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Johnson Students Partner with Entrepreneurs in New Orleans – Team Named Co-Winners of IDEAcorps Challenge

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Bret Nolan Collazzi, MBA ’13, Co-Lead, 2013 IDEAcorps Challenge Team

My spring break in New Orleans was unforgettable — but not like you’d expect.

Day and night over seven days, five Johnson classmates and I served as surrogate CEOs for a startup beverage company in New Orleans called Bissap Breeze. Their sales targets were our sales targets, their accounting challenges our accounting challenges.

And when Cornell’s name was announced as co-winner of the 2013 IDEAcorps Challenge, amid 500 cheering guests at the culmination of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, I have never felt prouder of our school. Because our victory so perfectly represented the mix of hard work, teambuilding, and community support that Johnson is known for.

First, the background: IDEAcorps is one of the foremost entrepreneurial learning programs in the country. Run by the Idea Village, it recruits top-tier MBAs to consult with local startups and support New Orleans’ growing entrepreneurial community. This was Johnson’s fourth showing at the event (we took top prize in 2010 as well); other schools represented this year were Stanford (co-winner), Harvard, Tuck, Columbia, Yale, Tulane, and Loyola.

Our partner company, Bissap Breeze, was founded by a dynamic husband-wife duo of artists, Esailama and Tyrone Henry, who started selling homemade batches of hibiscus tea at New Orleans’ French Market almost two years ago. Today, they distribute a bottled version of their drink at three Whole Foods and two-dozen local supermarkets and groceries, and are hoping to grow into a national brand.

When we began working with Bissap, we assumed our main goal would be to boost sales, and we arrived in New Orleans ready to pound the pavement. But we soon learned that the story was more complicated. With low margins and high delivery costs, some accounts were actually costing more to service than they were worth in sales; in other words, just selling more tea would not necessarily benefit Bissap.

Speaking with the founders, we agreed that the number-one priority was to build an operational foundation from which Bissap could profitably grow. In just a few days, we reconstructed the company’s accounting and inventory systems, developed metrics for prioritizing sales leads, and forged partnerships with larger distributors and brokers who could bring Bissap to scale.

We also concluded that Bissap could not grow for long without a long-term marketing strategy, additional funding, and a C-level executive with industry expertise. So we shared resources and tools to help the founders weigh their options — and quickly get to work — on all three.

In the end, the IDEAcorps judges, including TPG Capital founder Jim Coulter and Odwalla CEO Stephen Williamson, assessed all eight MBA teams on how much impact we had on our entrepreneurs. Even if we hadn’t won, we would have taken enormous pride in the words Esailama Henry left us with: “We have heard a lot of advice before,” she said. “It’s not just the ‘what.’ This team showed us the ‘how.’”

What contributed to our success? Hard work played a role, no doubt. Collectively, we made close to one hundred in-person visits and phone calls to industry experts and potential partners. We spent hundreds of hours researching the beverage industry and potential new markets. Four of us even visited New Orleans for two days in early March to meet Esailama and Tyrone (and their newborn, Baby T) and to learn the local market.

But even more important was our team dynamic. We each brought different backgrounds and skill sets (our team included a former dancer, Peace Corps volunteer, and schoolteacher) but we worked as a single unit and every member contributed not just to the final deliverables but more importantly to the discussions that led to the final deliverables. Our cohesion helped us gain our entrepreneurs’ trust, got us through some inevitable rough patches, and won us all lifelong friends in the process.

Finally, we had incredible support. Starting with last year’s IDEAcorps leaders, who shared their wisdom (and their expectations), continuing with our amazing advisers, Rhett Weiss and Risa Mish, the dozens of alumni, faculty, and classmates who put us in touch with otherwise unreachable sources of expertise and advice, and ending with the many clubs, individuals, and campus organizations who helped sponsor our trip, the Cornell and Johnson networks pulled out all stops.

And of course, because it was spring break, and because it was New Orleans, we got to have some fun, too. From po’ boys at Parkway, to Rebirth at the Maple Leaf, to late nights on Frenchman, the Idea Village team rolled out the red carpet for their visiting MBAs, and proved that New Orleans is not only back — but destined to keep us visiting for many years to come.

Now go buy some Bissap: www.bissapbreeze.com.

The 2013 IDEAcorps Challenge team was Jon Ambrose (co-lead), Bret Nolan Collazzi (co-lead), Monet Dumas, Keriann Murphy, Patrick Starr, and Emily Walsh. Advisers were Rhett Weiss and Risa Mish.

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