EMBA case competition: A winner’s perspective on innovation and new venture creation
A Q&A with Linda Alvarez, MD, Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY class of 2021, CEO and co-founder of new sports nutrition venture Levelle
Innovation and entrepreneurship are at the heart of the Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY Program. As part of the program’s core curriculum, students complete a semester-long course, Innovation and New Venture Creation. The course culminates with students pitching their ideas in a case competition-style event to venture capitalists and angel investors, who determine finalists, and ultimately, a first-place team.
Levelle, a sports nutrition product company tailored to the female endurance athlete, won the Executive MBA Metro NY Case Competition held Dec. 19, 2020. Linda Alvarez, MD, Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY class of ’21, CEO and co-founder of the venture along with classmate Stephanie Schrauth, joined us to discuss the Innovation and New Venture Creation course and provide insight into Levelle’s creation and future.
What aspects of the Innovation and New Venture Creation course played a critical role in creating your new venture?
We learned that listening to your customer is the crux of the process and identifying what the specific problem is for them. We spent a lot of time as a team really understanding customer interviews and how to talk to customers. As a physician, I used my experience in talking to patients in a way that is not leading and how to move the conversation in a way that you get the information you want. It was also important that if what you’re focused on does not come up in a conversation with a customer, it’s probably not important to them. We had to take time to not jump to conclusions, but rather to get all the information we need about the customer.
Did any other courses contribute to the work you did in the Innovation and New Venture Creation course?
What I really appreciate about the EMBA Metro NY program is that you have a chance to learn materials and then you have a chance to apply what you’ve learned and build on those materials. I particularly felt that we were able to build upon and apply the courses offered in the spring semester of our first year to this course. We used our Business Strategy and Marketing Management courses to flesh out a real business model that was thought out and thorough., Professor Risa Mish’s class, Building Leadership Influence, was particularly important in developing Levelle and our mission, allowing us to identify what this company looks like, and learning how to speak to our customers and develop relationships with them.
How might people who don’t have entrepreneurial goals benefit from this course in a corporate environment?
I heard someone define entrepreneurship as jumping out of a plane while you’re building your parachute and I was always fearful of that outlook. However, when you take this course, you realize that there is a structure and framework in place that you can follow and it’s not a free-falling feeling. I have classmates that are even using these frameworks to fix problems in their own companies that have occurred over and over again through the years. It’s an opportunity to learn a framework and apply it to your profession.
Did you gain any “lessons learned” from pitching to venture capitalists?
That was an invaluable and amazing experience. I’m so appreciative of all the professors—Professor Steve Gal, Professor Ken Rother, and Professor Tom Schryver—throughout the whole process. They taught us how to present our product to people who have never heard of it, how to explain the problem we noticed within our customers, why we want to do this, and getting the venture capitalists to agree with us. I knew the pitch inside and out, but I think it was very helpful using feedback and questions from the first round and tailoring it to the second presentation round. I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I had a set script or I wasn’t as well-versed in my pitch. I acknowledged this early in the process and I think this is why we were so successful.
What is a key lesson you learned during this process?
There are going to be times during this process where you will be wrong and those are points of learning. You should be so thankful for those wrong hypotheses now as opposed to later on, after you have already developed a product. As I continue on the process with my classmate, we just laugh at mistakes we made in the past and we’re thankful for what we learned from it.
Do you have any plans to continue with Levelle outside of the classroom?
Yes, my fellow teammate and co-founder Stephanie Schrauth and I registered the business and we are continuing it forward. We actually started with the W.E. Cornell (Women Entrepreneurs Cornell) program that focuses on women in STEM. Being in that program is another way that Cornell is helping us with this company. Currently, I am prototyping products for Levelle at home, so things are moving fast. To be honest, I didn’t originally have plans to take a business plan forward, but after talking to potential customers and the Cornell community, we feel confident that Levelle will be successful moving forward.
Innovation for the Future
As Alvarez notes, the knowledge she gained in the Cornell Executive MBA Metro NY program is just as pertinent to executives focused on achieving higher levels of leadership within the corporate environment as to those focused on starting a new business venture. It’s up to each student to determine how to make the most of what you learn, inside and outside of the classroom, to accelerate your own career.