A Feb. 11 conference at eHub Collegetown aimed to strengthen the black entrepreneurship community at Cornell with networking, content sessions and a fireside chat featuring Jerry Raphael, CFO of Axonius. Organized by the Black Entrepreneurs in Training (BET) program and student leader Kareem Hill ’23, BET Community Day offered an introduction to the entrepreneurship ecosystem at Cornell and beyond.
Hill became involved with BET in 2022 after having the idea to hold an entrepreneurship conference. Hill’s experience founding a clothing company called Rare Concepts in 2020 made him want to bring students together to learn about entrepreneurship.
“The values of BET align with the values that I have for myself,” Hill said. “I was trying to host a conference on Cornell’s campus to introduce younger students to entrepreneurship and teach them the necessary skills to be successful, and it turns out the BET community wants to do the same thing.”
The goal of the BET program, founded in 2019 by Ansumana Bangura ’20, Jehron Petty ’20 (now the program lead) and Julia Reeves ’20, is to empower black students to pursue entrepreneurship and to take advantage of entrepreneurship opportunities at Cornell.
“BET Community Days continue to be a testament to BET’s core values — inspiration, information, and initiation,” said Petty, who also serves as the founder and CEO of Colorstack, a nonprofit working to increase the number of Black and Latinx people working in computer science. “This semester’s was even more special as we heard from students that found their start with BET who are now excelling in their ventures.”
The event began with a panel of student entrepreneurs Pranjal Jain ’23, Jeremiah James, Ph.D. ’26, and Osaiyekemwen (Ruth) Ogbemudia ’25. Jain and James are both members of the current cohort of the eLab student accelerator, while Ogbemudia participated in the 2022 cohort of W.E. Cornell and received funding from the Epperson Entrepreneurship Fund that summer.
“It was really great networking with student entrepreneurs, people who have been through the same journey that I’m looking to get into as well,” Tuoyo Oteri, MBA ’23, said. “To learn about the struggles they went through and how they overcame them, it was very inspiring.”
In addition to the panel, a presentation about ideation by Andrea Ippolito ’06, lecturer in the Department of Engineering and founder of Simplifed, and a networking lunch, the main event at BET Community Day was the fireside chat between Petty and keynote speaker Raphael.
Having advised entrepreneurs at various stages, Raphael offered some of that guidance to the aspiring entrepreneurs in attendance. He stressed the importance of gaining skills, coming up with unique ideas and solving problems for customers.
“As much as you may sit and think about what the customer will want, most likely you won’t get it,” Raphael said. “You might get it 50% of the way there, and that’s okay. You just want to get it out there, get it into people’s hands, listen to your customer and iterate from there.”
Raphael did not shy away from addressing the challenges entrepreneurs face, encouraging attendees to learn from them rather than giving up.
“If you’re not used to making mistakes and failing and getting back up, you’re not going to be happy as an entrepreneur,” he said. “You’re going to get the product wrong the first time, but if you have a level of humility, you can handle that and get back up.”
Hill echoed Raphael’s advice, noting that accepting challenges and failures was a key takeaway for attendees of the event.
“Failures while you’re on your entrepreneurial journey are extremely normal,” Hill said. “That’s important because what people don’t understand is, they see the outcome of success, but they never see the failures that go into the success.”
Hill said that after the event, a student shared that he hadn’t thought entrepreneurship was the path for him before the fireside chat, but by the end, he could see himself becoming an entrepreneur.
Attendees also said they benefited from the variety of perspectives included at the event, from student founders at the beginning of their entrepreneurial journeys like Hill and the panelists to a seasoned businessman like Raphael.
“I really liked how there were people at different stages in their life, from people who just graduated recently to people who have been working for a long time,” Chukwudumebi Obi ’23 said. “It validated that yes, it does take a long time to get to the point where you’re at, but it is very rewarding, and there are no shortcuts.”
Last semester, BET hosted a similar Community Day event featuring a keynote presentation from Tiffany Norwood ’89, Cornell’s 2022 Entrepreneur of the Year.