, but Columbia University as a whole.
CBS: I want to talk about maybe some of the more challenging areas around entrepreneurship, and I'm particularly interested in hearing how the Lang Center is really working to support historically marginalized founders, you know, women, Black African American, recent stats as of today that I looked up is Black and African American makeup approximately 10% of founders. Women still don't earn 100% of what men are making. Is there anything that we are doing as a school, as a program to help correct, you know, those statistics?
Hejtmanek: Yeah, so we've been working hard, especially over the last few years when we do bring back speakers and alumni that we are sure to represent a diversity of viewpoints by gender or by ethnic background, and fully represent underrepresented minority, so that they can come and speak to these issues, and the students that come and hear them speak. And see themselves. And feel they can see their path and feel comforted in their journey. The amazing thing is, without having a specific program to increase diversity of entrepreneurs, in the past year, 19% of our funding has gone to Black founders, 43% has gone to female founders. So many times the average of like the VC industry as a whole.
CBS: And do you see that being a priority for the venture capital world to make sure that they are investing across the board, across the spectrum?
Hejtmanek: Yes, I think it is, the interest is there, the trends are there, whether we're seeing it translate into, we see it translating definitely into more meetings and more seed funding, more early funding for historically underrepresented groups. Well, whether that's going to translate into the later stage of funding, like C stage and D stage, I think that remains to be seen. But there's progress, probably not enough. We do see that changing. Our venture capital program is a two-year student programming, incredibly competitive. We had almost about 80 students compete for 15 spots this year. We had about, about 50% of them are female. And these were blinded applications, we don't have a mandate that we need to have this or that percentage allocated to certain groups. This is simply what worked out. So the more that we can support female and underrepresented aspiring venture capitalists, they will have different viewpoints in who they invest in when they go out in the world and become investors.
CBS: So Lara, you know, as we're talking about historically marginalized founders, I know from our conversation with Dean Maglaras, when we talked back in the spring of 2022, that part of the goal of Manhattanville was to make sure that we are doing things to give back to the community. Now, many people in the city, many people in the Harlem community, many people from around the world probably have great ideas, want to become entrepreneurs or launch their companies, whatever it might be, but they may not have the access to, you know, the Lang Center community or as a formal student. Is there a programming that's happening from the Lang Center or from the school that can help these individuals really learn and potentially launch their idea?
Hejtmanek: Yeah, it's a great question, and I know very important to the school, especially with our move to Manhattanville to really integrate and support in the community. The Lang Center supports specifically come Columbia Business School students and alumni, but I would really encourage you to reach out and speak with the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center, they're doing wonderful work and working with local vendor vendors to bring them on campus, they have programs where they take in local entrepreneurs and help train them, give them additional resources and coaching. So a really, really wonderful program.
CBS: Lara, I'd be remiss if I didn't take a chance to give an opportunity to talk about the Lang Center's podcast. Here you are talking with us on Columbia Bizcast, but can you share a little bit about the podcast that you all just launched? Startup Alley?
Hejtmanek: Yes, thank you. Yes we launched our new pod podcast series, right during CBS Startups Week, actually, we have three episodes of three wonderful founders who have shared their stories with us. We've featured David Olk who's a founder of ShopKeep, Ju Rhyu, who founded Hero Cosmetics, which also makes Mighty Patch. Subsequently, after we spoke to her, her company sold for over $600 million. And Connor Wilson, who's the founder of Thursday Boots, which I'm wearing right now.
CBS: So where can we find the Startup Alley podcast?
Hejtmanek: Wherever you get your podcasts. Apple, Spotify, et cetera.
CBS: Final questions for you here. What advice do you have to anyone who is listening that is considering becoming an entrepreneur?
Hejtmanek: I would start by saying there's never the perfect time to be an entrepreneur, it's always going to be very, very hard. So if you have an idea, you have a problem that you just really, really want to solve, and you think there's opportunity there, dive in, and it doesn't mean you have to quit your job, and spend a lot of money, it means that you start talking to people, trying out solutions. Look at what people are doing as an alternative right now. And see if, you know, start doing some research. Go into stores, talk to people, talk to your friends and family, talk to potential customers. And then when you're ready, you can do it as a side hustle, you can, you know, do it in a small test environment, it's pretty easy to get a campaign going on Google AdWords or Facebook / Instagram, you can test messaging on there. You can test impact on what you're selling to see what kind of reaction you get. Take it one step at a time. I would say don't wait if it's something, if you have the bug and it's something that you really want to do, I'd say go for it. So that's one thing, I would also say, I said earlier in the interview that, again, focus on the problem and not a particular solution, because a lot of times people will get very, very married to their solution and have trouble breaking out of it, and like, you don't realize it, but you ask potential customers leading questions, which are leading to your solution, and you want to try to remove that as far as possible, so focus on the problem. And again, I want to repeat, like, do not spend time and resources on building a solution, especially like hiring engineers or whatever it might be, making hardware before you have vetted out a solution as far as you can to find that product market fit.
CBS: If I was to ask you to look into your crystal ball about what's ahead in 2023, what would you say? What do you see?
Hejtmanek: Well, I do want to mention that our strategic priorities as far as the Lang Center at Columbia Business School fall into what I call A, B and C. A, I've talked about a couple times, it's Amplify, CBS Startups Week, for instance, let's keep talking about our successes, and our ideas, and the ways that our students and alumni are already changing the world. B is build, so we're looking a close look at our programming and tripling and doubling down our, what we know that works. For instance, the program that started the Lang Center is called the Lang Fund, we have our own VC fund, which we've opened up to alumni, so we have three cycles of year, which we use to invest in graduating student alumni companies. I'm happy to say, quite recently, we've had a gift of $2.5 million from an alum by the name of Devin Berger, and that has gone into the Lang Fund, so we could write bigger checks to the companies that we are supporting. And that fund is actually called an opportunity fund and will focus on female and under underrepresented minority founders. So tripling, doubling down on the programs that we know are effective and that work over time. And then C is community, as I said, it's like the community at Columbia Business School is incredibly strong. I, as an alum, have stayed in touch with many people, both personally and professionally, it's people have supported me in my career along the way, and I think it's... The Columbia community exists in many different ways, but it's a little bit siloed, so what we want to do is keep building these relationships, but also launch programs to build on that community, and it's a more formal way, so those entrepreneurs can meet the alumni that might be doing something further along and can help each other. And that entrepreneurs can look and see the different skills around the University, bringing them on board as potential founders, like at like a Columbus Startup Lab, the physical space downtown, but on a much larger scale.
CBS: Well, it's all very, very exciting. I mean, congratulations on all the success that's happening. I'm glad that we can contribute to talking about it, right? To making sure that people know about all the success that's going on, the Amplify part of A, B, and C. Really appreciate your time, Lara, thank you first so much for sharing some insights on the entrepreneurship and innovation pillar. Thank you so much.
Hejtmanek: It's a pleasure, thank you Fahad.