Claire Howard

Zebedayo Masongo L ’23 and Grnwood

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The story of creating an oasis in a society with racism engrained into its foundations begins in a small district Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the turn of the 19th century. It is the story of the Greenwood district, a legacy that lives on in the modern rebirth Grnwood, founded by Zebedayo Masongo L’23.

After emancipation, Black communities struggled to find a place for themselves in a society that did not welcome them. After discovering no such spaces in American communities, they decided to create one. Developers bought up property in a district in Tulsa called Greenwood and envisioned it as a budding city for Black Americans. As Black communities flocked to this district, it became a vibrant community of professionals, dreamers, artists – a dazzling assortment of Black people from all socioeconomic statuses.

This rich community was not viewed positively by all. In 1921 roots of deep racisms in the surrounding community took hold as white city residents mobbed the Greenwood district: destroying homes, businesses, and even attacking Black individuals. The district and the rich community named ‘the Black Wall Street’ was then forever lost.

Zebedayo Masongo ’23, a second-year law student at the Syracuse University College of Law, wishes for a modern reinvention of the black community so tragically destroyed. In his personal life, his desires for a Black professional community began as he searched for mentors but could not find any that looked like him. He envisioned an online platform featuring interviews of black professionals, and after conducting a few interviews hatched his idea of an online Black community, called Grnwood in honor of the Tulsa community.

Grnwood, run solely by Masongo featuring various interviews of professionals from a diverse array of fields, has grown to include profile pieces on people from all walks of life. It has expanded to include a team of contributors. From sections of music, style, design, and much more, Grnwood expands and illustrates on the brilliance of Black professional life. A personal focus is at its core: the website is comprised of thoughtful, detailed conversations with black professionals to inspire a sense of personal connection and admiration.

Masongo’s vision of Grnwood is one that not merely comments on current Black culture but acts as a directing force for the growth of art and thought. “I want to be a platform that directs culture – this is a new black renaissance,” said Masongo in reference to Grnwood’s cultural influence.

“Everyone takes their culture very seriously, so the way that we’re dealing with Black culture we address with a certain level of care,” said Masongo. His phrase ‘black renaissance,’ is rooted in the flourishing community of Tulsa, and a hope to recreate that shared inspiration and passion in a digital format.

Masongo’s hopes for Grnwood extend beyond merely a small blog, but he’s working to see it grow into a multinational media platform. He plans to apply his law degree towards a career in growing and managing Grnwood, shaping it into an expansion across continents and diverse forms of media, whether that be film content, podcasts, or editorials.

Much of Masongo’s personal inspiration for Grnwood stems not only from his desire for mentorship, but also lack of cultural role models displayed in his own childhood. In films, books, professional articles, tv series, the prevalence of Black individuals was few and far between- creating a hole where impressionable kids search for inspiration and empowerment.

“When I build the platform, I think about me and my younger self reading magazines and seeing an article about a black professional once every so often, but it’s not really centered around us,” said Masongo. “I think about how cool it would be if there was a magazine to show off all of our elegance and glory.”

For Masongo, that is precisely Grnwood’s role – to show off the elegance and glory of modern black professionals through its intimately interview based media. He hopes that Grnwood will provide a space for Black kids to recognize themselves and their potential through the stories of others.

The inspiration for Grnwood has its roots in a terrible American sin. The destruction of a vibrant community overflowing with thought, creation, and excellence can never be replaced or rebuilt. But its legacy as an oasis for black success and perseverance in the middle of a hostile society lives on through the media platform. “Grnwood is a beautiful example how if we’re not going to be given a seat at the table, we’re going to create our own,” said Masongo.

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow; photo supplied

Rabia Razzaq G ’22 is designing solutions to global challenges

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From Pakistan, Razzaq’s interest in design began after several years working in the fashion industry. As she lived and worked in Pakistan, she noticed the disturbing air quality as pollutants grew worse and worse, and watched her community suffer from breathing issues. “People couldn’t go out because the air quality was bad, and it affected pregnant women as well. It was getting worse every year,” said Razzaq of the reality she observed in Pakistan.

Razzaq was shocked to learn that a major contributor to the pollutants in Pakistan was the textiles industry. “I was really depressed and devastated to know of what we have done,” said Razzaq. This revelation of the industry she built her career in motivated her to turn her career towards one that built a positive society – not one that worsened her community’s living conditions.

With this goal in mind to design a better world, Razzaq began searching for universities in the United States to apply to a master’s design program. After applying to several American universities, Razzaq was offered a 50% scholarship for a master’s design program in VPA through a connection she created with a faculty member. She had to be honest. “I supported myself, I’m working on multiple jobs. A 50% scholarship makes it impossible for me to come to another country and study.”

For the first time in the history of the design program, the faculty decided to create a fellowship for Razzaq to allow her to pursue her passions at Syracuse University and apply the critical thinking and design skills learned there to create solutions in her home country.

Beyond her career in the fashion industry, Razzaq had spent her free time in Pakistan working for an NGO tutoring homeless children. During this time, she conducted research and created her thesis on the need for family’s to be more involved in their children’s upbringing. This goal – to pour herself into the future generations and communities of Pakistan, designing a better society – was exactly the reason she hoped to study at Syracuse and obtain her masters.

Through her current studies, she’s researching sustainable bioplastics to recreate toxic production processes within the textiles industries and designing sustainable packaging for industrial use. Razzaq has already used her fellowship to design a sustainable future.

Razzaq is enrolled in the Intelligence++ class in partnership with VPA, InclusiveU and the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University, which focused on inclusive design and entrepreneurship. The class asks students to shadow individuals with various disabilities and then design technology for their wellness. In this class, Razzaq is currently created a sensory playground as a calming outlet for an individual with excessive energy.

Razzaq’s first year at Syracuse University has been packed with designing solutions to societal problems from engineering inclusivity to creating more sustainable production cycles. Reflecting on her challenging work and success, Razzaq has one thing to share with those in her home country: to include women in design and higher education. In Pakistan, medicine and engineering are considered two prestigious fields; and if women don’t have a degree in one of those, they usually settle for a life at home.

“Encourage your daughters, and the females in your family to go to graduate school, there is so much to explore and learn from the world. I have been wanting to study abroad, earn a master’s in design, and see these [solutions] implemented for the past five years… if you really want to do something, strive for it, there are endless opportunities out there!” says Razzaq to the girls of Pakistan.

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow; photo supplied

Lauren Pichiarella ‘22 creates College Wise to help create a more accessible college application process

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To receive a college education is a privilege, that we all know; but to even hold the opportunity to apply to college is an immense privilege. Navigating the daunting processes of personal statements, recommendations, and application fees was made easier for many college students through school resources, but for many; the opportunity to apply to quality universities is lost amid logistical stress.

This is the reality that Lauren Pichiarella ‘22 is hoping to change. Studying Citizenship and Civic Engagement and Political Science in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs with a minor in Public Communications in the Newhouse School of Public Communications, Pichiarella had always dreamed of using her career to have some social impact on the world around her. As part of her Citizenship and Civic Engagement program studies, she was expected to intern and work with a nonprofit or governmental organization, as well as design an “Action Plan;” designed to help the organization tackle significant social problems in the city of Syracuse.

Pichiarella interned in her junior year for the organization On Point for College, which helps high school students in Syracuse overcome barriers to higher education through assistance in the college application process.  During her time working at this organization, Pichiarella was struck by the extreme difficulties many students encountered in their search for college. Having attended a college preparatory academy for her high school education, she had much support during her search for the perfect school; and it was those support and resources that helped her land a place at Syracuse University.

Many students in schools across the country, however; do not have access to guidance counselors and academic support to help with their college application process. Even for those that do have support, the college process is time-consuming, and involves numerous different application platforms, essays, and forms. “If students don’t have a guidance counselor, a lot of students get left behind,” said Pichiarella of the barriers in higher education access.

Driven by a desire to make sure every student has the ability to be admitted to the schools of their choice, Pichiarella searched for a way to make this process easier for students. Her action plan that she created this past year invented an app to do just that.

 College Wise, Pichiarella’s app, hopes to create an easier and more accessible college application experience by providing one platform to access all applications, forms, deadlines, and resources through. To ease the stress of applying to numerous universities through various online application systems and additional forms such as FAFSA externally; students receive  notifications from the app that remind students of deadlines, events,  and university communications.

In addition to its system of simplifying the applications, Pichiarella also hopes to incorporate a social aspect into College Wise. As students apply through colleges at the same time in high school and often the same time as their friends, Pichiarella hopes that created social connections on this platform will motivate students and help them feel supported by their peers.

Currently, Pichiarella is developing the College Wise app with her team that has just hired a coder. The app will be used initially for the nonprofit OnPoint as first market test at the end of 2022, and then she hopes to expand it to become a nationwide tool for American high school students.

Creating an app is something Pichiarella had never even dreamt of doing. Before her CCE coursework, the thought of starting her business was completely foreign to her. Partnerships with the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University and professionals and resources within Newhouse have been invaluable to her throughout her creation. Needless, to say, this process has come with significant hurdles and resulting growth for her- and has only made her grateful for her team and more excited for her future.

After graduation, she dreams of working for a nonprofit, perhaps specifically in the field of equality to higher education access. She plans to continue working on College Wise to turn it into a tool every American student can use to organize their dreams of higher education into practical and realistic action.

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow.

Kwaku Jyamfi ’18 brings clean energy to communities around the world through Farm to Flame Energy

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In Ghana, a family uses noxious diesel generators to power their home and charcoal to light their ovens and stoves. Clean energy is utterly lacking in many parts of the world.  Kwaku Jyamfi ’18, who majored in chemical engineering at the College of Engineering & Computer Science, hopes to change that. He co-founded Farm to Flame Energy with Will McKnight ‘18, a graduate College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.  Starting as a student venture, the company has gone on to launch and is now scaling production of smokeless and odorless biomass-powered generators for use in communities around the globe.

Jyamfi’s passion for creating an environmentally conscious generator stems from his own experience and family background. Much of Jyamfi’s family is from Ghana, and he’s witnessed firsthand the reliance on diesel generators and charcoal. “Charcoal has a lot of particle matter that’s bad, and then the kids take that in,” he said. The use of charcoal to cook in kitchens or diesel generators for over 8 hours a day is not just an environmental problem, it’s also a public health problem.

When McKnight, who is a friend of Jyamfi’s, told him his grandfather had designed a combustion process for biomass that burns odorless and smokeless, Jyamfi was immediately intrigued.  Together, they began working on the patented idea, created a business model for Farm to Flame Energy and began pitching in business campus competitions, winning some initial seed funding for the idea during their studies at Syracuse University. The team incubated in the LaunchPad and worked with mentors from both the LaunchPad and the SyracuseCoE.

After Jyamfi graduated, he spent a summer working tirelessly at the Technology Garden in downtown Syracuse to design Farm to Flame Energy’s generators. The team hired several students studying mechanical engineering to assist them in the technological development of the generator. After a series of 60-hour weeks and tireless devotion, Jyamfi and his team created their model of the generator that successfully powered buildings while remaining carbon neutral.

Development of the company was made more complicated when Jyamfi moved on to graduate study at Carnegie Mellon University to get his degree in Environmental Engineering and Technology Innovation Management. In an entirely different city away from his team, Jyamfi worked full time on Farm to Flame Energy on development and investment while completing his graduate studies, showing his level of passion and dedication to the company. During quarantine he even built a small demonstrative generator on his porch, using the time and isolation to propel the company’s growth.

Farm to Flame Energy’s most pivotal growth came on a trip to Nigeria they took in the first semester of developing the company. They visited a hospital powered by diesel generators, which cost approximately 2 million US dollars per year. During that visit, they wrote the hospital a letter of intent promising that with their generators, their hospital could be powered sustainably for a cost of only 1.2 million US dollars per year. After the COVID-19 pandemic, Jyamfi and his team traveled back to Nigeria in 2021 and turned that letter of intent into a contract. They delivered their first commercial generator to that hospital in 2021 and have then since been developing more commercial generators with the ability to power commercial buildings using carbon neutral, clean energy.

Today Jyamfi works full time as the CEO of Farm to Flame Energy, finding investments and markets to turn their successful model of a commercial carbon neutral generator into a company that powers commercial buildings all around the world. His path from an engineering student with an idea to the CEO of a company that has developed and implemented a technologically successfully clean energy power source speaks to the large-scale positive contribution every person can make with just an idea.

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow; photo supplied  

Maya Tsimmer ’23 turns her passion for beekeeping into an organic honey business

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In the solitude of the spring 2020 COVID-19 outbreak, a passion for beekeeping was born. Maya Tsimmer ’23, studying advertising in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with marketing minor in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, created Bethel Sweet Honey during the pandemic and launched herself into the world of locally sourced honey.

Tsimmer’s interest in locally sourced honey begins as a love story to the upstate New York countryside.  Raised in New York City, her family owned a country house in Bethel, New York complete with floor-to-ceiling glass windows to capture the surrounding rolling wooded hills. 

When the family house unfortunately burned down in 2008, her family was devastated but Tsimmer always maintained her love for the beauty of Upstate New York and an appreciation for its rich biodiversity and agricultural produce.

“We spent so much time working the land — planting pine seedlings so that pine trees would grow and keep on growing with the family history,” Tsimmer recalled of the home she lost in the fire. “People overlook Upstate New York.  But it has so many incredible foods and it remains undiscovered when it comes to organic food.”

Tsimmer began to fully appreciate the agricultural richness of New York when she took up beekeeping as a hobby during COVID-19 isolation. While her family did not rebuild the home, they still visited the land often and stayed with family nearby. As she taught herself to tend bees and harvest honey on the family land, she began to see honey as more than product but as a storytelling of the New York ecosystem and an experiential joy.

 “Our goal is to elevate honey, to go beyond honey as an accessory to tea or coffee, and to bring appreciation of seasonal varieties with uniquely local taste profiles and multiple uses that take a front row seat as a healthier alternative to sugar-rich spreadables, candy and much more,” said Tsimmer regarding the experience of honey. “When you take a spoonful of Bethel Sweet, you will think of your best summers, the lakes, the woods and Catskill mountains.”

With the desire to share honey as a joy and homage to the nature of New York, Tsimmer along with the help of her brother launched Bethel Sweet Honey, selling small batch unprocessed honey.  The unique element of Bethel Sweet Honey lies in Tsimmer’s self-discovered straining process which creates tiny sugar crystals in the honey, creating a more interesting flavor profile and silky-smooth buttery texture.

In addition to regular honey harvested from her bees, she also created a wildflower honey, which includes berries natural to New York State as a tribute to its local environment.  She also hopes to highlight the remarkable health benefits of honey, from immunity support, anti-allergen, and healing properties to increased nutrition compared to other refined sugars.

At present Bethel Sweet Honey is sold mainly through private markets and through a partnership with VR World, the US largest virtual reality entertainment center in New York City.

While Tsimmer right now must balance her passion for beekeeping with academic life in Syracuse, she hopes to expand Bethel Sweet Honey’s market and pursue its growth fulltime after graduation. Bethel Sweet at present is managed and operated by Tsimmer and her brother, but she’s currently looking to outsource more of the honey production to other local beekeepers, dedicated on preserving the local roots and artisanal quality of Bethel Sweet Honey.

Tsimmer’s story of starting her own business during the pandemic echoes experiences of many who found new directions in a time that fostered creativity during a period of isolation and stillness. For Tsimmer, her redirection pointed her back towards the childhood land she felt deeply connected to. Bethel Sweet Honey is a celebration of the beauty and farming of upstate New York and reflects Tsimmer’s desire to share the life of New York’s land with others.

“In a lot of ways, Bethel Sweet is a part of the land that was lost,” said Tsimmer.

Story by Claire Howard ’23, LaunchPad Global Fellow

Josh Alter ’22 helps startups focus on their finances for growth

Personal finances are tricky enough. But managing finances for a business, particularly a new startup business, is an entirely different domain of stress and complexity. At the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University, Josh Alter ’22 works diligently to help startup teams keep track of finances and focus on growth.

The finance major in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management with a sports analytics minor in the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, is the LaunchPad’s resident financial advisor and of this year’s Launchstars.  Alter has always loved tackling projects and leading business teams and this role is a perfect fit.

He connected to the LaunchPad in an uncommon way — through a chance friendship. In 2017, Alter met Sam Hollander, the LaunchPad’s Program Manager, on a trip to Australia. Alter and Hollander, who lived hundreds of miles away from each other, did not see each other again, but kept in touch.  When they both committed to Syracuse, their shared travel experience turned into a great college friendship.

Through Hollander’s connection to the LaunchPad, Alter himself began to work with one of LaunchPad’s businesses, Popcycle.  Run by Jackson Ensley and Paul Hultgren, two LaunchPad team members, Popcycle creates popups and spaces for student artists and creatives to sell their work, from woven tote bags to handprinted jean jackets. “The concept is amazing,” says Alter. “We have something we’re passionate about and so many talented student innovators are on campus. It was amazing to make a space for them.”

Alter worked with Popcycle to organize its finances, manage multiple revenue streams, and create budget forecasts for future projects. It was through this role that Alter was first immersed in the world of startups. He loved it. “A lot of the work I did then was a learning experience. Everyone who works in a startup wears all the hats,” says Alter.

Like most people, Alter’s college experience changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rapid shift from a packed academic schedule and rich social life to virtual Zoom classes within his bedroom was for him, like it many, debilitating for his mental health and wellbeing. After missing an on-campus fall 2020 semester, he needed a change. He said goodbye to his roommates, packed up his belongings, booked a flight to Honolulu, and spent the next semester alternating his time between a sunny Hawaiian beach and completing online coursework. “I kind of dropped everything,” says Alter. “There’s nothing like sun, water and warm weather to turn everything around. It was probably the best three months of my life.”

Alter’s biggest growth that happened in his time away from campus was independence. Away from the professional and social networks that a university provides, he was forced to form new networks independently and grow in a self-sustained way.

It’s this independence and self-courage that he applies to his work today and is part of what he loves about the LaunchPad.  “It’s such a real space,” says Alter about the LaunchPad. “In the classroom you’re doing a lot of theoretical work, but here these students have passion and ideas and I get to help develop those.” 

This drive to realize the grand ideas of others into reality through financial services has led Alter to create a career where he does just that. After graduation, he’ll be working for Deloitte on an account for a large sports-related client, where he’ll audit and advise the client on their financial model.

From financial forecasting for small student startups to a prestigious global company, Alter uses his financial knowledge to help people and companies cement their dreams into reality. His power lies not just in his passion, but his ability to create space and growth for himself through every difficulty, like his choice to spend a semester in Hawaii.

“We get very wrapped up in our jobs and our future and it’s important that we take a breath and look at what we’ve done to see that things are going well.”

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow; photo supplied

Sebastian Gonzalez ’22 curates his wellness brand Ataraxia

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Stress is perhaps the most well-understood word in the modern individual’s dictionary. The burden of managing a multitude of responsibilities in an increasingly fast-paced modern world has left individuals burnt out, overwhelmed, and struggling with anxiety in an attempt to meet all expectations.

Enter the world of nootropics — natural supplements that can improve cognitive function and reduce burnout. Sebastian Gonzalez ’22, studying real estate in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management and psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences and founder of Ataraxia, a brand selling nootropic supplements to enhance cognitive performance.

Ataraxia, a Greek word meaning a state of serenity free from worry, was inspired by Gonzalez’ own personal experience with the importance of mental health and his lifelong mission to support mental wellness in himself and others. He studies psychology for that precise reason — to understand how the brain works and what strategies to implement for its health and happiness. For him, simple strategies such as taking cold showers in the morning or meditating before starting the day have significant effects on his focus and presence.

Another behavior he’s found revolutionary in improving productivity and calm? The answer lies in Ataraxia – taking nootropic supplements.

Gonzalez’ business of artisanal supplements started a few years ago when he traveled to Japan and visited the green tea market in Kyoto. There, in the city known for producing the world’s finest tea, he was introduced and fell in love with Japanese matcha. As obsession for green tea made its way to America in the form of ice creams, cakes, and lattés; Gonzalez decided to begin selling ceremonial grade matcha, touting its many health benefits and advantage as an alternative to coffee.

Through sleek, elegant packaging and intentional care, Gonzalez quickly found customers for his premium matcha. Hoping to expand more into the world of supplements for cognitive function, he began developing a nootropic blend in one pill from several different mushroom powders. His current supplement contains ashwagandha, which reduces stress and anxiety, chaga, which improves memory recognition, and lion’s mane, which increases focus and attention. 

“Stress and anxiety is the number one factor that decreases our energy. Nootropics increases your brain’s productivity.  If you take it in the long term, you’re going to feel less stressed and more energetic,” said Gonzalez of the profound impact nootropics can have.

With his passion for mental wellness and intentional cultivation of his wellness brand Ataraxia, it’s no surprise that Gonzalez is already seeing funding and interested customers run towards him. Gonzalez was one of four winners at the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University’s Startup in a Day competition, where individuals gathered from across the Syracuse community to give one-minute pitches of their business idea for the chance to win $1,000 as part of a collaboration with Startup Tree.

As the winner of the Consumer Products and Services categories, Gonzalez now gets to move on to a nationwide competition competing for the chance to win $10,000 in funding for Ataraxia. Gonzalez, who signed up for the competition after he saw the LaunchPad team pitching it in Bird Library, is so thankful that he saw that LaunchPad table that one day and propelled his path toward funding and recognition.

With the past year’s rise in mental health struggles, motivation, and productivity due to world forever changed by COVID-19, Gonzalez hopes that nootropic supplements can help people find more focus and energy in their day-to-day life. His resolve to create a brand that helps people cultivate wellness and mental health via remarkably powerful brain supplements contributes to the creation of a modern society that is well, not stressed.  

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow.

EmpowerU partners with Wo-manly and the Syracuse LaunchPad for personal and professional growth

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On a quiet Wednesday afternoon in November, amidst the scramble and stress of school in its final weeks, a group of more than 20 students gathered in the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University over freshly baked cookies and holiday blend teas, dreaming together of how they could achieve professional fearlessness.

The first meeting of EmpowerU, a new LaunchPad community started in partnership with Wo-manly, brought together people from all academic disciplines and career goals across Syracuse University. They had one purpose in mind — to form a community supporting and encouraging each other’s personal and professional growth.

After the first meeting, which brought inspiration and reflection from experiences shared of Kelly Davis, CEO of Wo-manly and Linda Dickerson Hartsock, Executive Director for the Blackstone LaunchPad, the initial members of Wo-manly brainstormed ideas to make this new Syracuse community flourish.

That is precisely what EmpowerU hopes to do to grow this community at the end of this semester into the next with their upcoming plans which include:

Mentor Matching

Mentorship is critical to sustained growth in career and personal aspects of life. EmpowerU hopes to provide career mentors for students across different academic disciplines. If you’re interested in finding a mentor, please fill the form here to be matched with one.

Study Hours

Often, the most powerful thing a community can do for its members is simply share time together in the mundane tasks of everyday. As finals loom and studying becomes an all-day activity, EmpowerU is offering study hours with Claire and Kelly in the LaunchPad Mondays from 12-2 pm, Tuesdays 2-4pm, and Wednesdays from 4-6pm for the next two weeks. Please come by and study over with your favorite LaunchPad tea!

Vision Board Party

As organizations hold their last event to wrap up the semester, EmpowerU hopes to offer a de-stressing, recentering time to help you refocus for finals. Stay tuned for our Vision Board Party, where we’ll gather to create vision boards reflecting on this semester and getting excited for the future!

EmpowerU warmly welcomes you to attend and take advantage of all our opportunities here. Please click here to join and hope to welcome you soon!

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow

Murray Lebovitz ’23 is championing the craft of artisanal coffee

Each morning, a cup of coffee.  That is the daily ritual for 70% of Americans.  From Keurig machines on nightstands to drip coffee pots in kitchens that keep caffeine coming all day long, most adults survive on coffee to give them a boost of energy to start their day.

Yet despite the overwhelming number of people who rely on coffee as an essential item in their life, coffee sourcing is not often well understood or celebrated as an artisanal craft. Enter Murray Lebovitz ’23, studying Supply Chain Management in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, determined to create community centered around appreciating and championing the craft of coffee through his platform Keep Coffee Casual.

Lebovitz’ interest in coffee began after working a summer camp job after he graduated high school. As one might imagine, the coffee there was atrocious, probably mixed from an industrial sized instant coffee container. Lebovitz couldn’t stand it and bought his own personal-sized coffee maker.  He soon began taking it everywhere with him.

As he started his studies at Syracuse University, Lebovitz continued his tradition of brewing his own coffee every morning in his dorm. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in his freshman year, Lebovitz used his newfound time to research more into the practice of brewing coffee, curious to discover the intricacies of what had been for him for so long a core, but not understood, aspect of his lifestyle.

Lebovitz’ newfound passion and interest in the art of coffee led him to start his own mini business selling his own cold brew coffee across campus during freshman year. His fascination with coffee grew into him securing a job at the new Salt City Coffee as one of their roasters, working hard to create the perfect, most flavorful roast of coffee for the local artisanal coffee shop.

As Lebovitz dived deeper into the world of coffee, he wasn’t content to let it merely be a personal hobby but wanted to unite and connect with other people around the appreciation of specialty coffee. Enter Keep Coffee Casual, a business focused on creating community for coffee lovers and expanding the specialty coffee community to everyday coffee drinkers.

Lebovitz identified two main problems within the coffee industry today — transparency and consumer accessibility. The coffee industry is sourced from coffee farmers in countries across the world, typically Southern hemisphere developing countries. It unfortunately can be industry that profits off exploitation from poor farmers, without consumer transparency of these practices. “Transparency is huge in the coffee world because the product people are drinking is sourced so far away from most people. Keeping the supply chain transparent works as a benefit for both sides,” said Lebovitz of his hopes to increase people’s awareness about the sourcing of coffee through Keep Coffee Casual.

While standard coffee is readily accessible to most Americans, Lebovitz also hopes to improve accessibility to specialty coffee. Specialty coffee, which highlights carefully cultivated roasts for unique flavors, artisanal methods of brewing from pour over to French press, and often is sourced through ethical fair-trade practices, is typically not accessible to most people because of the price difference and purchasing barrier to entry.

Lebovitz hopes to introduce more people to specialty coffee through Keep Coffee Casual’s  coffee variety bags, which include different roasts following an industry theme. This allows new customers to try various varieties of coffee without committing to the expense of a large bag of one variety that they may not like. Instead, consumers can dip their toes in the world of specialty coffee by trying what aspects they love.

He is working with the Blackstone LaunchPad to refine his business model and begin work on commercializing his venture.  He’s also been offering occasional informal pop-up coffee tastings featuring unique roasts in the LaunchPad for other student ventures, growing a cult following and appreciative audience for his coffee expertise.

The power of coffee lies in its ability to cultivate community.  This is at the core of Keep Coffee Casual’s mission. Through intentional consumption of ethically sourced and specialty coffee, Lebovitz seeks to create community around the care and love for coffee. “Coffee is a great way to bring people together – that’s where the magic happens,” said Lebovitz.

Story by Claire Howard ’23, Global Fellow

Come to EmpowerU on November 10

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Women hold just 10.9% of leadership positions in the world’s 500 largest companies. In companies across the U.S. they hold only 21% of leadership positions across all companies. When women make up half the population and nearly half the workforce, why do we still see stagnation in equality of opportunity and professional growth for women?

At the Blackstone LaunchPad at Syracuse University, we are interested in growing the next generation of woman innovators.  EmpowerU is a new LaunchPad community, a space for women and allies to encourage each other in fearless professional growth. Overcoming biases in the workplace, dealing with imposter syndrome, advocating for oneself and one’s work, holding confidence in one’s skills, being unafraid to propose new ideas and projects, not backing down in the face of criticism, and going after one’s visions are just a few examples of what we hope to cultivate in each other in this community.

We would like to warmly invite you to our first EmpowerU gathering on November 10 at 4pm, at the Blackstone LaunchPad located in the glass cube on the first floor of Bird Library. Over coffee and pastries from local women-owned bakeries, we are excited to get to know you and hear your ideas for how this community can best serve you; whether that’s through social gatherings and the sharing of experiences, hard and soft skills-based workshops from coding to self-advocacy, or networking and professional speaker events.

At our first meeting we are pleased to welcome Kelly Davis ’23, LaunchPad Rubin Innovation Mentor and Community Manager and founder of Wo-manly, an online platform empowering women in professional male-dominated spaces.  Also speaking will be Linda Dickerson-Hartsock, executive director of the LaunchPad and adjunct faculty in the Martin J. Whitman School of Management.

Davis will open the event with a talk on her work creating and running Wo-manly as well as the importance of women occupying entrepreneurial spaces, reflected by her own experience as an entrepreneur. Following her, Dickerson-Hartsock will share her experience building a career by becoming fearless.  We’re excited to learn from these women whose experiences have taught them professional and personal courage, and even more thrilled to open the conversation to you and your experiences.

EmpowerU is open to anyone who identifies as a woman, as well as non-binary individuals, gender fluid individuals, and those of all sexual orientations and gender identities who want to grow personally and professionally in an inclusive and safe environment.

Please join us on November 10 to connect with others seeking to fearlessly pursue their goals and join a community focused on empowering you to achieve your dreams. We warmly invite the Syracuse community to join a space to uplift each other towards professional and personal success.