Jake Reisch, then a junior at Cornell University, sketched out his idea for Audiarchy, a company that would rent headsets for trendy silent discos (DJ shows where people listen to music through wireless headphones instead of a normal speaker system). The panel of VCs and entrepreneurs in his Entrepreneurship & Private Equity class on hand that day in May 2012 thought he was onto something.
So Reisch ditched a summer internship and started planning the company with Matt Reiners, his co- founder and childhood friend. That fall they were accepted into eLab, an on-campus accelerator programme for student companies. Thanks to a nifty search engine optimisation, their first major client, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, came knocking before Reisch and Reiners had fully sourced their product; they managed to get 300 headphones for that event and were off and dancing. With support from Cornell—including access to dozens of investors and mentors—they have since booked parties with Red Bull, Nestlé, Viacom, MTV2 and Pepsi, running 100 events in 2013 and clocking six-digit revenues.
This year Audiarchy is on course to do around 250 events and double revenue to over $200,000. Their headphone line is already profitable, and Reisch is now focusing on a new market, pivoting part of the business to provide audio for senior citizens. “There’s this formula coming together at Cornell that is helping startups, and we’re getting support from the alumni, which is why I see so much value in the university,” says Reisch, 24, sitting in the mahogany-walled Cornell Club in midtown Manhattan. “All the feedback and mentorship really helped me navigate the early phases,” Reisch says. “I wouldn’t have jumped into the business had I not gained encouragement from professors.”
Cornell University, with campuses in Ithaca, New York City, and even Doha, Qatar, has roughly 11,100 alums and students, including Reisch, who identify themselves as business founders and owners on LinkedIn. Based on the ratio of these founders to the school’s total student body, Cornell ranks fourth on Forbes’ annual list of America’s most entrepreneurial colleges, just behind Stanford, MIT and Berkeley.
Now the university is taking its most daring step yet, building a $2 billion graduate campus on New York City’s Roosevelt Island that will offer startup-focussed curricula in business and computer science in the hopes of finding the next Zuckerberg—and attracting millions of tuition dollars in the process. Called Cornell Tech, it will cement Cornell’s identity as an innovation powerhouse—and stamp its bearish imprint on Columbia and New York University’s backyard. “Entrepreneurship is a big part of the future of Cornell,” says David Skorton, Cornell’s high-profile president who will next year leave to lead the Smithsonian Institution.
Big Red has a deep entrepreneurial tradition that dates back to co-founder Ezra Cornell, who revolutionised communication technology and founded Western Union in the 19th century. In 1894, 29 years after the school’s founding, Student Agencies, the nation’s oldest independent student-run corporation, was started. Today it is the second-biggest employer of students in Ithaca, New York, after the university. Qualcomm’s co-founder Irwin Jacobs and Workday’s David Duffield (both billionaires who have given generously to Cornell), as well as Arby’s co-founder Forrest Raffel, all attended Cornell in Ithaca, while Drew Nieporent, owner of the Nobu chain and New York’s Tribeca Grill, got his degree from Cornell’s highly regarded School of Hotel Administration.
In the last decade Cornell has graduated from open-for-business to full-blown startup shop, launching an innovation office that distributes $1 million a year; attracting big-time donors, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, who gave $25 million to build a new computing and information sciences hall on its sprawling Ithaca campus; and winning the bid to build Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island.