Nolan School Entrepreneurs Shape Pandemic Challenges into Business Opportunities

By: Colette Repisky ’22
3 ent

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged much of the hospitality sector, requiring businesses to pivot or get left behind. For some Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration (Nolan School) graduates, this disruption was nothing more than an opportunity to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. The Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship (PIHE) dives in to learn how these Hotelies were inspired and motivated to take on their entrepreneurial endeavors and asks their advice for others wanting to start their own businesses.

PorchBox: Amanda Lacher ’20

Amanda Lacher SHA’ 20 & Julia Li SHA ‘20 in front of their storefront in Orange County, CA

Starting a business right after graduation can be daunting, what encouraged you to take the leap?

Amanda: I can’t speak for everyone, but the pandemic obviously upended everyone’s plans; I actually had a job offer that was rescinded when the pandemic hit. For Julia and I, we both focused on Food & Beverage operations at the Nolan School through Hotel Ezra Cornell (HEC), coursework, working at Statler, and through internships. Opening a restaurant was always a dream for both of us, but we thought it would happen years after graduation. You always hear the “rules” of working in operations: do a manager in training program, work for ten years for someone else, work your way up, then maybe start your own business in the field. The pandemic helped us realize there were no guaranteed “rules” and, if you have a dream you should go for it!

Knowing that restaurants are a risky venture, what inspired you to open one and how did you mitigate risk?

Amanda: As I touched on before, it is our dream! Despite being a small team, so many restaurants were closing and people were losing their jobs, so being able to provide employment for our community would make an impact on people’s lives. We also partner with a local nonprofit, Bracken’s kitchen, and donate a portion of all box sales to them to make sure we are giving back. All this to say, the pandemic pushed us to grow and try a dream, even if it seems crazy because we are so young.

With the probability of restaurants closing after one year, starting PorchBox was definitely super scary! However, the Nolan School education and our operations experiences prepared us so well. We looked back on our notes from Restaurant Development and Kitchen Design and literally designed our restaurant with all the measurements; this helped us save $2000. Although you can never be sure of success, we had thought through so much and were confident with our concept and how it fit in the market.

But of course, we couldn’t think of everything and there are still new challenges and changes that come up— but that’s the restaurant industry!

Nelson Kick Creative: Ben Nelson ’22

Nelson Kick Creative’s co-founders Ben Nelson ’22 and Austin Kick ‘22

What inspired this business idea and what is your end goal?

Ben: I am the co-founder, along with Austin Kick ‘22, and we created Nelson Kick Creative (NKC) to help hospitality businesses in the Ithaca area with their digital needs: from photo and video creation, to website redesign, to rethinking the customer experience. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the hospitality industry in  unprecedented ways, and through pro-bono consulting, we were able to help hospitality small businesses thrive.

Since our foundation, we have diversified our clientele and branched out into working with young startups, specifically direct to consumer brands, to help them with their digital assets. From the customer purchasing experience to their social media creatives, NKC hopes to continue to work with new and growing brands on a multitude of projects with the goal of bolstering their success.

How did your involvement with the Pillsbury Institute as a student help you start and grow your business?

Ben: My involvement in PIHE has mainly been with the Hospitality Hackathon’s. These events have given me a foundation for how to work well with new people, think outside the box, and be proactive and efficient. Through my experiences, I have also learned how to develop relationships and communicate, especially across time-zone and cultural differences.

Many worry that they need a lot of capital to start a business, what would you say to them?

Ben: Use what you have! I have invested only a couple of hundred dollars over the past few years of operation, and have returned that investment time and time again. While in some situations money is a barrier, in the digital media and asset world, money is only a booster. Work with what you have, as a little bit of money can go a long way.

Sol Sauna: David Jones, MMH ’22

Sol Sauna creator David Jones, MMH ’22

What “problem” are you trying to solve with this venture?

David: I first experienced the magic of Norway’s floating saunas in 2020 and have been cooking up a way to bring them to the US ever since. I hope that everybody that visits my floating saunas comes away from the experience closer with themselves, with the friends that they came with, or a stranger that they met. Sauna culture has a strange way of connecting people in a fun, social environment and I hope to spread a little bit of this ‘sauna magic’ every day.

How did you test the market to see that this business idea was worth pursuing after graduation?

David: I held an event at Myers Park as a market demand test designed to see whether or not Americans are interested in and enjoy sauna experiences. Before pouring $100K into my own floating sauna location, I chose to rent a sauna and conduct a Minimum Viable Test (MVP) with minimal cost. This allowed me to test my market demand and operational efficiencies, and tweak the offering to cater to user’s preferences. With more than 120 guests and incredibly positive feedback over the course of the 3-day event, I have decided to pursue this business full-time after graduation with the capital I earned during this market test.

How did your involvement with PIHE as a student help you start and grow your business?

David: PIHE is one of the strongest networking tools in the hospitality industry. Through the Entrepreneurs in Residence program and various entrepreneurship competitions, I have been able to meet people that have provided me with unique insights and perspectives on my idea that I would not have previously considered. More importantly, I have been able to form relationships with people that have incredibly deep connections in the hospitality industry and have introduced me to people and companies that can help me launch my business.

In conclusion

The Cornell Nolan School prides itself on matriculating students who are ready to to find, adapt, and serve needs in a business with an emphasis on the delivery aspect. Although the pandemic presented unexpected challenges, Hotelies prove to be innovative thinkers, ready to take risks.

Various resources and programming, aimed at supporting entrepreneurial-minded students are offered through the Pillsbury Institute.

Headshot of Colette Repisky

Colette Repisky ’22

Colette Repisky ’22 graduated from Cornell’s Nolan School of Hotel Administration and is headed to Manhattan, NY, to start her job as a business analyst at Wavestone, an IT consulting firm. At Cornell, she was on the Cornell Hotel Society marketing board, a mentor for The Hotel School Mentorship Program, and a Hotel Ezra Cornell volunteer. She also received the first Philippus Miller III ‘83 Legacy Award which sent her to the CHS conference in Rome and other celebratory alumni dinners in NYC to continue Phil’s mission to meet and introduce people and make meaningful connections. She is excited to be an active CHS member and help current and future students the same way other alum have done for her.