The Jonas Weil Entrepreneurial Fellowship: Launching new businesses when the time is right, but cash is tight
Jonas Weil '58, MBA '59, comes from a line of entrepreneurs. His grandfather, who immigrated to Kentucky from the Alsace region of France, built an empire around livestock, butchering and tobacco by seizing good opportunities at just the right time.
Weil's father took over this enterprise. By the time young Jonas Weil had earned his Cornell degree (from the then-School of Business and Public Administration), however, the family's assets had been liquidated, and his opportunity to take over the family business was gone.
"The timing was wrong," he said.
A successful entrepreneurial venture, Weil knows from experience, takes a good concept, a little luck and timing.
In the 1990s, Weil was ahead of the times when he founded Office Plus, a chain of temporary office spaces and services for traveling executives. Located near airports in strategic cities, including St. Louis, Minneapolis, and Boston, Office Plus offered telephone, printing and board room space for business people while they were on the road.
"This was before other people went into the same business," said David BenDaniel, the Don and Margi Berens Professor of Entrepreneurship at Johnson. He said Weil came up with a good concept in the era before cell phones and laptops; still, Office Plus, like any new business, had its problems.
"He was always cash strapped," said BenDaniel, who invited Weil to Ithaca to present his case in classes. For five years, students in BenDaniel's entrepreneurship classes worked on Office Plus as a real-life case study, coming up with ideas that helped the business grow.
When Weil sold the company in 1996, students gave him a standing ovation in the classroom.
He also made a major profit: On BenDaniel's recommendation, he sold Office Plus to a competitor for more than triple the price he'd originally estimated. "We did in fact cash out at the top of the market," Weil said. "The timing was right on."
Within a few years of that sale, the dot-com bubble burst, desktop publishing emerged, and executive road warriors started carrying their own mobile phones.
BenDaniel encouraged Weil to found a fellowship with some of the profits to support future entrepreneurs. Since 1997, the Jonas Weil Fellowship has helped nearly 70 Johnson graduates pay off their school loans, allowing them to focus on starting new businesses. "We are the only school in the country that has such a fund," BenDaniel says.
The two years of business school can be an ideal time to start entrepreneurial ventures, said Brad Miller, MBA '06, M.D. '06, a Weil fellowship recipient, but finances can be tight. He founded Square6 Group, a consulting firm that helps the medical and health care industries use data, while his Johnson classmates were taking middle management jobs and drawing regular salaries. "That's a hard gravity to get out of," Miller said.
A Weil fellowship gave Adam Tow, MBA '12, funds and encouragement to grow a project he started while still a student into a viable business. His company, Seraph Robotics, sells 3-D printers to biomedical researchers. His customers, most of them at universities, use such machines to lay groundwork. Some day, said Tow, they will "print" living body parts, such as heart valves, for transplants and implants.
Receiving Weil fellowships in 1997 and 1998 allowed Steven Kropper, MBA '86, to take a risk on his startup Domania.com, which opened the way for automated consumer access to property databases through sites such as Zillow.com and Eppraisal.com. "Without that scholarship, public access to public information would have been delayed significantly," Kropper said.
Gaye Tomlinson, MBA '05, said the emotional and psychological impact of the Weil fellowship is huge. She received five Weil fellowships starting in 2009, just when she was working to launch Vaha Group, a California-based firm that works with businesses and homeowners to cut down on wasted energy, and to install sustainable energy sources, such as solar. She and her husband started the business in a recession year, when even their families doubted their plan.
"Getting the grant is a stamp of approval," she said.
Kate Klein is a program assistant for Alumni Affairs and Development.