Ellen Jorgensen

Nolan Kagan ’22 is building community through Gather, a venture designed around shared food experiences

Student entrepreneur in a suit facing the camera

Nolan Kagan ’22 has always been a problem solver. Nolan kept lists of ideas and solutions to everyday problems on his phone for years, only to realize that he had the agency to make those ideas a reality. From there, he knew entrepreneurship was his calling. Nolan graduated high school a year early and attended community college in his hometown of Los Angeles, California before coming to Syracuse University where he is currently pursuing a degree in Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises from the Whitman School of Management. Right now, Nolan’s main focus is Gather: an online platform centered around the use of food as a vessel for communication and connection.

Nolan envisions Gather as a platform with which people in a strange place, whether travelling or having just moved to a new city, can share a homecooked meal and a conversation with someone new. To him, eating dinner together is an integral part of what it feels like to be home. Gather allows the comfort of a dining room table to be carried with you through a network of participants around the world. Nolan wants Gather to provide support and comfort to users and hosts through shared meals.

Of course, a global pandemic creates some tricky obstacles for a venture centered around letting strangers into your home. However, Nolan believes that the current state of the world creates an even more pressing need for people to bond over the most common language of all: food. To this affect, Nolan plans to launch Gather as a recipe sharing service so that connections can still be made over delicious dishes.

Nolan is working with Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars at SU Libraries to help bring his idea to life.  He participated in several idea competitions this fall which helped his more fully shape his idea and looks forward to continuing to do discovery and development with the LaunchPad this spring. 

Throughout the development of Gather, the most difficult thing for Nolan has been to keep motivated. This past semester was really hard for him, and he almost gave up on his idea. However, coming home, he realized it was up to him to direct his free time into his passion. Now, he’s full steam ahead. Gather is about improving the lives of people all around the world. Keeping this in mind has helped Nolan stay on task and push through development of his venture. He hopes to have a recipe sharing service available by the end of this coming semester and the full-fledged meal sharing service running in a year. To market Gather, Nolan will rely on word of mouth, influencers, and travel agencies who will recommend Gather to their clients.

Gather will be extremely easy to use. For meal sharing, hosts will have to go through a vetting process, while guests will be able to make a profile with interests and some fun facts about themselves to start a conversation. In terms of safety precautions, a guest will never be alone with a host, always accompanied at meals with their own travel companions or other guests who are seeking a meal. Hosts will be in charge of their own prices for meals and dishes. The recipe sharing service will also be user friendly. Users will even be able to offer cooking classes for those looking to improve their skills in the kitchen. Nolan himself is starting to cook, hoping to use Gather to expand his repertoire which consists mainly of pasta.

To Nolan, success will come with the first satisfied user who tells him about their meal sharing experience. Hearing that he has facilitated a personal connection for a group of people will be the sign to him that his hard work has paid off. Until then, he is working hard with his advisors and LaunchPad mentors as he gets Gather ready to bring people together. Nolan has a passion for people and believes firmly that cooking and food have the potential to forge connections and community.

Story by Ellen Jorgensen ’23, LaunchPad Orange Ambassador; photo supplied

Samantha Jezak ’22 on creating a healthy food enterprise

Since high school, Samantha Jezak ’22 has been interested in nutrition and food studies. Always an athlete, she did her best to be aware of how she was fueling her body to get through her practices and training. She transitioned from eating snacks like Oreos after practice to searching for healthier options: “An important thing to note is that the decision came from me. No one told me to change my diet. I think that’s a huge aspect of eating healthy.”

Samantha is currently pursuing a Nutrition Science major at the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics as well as an Entrepreneurship and Emerging Enterprises minor at the Whitman School of Management. Within nutrition, she is most interested in research. She is currently involved in studying the varying diets of college athletes and the effects of vegetarian diets. Beyond research, she is also the president of Syracuse University’s chapter of Slow Food USA, an organization that encourages good, clean, and fair food practices.

Over the dragging months of quarantine, Samantha decided to fill her time by baking healthy, whole food treats in her hometown of Windham, New Hampshire. Making energy and protein balls for her friends and family on special occasions soon blossomed into fromsamsplate, a locally-sourced, locally-sold start up providing healthy snacks to its customers. Samantha sees her products as a healthy alternative to grabbing a couple Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins in the morning. She finds that knowing what is in the food you are eating as well as choosing natural, whole foods is really important for a healthy diet.

healthy snack photo

Her products quickly gained traction in her community. In response to her success, Samantha added a protein bar and granola to her menu and expanded the flavors of her other treats. At first, Samantha primarily sold her product in batches to individual customers. However, a local café-owner showed interest and began selling her treats. This formalized Samantha’s venture in a few ways, including a consistent stream of demand and profit as well as necessitating the use of an official commercial kitchen. 

Throughout this process, Samantha ensured that she was practicing and encouraging sustainable production processes: “I didn’t know much about sustainability until I came to SU. That’s something that I’m trying to bring back to my hometown.” She uses compostable packaging for all of her healthy treats and sources everything she can from local farmers. Not only was this important to her from a moral perspective, Samantha realized that her customers are willing to pay a few extra dollars for a socially and environmentally responsible product.

It took her only about two weeks to begin to turn a profit. Since this summer, demand as well as her profit margins have only increased. She was even able to increase her prices halfway through the summer to accommodate more variety in her products, all while maintaining her sales.

healthy food bar

At this point, fromsamsplate remains a local business in her hometown. As it is currently a one-person operation, it would be difficult for Samantha to produce a high enough product volume to make shipping profitable. Additionally, she is, of course, a full-time student. This means that in order to keep selling to the café at home, she had to pre-make an extremely large number of products to hold her customers over until she returns for the holidays. In the long term, she would love to open a small storefront in a nearby city such as Boston. In her mind, it would be a shop where customers can put together a box out of dozens of fun flavors. For now, she hopes to expand her flavors and get into more local cafés now that she has her foot in the door. She is also considering hiring some hands to help her bake, especially while she’s away at school.

No matter where or how far fromsamsplate goes, Samantha is making sure that, when it comes down to it, her company is doing good by sourcing local and providing natural, whole foods to her customers.

Story by Ellen Jorgensen ’23, LaunchPad Orange Ambassador; photos supplied

Matt Shumer on using AI to redefine the way we digitally communicate

Picture of Matt Shumer

Matt Shumer started his first business at the age of twelve, selling shoes in an online marketplace. An entrepreneur from the start, he soon realized his interest was not only in creating the products, but in the marketing and business that his venture required.

Matt continued his pursuit of entrepreneurship working with the Blackstone LaunchPad and Techstars when he started as a Syracuse University student in the Whitman School of Management as a freshman in 2018.  He quickly became a Rubin Family Innovation Mentor at the LaunchPad and he launched Visos, a company that integrated virtual reality into healthcare.  As he was networking to build and launch his venture, communicating constantly with investors, mentors, industry experts and others in the field, Matt noticed that the task of writing dozens of emails a day was bogging down his productivity. To address this problem, he started working with artificial intelligence (AI) software that could use key words and phrases to construct full, well-written emails. What started as a tool to improve networking for one venture became a dynamic new venture of its own.

Matt realized the potential of an AI-powered email service and soon co-founded OthersideAI. The software, more refined now, can take a short list of phrases and turn them into a full-fledged correspondence (a demo can be found on their website). OthersideAI is built on the principle of redefining the way we communicate digitally. Matt believes that texting and emailing take up too much time in our daily lives, especially as the information communicated on these platforms is often mundane, repetitive or simple in nature. According to him, video chatting, calling, and in-person meetings are much more worthy of our time. OthersideAI allows email, a platform that ostensibly hasn’t changed since its invention, to take a back seat in a person’s daily schedule to allow more time for engaging communication technologies.

In the future, Matt has a number of plans to further improve the conventional system of email and other communications technologies. “I can envision a future where you don’t have to write emails or wait for a response.” According to Matt, while the tech needed to make this happen is starting to be built, it will take a few years for it to become cost effective enough to be used on a large scale. 

Matt says the secret to successful entrepreneurship all comes down to one thing. “It’s all about getting started.” He recalls the starting point of projects he has worked on in the past where the barrier to entry seemed insurmountable. However, his biggest piece of advice is to just dive in, and not worry about the things you don’t know how to do yet. “Find people that know how to do what you don’t. It doesn’t have to be all you all the time,” Matt says. Managing a project is about knowing your strengths and, when you hit a weak spot, asking for help instead of just giving up or putting it off.

When their first OthersideAI demo launched on Twitter, buzz about OthersideAI spread like wildfire, getting mentions in the New York Times, to Fortune, and by Chris Sacca of the hit show Shark Tank, OthersideAI was an instant hit. However, the development team is far from finished. Each week they add new features to the product, and users are joining the waitlist by the thousands. 

Matt, the CEO and co-founder, as well as the rest of the OthersideAI team, have a bright future ahead. With serious investors on the horizon, they already have some exciting plans to further develop their new business as it continues to grow traction and users.  As they update and add features to their model, they will continue to redefine communication as we know it.

Story by Ellen Jorgensen ’23, LaunchPad Orange Ambassador; photo supplied

Connor Johnson ’22 on the convergence of creativity

young man against a bright graffiti wall

Connor Johnson ‘22 is an actor, a music creator, and a filmmaker. He began pursuing his passion for filmmaking when he was ten years old in his hometown of Bethesda, Maryland using a first-generation iPad and his creative mind to tell stories. Since then, his camera has improved and his passion for filmmaking has only grown stronger.

Connor is pursuing a BFA in Acting in the College of Visual and Preforming Arts as well as a Public Communications Studies minor at Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Over the summer, as part of the Blackstone LaunchPad summer accelerator program, he developed a plan for Snow School Productions, a comedic, short-form video production company. While production is in many ways still just getting started, the idea that inspired Connor’s work has been a long time in the making. Since he came to Syracuse, Connor has been frustrated by the lack of interaction between the College of Visual and Preforming Arts, Newhouse School of Public Communications, and the School of Information Studies (commonly referred to as the iSchool). Connor constructed Snow School Productions as a place where these disciplines, in his mind, naturally converge: the production of media.

Snow School Productions was inspired by content from platforms such College Humor and Barstool ‘Cuse. It is meant to fill a gap in campus content for short, video-form sketch humor tailored to the Syracuse student’s experience. The videos are short enough to fit on platforms such as Tik Tok or Instagram Reels. A defining aspect of Snow School Productions is its focus on the Syracuse student, specifically. While some productions companies such as College Humor produce media for an audience generally defined by age, Snow School Productions follows somewhat in Barstool’s footsteps by creating content specified to the SU experience.

Connor has many ideas for content as his company continues to build its backlog. The first example of these ideas can be found on Instagram, Facebook, and Tik Tok. Future videos might feature impersonations of well-known campus figures as well as infamous campus personalities such as the Marshall Street preacher. It’s Connors hope to create content that feels relatable and personalized to students.

In realizing this project, Connor had to step a bit out of his comfort zone. Reaching out to people from three different schools, one of which he does not even belong to, in order to bring his idea into fruition meant putting himself as well as his idea up for critique. The whole process was anxiety inducing for him, but he realized that facing that anxiety would yield better results than doing nothing at all with the creative drive he found in himself. For Connor, the process of realizing Snow School Productions was exciting because it meant he was in control of the work he was doing. While working for other people can be rewarding in its own right, Connor found that the entrepreneurial aspect of his project meant that he was working towards his own goals, allowing himself to be more driven and focused than he might have been if it were someone else’s project. To his mind, entrepreneurship is intrinsically tied to artistry in that way. In his own words: “Why depend on someone else to pick you? Why wait? There’s nothing stopping you but yourself.”

Story by Ellen Jorgensen ’23, LaunchPad Orange Ambassador; photo supplied

Jackson Ensley ’22 combines boundless energy, passion and hard work to grow POPCYCLE

The ability to turn an idea into a product that truly functions for a community is a rare skill. Jackson Ensley ’22 is one of the talented and dedicated few that have honed this ability. His secret? Hours of hard work.

A New Jersey native, Jackson gleaned an entrepreneurial mind from his first role models: his father and his grandfather (Clifford Ensley ’69, ’70, G’71). Entrepreneurs themselves, they passed on a “do it yourself” mindset to Jackson, who has already begun his first professional venture, POPCYCLE, a company formed to connect budding designers and clothing brands on campus with the broader Syracuse University community. Jackson and his partner began with a series of popup shops around campus last year that were unfortunately cut short when campus closed in the spring. Faced with this dilemma, the POPCYCLE team began the design of a virtual platform to continue connecting fashion enthusiasts on campus. In May they began the design of a website which launched September 7th. Only a few days later, many items off the site have sold out.

Jackson first became interested in fashion in high school, but quickly found that he was more passionate about the marketing and business aspect of the industry. In the future, he hopes to expand POPCYCLE beyond the SU community to become a marketplace that can serve creators from different college campuses across the country. For now, connecting designers to buyers is reward in itself, but he has hopes of eventually making the venture profitable. To him, entrepreneurship is really all about working towards his goals on his own accord and fostering confidence in his ability to make tough decisions. In this way, POPCYCLE is a direct representation of his pure dedication and hard work.

When he was still getting started, Jackson was surprised by the amount of effort it took to realize his plan. Looking back, he finds that some of the hardest work often goes unseen by the consumer. For example, last year, each of the two popup shops required months of planning; hours which a customer passing through might not even consider. However, in his eyes, every hour he puts into his company is an investment in the brands he supports, his partners, and his future as an entrepreneur.

Jackson is pursuing marketing management in the Whitman School of Management at SU. While most of his time is dedicated to POPCYCLE, he also holds a position on the editorial board of FADS, a fashion collective on campus, as the head of merchandise.

Most recently, Jackson has joined the Blackstone LaunchPad as an Orange Ambassador, specifically focusing on marketing for the platform. Orange Ambassadors are generously funded through a gift from Todd B. Rubin ’04 (School of Architecture) who is Minister of Evolution and President of the Republic of Tea. These positions were created to nurture the “orange experience” in the SU community, and there is no one who brings more passion to this role than Jackson who has an eye for vintage collegiate clothing and a very unique Syracuse collection.

Throughout the development of POPCYCLE, Jackson used the LaunchPad as a collaborative and supportive space to bounce ideas around, receive mentoring, and hone-in on his vision for the online marketplace that his company has become. He cites the LaunchPad, its staff and its leadership as integral to the success of his brand.

In his new role, Jackson hopes to “pay it forward” and give other creative and entrepreneurial students the opportunity to receive such boundless and essential support as they pursue their passion.

This semester the POPCYCLE team is holding socially safe pop-up drop off and pick up hours in the LaunchPad. Check out their product line on their website here.

Story by Ellen Jorgensen ’23, LaunchPad Orange Ambassador; photo supplied

Ellen Jorgensen ’23 from her balcony perspective on the world

student in an outdoor setting

Ever since she was a child, Ellen Jorgensen ’23 has been intrigued by the power of perspective. Growing up in Harlem, she would peer over the edge of her balcony, wondering if the pedestrians below ever realized they could look so small. Then, looking up at the jets overhead, she would imagine the feeling of pressing her head against an airplane window, looking down at her home, indiscernible from the lattice of buildings packed onto the skinny island of Manhattan. As she grew up, Ellen nurtured her fascinations by delving into anything that offered a new balcony from which to see her world.

In high school, Ellen used her interest in perspective to fuel a deep love for learning. As an interviewer at her school paper, she was able to explore the passions and expertise of the people around her. Later, as an editor, she was able to gain insight into the way her writers thought through problems and ideas. However, nothing satisfied her more than the in-depth point of view that could be offered in the sciences. She loved the way that science was really just the practice of asking questions, even those that are impossible to answer. The scientific method demanded that she approach questions from every perspective imaginable as she began to see how everything in the universe, from the smallest atom to the largest galaxy, could be used as a vantage point for new ideas and solutions.

Currently, Ellen is in her second year at Syracuse University, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Earth Science, a minor in Physics, and excitedly exploring so much more in the College of Arts and Sciences. Earth Science as a field can only be understood through the manipulation of perspective. In order to record temperature data from millions or even billions of years ago, you must be able to measure the ratios of mere molecules and atoms. The combination of micro and macro frames of reference is what attracts Ellen to the Earth Sciences.

On campus, Ellen is a part of The Kumquat, a satirical news organization, and assists in a paleoclimate research lab in the Earth Science department. At The Kumquat, she enjoys twisting and rearranging the goings on of campus in a humorous and often expository light. In the lab, she works with sediment samples to extract information and patterns from ocean temperatures over three million years in age. Talk about perspective-altering! Working with such varying scales and mediums allows for a new balcony from which to see her world nearly every day.

As a new member of the Blackstone LaunchPad team, Ellen will be working as an Orange Ambassador, exploring the myriad of incredible projects and creative minds that the Syracuse community has to offer. The position is generously funded through a gift from Todd B. Rubin ’04 (School of Architecture) who is Minister of Evolution and President of the Republic of Tea. Rubin created these roles to help entrepreneurial students continue their “orange experience” at Syracuse University.

In this new role, she is most excited to explore the varying ways that contributive and innovative people perceive their own impact on their respective communities. How do you identify need? How do you reach a solution? How do you entwine these concepts into a feasible plan of action? In some way, everyone approaches these questions as they face their everyday problems, but every once in a while, someone truly fantastic is able to answer them in an unprecedented way. It is her hope that exploring the perspectives of such an engaging cohort of people will open her eyes to a new frame of reference – a new balcony, if you will.

Story by Ellen Jorgensen ’23, LaunchPad Orange Ambassador, photo supplied