New business plan competition prize highlights disability and environmental issues

As student teams plan, prepare, and perfect their original concepts for the Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition this year, they will have an extra incentive to design businesses that tackle specific social issues. The new $5,000 Stein Family Prize for Disability and Environmental Sustainability Solutions will be awarded to the team whose business concept best addresses disability issues and/or environmental sustainability concerns.

The inspiration for the Stein Family Prize came when Spencer Stein ’14 was diagnosed with a cavernous angioma (Cavernoma) that threatened to leave him paralyzed. The anomaly was discovered incidentally when Spencer had an MRI after a paragliding accident left him with minor compression fractures in his spine. Actually, Spencer fell 150 feet from the sky, and he considers the fall a gift as it caused him to find the dangerous Cavernoma that was an unknown serious risk to him since birth. Although his parents gave him tremendous support, they ultimately left the treatment decision up to him, and Spencer interviewed neurosurgeons around the country before deciding who would perform the procedure.

Once Spencer decided to undergo the surgery, he took time off from school to prepare physically, mentally, and spiritually as the surgery was considered to be so risky that some neurosurgeons refused to attempt it. During this time off, he did start to experience the pain and tingling that were telltale signs that the Cavernoma had become active. After a successful surgery in June 2011, Spencer spent several weeks recovering in an acute neuro-unit in Phoenix.

“In the hospital, I saw many other patients who had it worse than me, and that’s when I started to think about ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] issues,” said Spencer. “While my surgical outcome enabled me to be able to walk, during my rehabilitation period, I learned firsthand the challenges of having a disability. From the hospitality standpoint, I could see so many things that could have been better for the patient, and I wanted to get the entire SHA student body thinking about how to improve things.”

Spencer’s interest in disability issues was furthered this summer during an internship at the San Diego Zoo. As part of the ADA team, he helped build a multisensory zoo experience for visually-impaired guests. Through that assignment, Spencer learned that creating programs that exceed—rather than simply meet—ADA regulations can make good business sense and attract a previously underserved customer base.

“As I developed the program, I had visually-impaired tourists join me for a walk around the zoo. I gave them a prototype of the accessibility tour that I had designed, and they gave comments that helped me improve the script that the zoo guides would be utilizing. The encounters with the visually-impaired guests taught me so many things about the experience from the guest perspective,” said Spencer. These lessons had a great impact on Spencer as he worked during his own recovery period when his activities were still quite limited.

Although it could take a long as two years before Spencer’s recovery is complete, he is already back at Cornell, doing well, and spreading the word about disability issues.

“We think the School of Hotel Administration should be raising awareness in this area, and the prize is a great place to start,” said Spencer. “The hotel company that implements innovative and thoughtful practices first will gain significant market share. The ADA rules should be a baseline, not the standard in a competitive market. The real prize will be gratitude to the prize winners from those with impairment. It is fun to be able to enable the competition so the Cornell student community can advance the hospitality industry,” said Spencer.

“We are excited and grateful for the support of the Stein family in offering this new prize, as we continue our efforts to build the Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition into a major event in the field of entrepreneurship,” added Dr. Susan Fleming, the faculty member overseeing the competition.

The Cornell Hospitality Business Plan Competition is organized by the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship and provides an experiential learning opportunity for student entrepreneurs looking to make their mark on the hospitality industry. The year-long competition culminates in early spring with the submission of final business plans and group presentations. The winners are announced during Hotel Ezra Cornell in April.