Roger Gonzalez, program manager of the Blackstone Launchpad
Roger Gonzalez is effusive when he talks about the Innovation + Entrepreneurship (I+E) Lab at Brooklyn College. “I was floored by the reception we got when we opened the space on campus,” he says, noting a steady flow of students taking advantage of the lab—more than 60 walk-ins alone since it opened last October.
The I+E Lab at Brooklyn College was established in the fall of 2021 with $450,000 of funding from Blackstone LaunchPad, an initiative that provides resources to build entrepreneurship on college campuses. The lab supports students looking to start or expand entrepeneurial ventures through guidance, training, academic programs, and access to professional mentors and networks.
Gonzalez calls the lab “all inclusive,” saying, “The lab is for all students, all the schools and programs. It’s for undergrads, grad students, and even recent alumni…We share our program with thousands of students across campus with the help and cooperation of the Magner Career Center, Koppelman School of Business, and others.”
During its first year, the lab operated as a virtual space, with more than 200 students attending free online workshops ranging in topics from How to Raise Funding for Your New Business to Telling the Story of Your Venture to How to Start a Non-Profit.
Opening the physical lab space in Boylan Hall in October 2022 was a gamechanger, according to Gonalez. Along with the walk-ins, the lab hosted two hybrid events on campus with CUNY Edge (Educate, Develop, Graduate, Empower), a program that provides eligible undergraduate students who receive public assistance with supplemental resources and support. “We had 20 to 30 students attend each event.”
Gonzalez sees the lab as something that is not confined to its third-floor office but a resource that benefits from the participation, input, and expertise of faculty, staff, and alumni. “Students come to us with ideas, but need to be pointed in the right direction,” says Gonzalez. “We give them one-on-one consultations. But we also encourage them to explore all the courses the college has to offer.”
I+E Campus Director Lucas Rubin agrees. “Entrepreneurial activities take place across the campus in various forms,” says Rubin, who is also assistant dean for academic programs at Brooklyn College and director of the Latin/Greek Institute. Rubin, along with Brooklyn College Provost Anne Lopes, were the initial administrators of the initiative.
“Part of our purpose at I+E is to help students who enter competitions like the Koppelman business competitions to take their ideas to the next level,” says Gonzalez. Most of the students who stop by the lab are still in the idea stage. “For instance, we recently had a student who wanted to return to her homeland and build a vending business for juicing. She was curious about how to start it, and where to get the funding. Others have gone further,” says Gonzalez. He points out there has been new attention on influencers and creative business owners who are building their brands and working on expanding into full-fledged enterprises.
One such person is Hilal Palacioglu Ulukaya ’20, M.S.,’22 M.S., cofounder and CEO of Society Mano, a sustainable clothing company based on the traditional handicrafts of her native Turkey. Ulukaya, who received two master’s degrees at Brooklyn College in computer and information science and business administration, worked as a space engineer before coming to the United States. When the pandemic hit, like many others, she began to rethink how she would achieve her “American dream.”
“I saw that online shopping had grown very big during the pandemic,” says Ulukaya. “I also observed that people kept asking me about the cardigan I was wearing; where could they find one just like it. My mother had made it.” Ulukaya asked her mother and other relatives to knit sweaters and began selling them online.
Another faculty member involved in the lab, associate professor of business management Veronica Manlow, who encouraged Ulukaya to attend Startup Grind. The annual gathering of entrepreneurs held in San Francisco helped Ulukaya step up her game. “I needed to learn how to network in the U.S. and meet investors,” she said. “Now, I’m taking my company international. Much of this is thanks to the support of the I+E Lab.”
“We’ve created the lab to provide a place, a foundation, for grants and new opportunities,” says Rubin, with an emphasis on traditionally underserved groups. In April, the lab collaborated with the Black and Latino Male Initiative (BLMI) to run the Pitch NExT competition, in which students were encouraged to present their business ideas in the categories of consumer products, digital entrepreneurship, social impact, and traditional business.
“Many Black and Latino men drop out because they don’t feel that an academic career necessarily leads to employment,” says David Wells, the associate director of BLMI. “We are trying to counter that impression by connecting students with alumni mentors, programs, internships that will lead to career and job success.”
As many Americans are rethinking traditional concepts of work in light of the pandemic, events like Pitch NExT, which comes with a $1,000 first prize, and New Economy Conference, cohosted by BLMI and The Herbert Kurz Leadership Academy at Google headquarters in New York City, give students with entrepreneurial dreams a head start.
“Having the lab work with us—with their resources and our ideas has been symbiotic,” says Wells. “A match made in heaven.”
Lab manager Gonzalez agrees. “There are so many students eager to start their own enterprises,” says Gonzalez. “We have many tools and resources to offer on and off-campus. When students come by, we’ll point them in the right direction.”
Looking ahead, Gonzalez says, that with each event student engagement deepens. “There are many students walking into the lab or calling me to join our regular cohort of students who consistently join us for competitions, coaching, internships, and more. We are not an Ivy League School with deep pockets, but the dedication to entrepreneurship and innovation at Brooklyn College is strong. It really is the future, and we can’t shy away from it.”