A technology platform giving a boost to job seekers from marginalized communities. Environmentally sustainable furniture that won’t break the bank. Digital solutions to help younger generations plan the legacies they want to leave. These business concepts aren’t just pipe dreams; they’re ideas from NYU Law students that are now in the pipeline to reality, thanks to a new Law School initiative.
This spring, three current Law School students were awarded Venture Fund Summer Grants, which will allow them to work on their own startups full time between late May and August. The summer grant program, one part of the new NYU Law Venture Fund, gives student entrepreneurs not only financial support, but also access to assigned alumni mentors and an additional pool of alumni with specific expertise who are ready to help. The Venture Fund’s 14-member advisory jury selected the student grantees, and its members will act as assigned mentors to the students.
Student grant recipient Riley Jones ’20 is the CEO of Bloc, which he co-founded as an undergraduate in 2014. A technology platform to support career coaches at universities, nonprofits, and workforce development agencies, Bloc aims to empower workers from historically marginalized communities, such as people of color, who have often been displaced by evolving technologies. Among other functions, Bloc uses artificial intelligence to allow job seekers to optimize industry-specific keywords in their cover letters and résumés, thus helping users overcome gaps in social capital that put them at a disadvantage. The business has run pilot programs with the City University of New York and several nonprofits.
Jones added an impressive bullet point to his own résumé when he and his co-founder appeared on the most recent Forbes 30 Under 30 list of social entrepreneurs. A Nordlicht Family Scholar, Jones has been a research assistant to Professor Deborah Burand, co-director of the Grunin Center for Law and Social Entrepreneurship, and has gained additional expertise from Alfred B. Engelberg Professor of Law Katherine Strandburg’s course Law and Policy of Big Data, AI and Machine Learning.
The Venture Fund summer grant will allow Jones to turn all his attention to Bloc for the first time. The startup’s activities this summer will center on reaching out to organizations in pursuit of sales as well as gathering data on how potential customers want to use the product and what the price point should be. Additional support will come from the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute’s Summer Launchpad Program; Jones is the first NYU Law student to be accepted.
“I don’t think I can overstate the value of being able to focus on this full time,” Jones says.
Danny Fein ’21, another summer grant recipient, came to NYU Law as a seasoned entrepreneur. After a brief stint in an office job after college, Fein learned Python and used his new skill to launch a merchandise brand and online store with products such as T-shirts, scarves, blankets, and tote bags whose design incorporates literary texts. The business gave him a new appreciation for copyright law, leading him to NYU Law seven years later.
Fein’s current startup idea, still in the conceptual stage, involves a digital platform for end-of-life planning geared toward younger generations. Fein will spend the summer fleshing out the likely features, but he already knows that the product will go well beyond such matters as estate planning to encompass a range of practical considerations related to posterity.
A Jacobson Scholar, Fein already benefits from the guidance of Jacobson Leadership Program in Law and Business co-directors Helen Scott and Gerald Rosenfeld. The additional support of the summer grant opens up even more possibilities.
“For me,” says Fein, “knowing that I want to start a business after law school, this is exactly the way that I want to spend my summer. It feels fortuitous that I’m here at NYU Law the first year that this launched.”
As an early-stage entrepreneur, Fein says he particularly appreciates the grant’s requirement of articulating both weekly and summer-long objectives at the outset: “Even though it’s not like someone’s going to be directly supervising me, there is a structure in place so that I don’t feel like I’m left on my own with an abstract goal that I need to meet by the end of the summer.”
Phantila Phataraprasit ’20 is developing a different kind of product: affordable and environmentally sustainable furniture for young professionals. Before the Law School announced the forthcoming summer grant program, Phataraprasit spent her 1L summer co-founding a startup, Sabai Design. Trying to furnish her new apartment, Phataraprasit had discovered a neglected demographic of newly minted 9-5ers seeking something a step up from IKEA.
Phataraprasit’s environmentalism also factored in. “It was after going through the process of talking to suppliers and manufacturers and thinking about all the materials that I realized that the furniture industry is actually very wasteful,” she says.
Sabai Design is nearing the end of the prototype stage for its first couch, whose specifications were heavily informed by polling potential customers. Phataraprasit and her co-founder are mindful of “the more flexible millennial lifestyle,” she says. Their target consumers, who move frequently and cohabitate with roommates, are loath to lug large furniture with them and cannot easily split it equitably. The quandary led to the idea of a guaranteed buyback program in which Sabai will buy back its furniture for 20 percent of the purchase price and resell it secondhand.
With help from the Venture Fund and advice from alumni mentors and faculty such as Helen Scott, Phataraprasit will have the opportunity to refine the operational details of the venture. “It’s a risk for students to take on this sort of project and not go into traditional jobs,” she says, “so having that support takes a lot of the pressure off and makes you not question your decision as much.”
Starting this fall, the Law School’s alumni entrepreneurs will have their own opportunity to tap into the resources of the NYU Law Venture Fund. A new fund to invest in seed-stage startups will begin accepting applications on September 1. Students or alumni who have graduated within the past 10 years and who are raising seed-stage capital will be eligible to apply for funding.
Law School Trustee Robert Gold ’84, president and chief executive officer of Ridgewood Capital and a longtime energy and technology investor, is a member of the Venture Fund advisory jury, and will be advising Fein this summer. Co-founder of an entrepreneurship program at Colgate University, Gold emphasizes the synergies that the Venture Fund will create among alumni and students alike. “There are so many opportunities for our students and our graduates to work in the venture capital, entrepreneurship, and tech spaces now in New York,” he says. “Any involvement that they have like this will be very helpful for them as they think about careers.”
Posted June 5, 2019