It’s a sultry day in late August, and while many New Yorkers are away at the beach, Aileen Lee ’23, founder and CEO of sustainable fashion startup Infinite Goods, is in the midst of an action-packed day.
Her first stop is in Chelsea, a trendy neighborhood in New York City, where she and her team are preparing for the launch of a pop-up they’re planning. An email blast in the Columbia Business School alumni newsletter has already gone out to promote her startup and next comes working on the social media campaign with her head of marketing.
By 2 p.m., it’s time to jump on a call with a couple of investors who have expressed interest in her year-old startup, and then it’s on to pitching Galvanizer, an accelerator at Stanford that gives founders from different schools practice in pitching.
Lee dreamed up Infinite Goods after a career in the fashion industry, most recently as a project leader at Boston Consulting Group. While helping companies reach their sales targets, she became frustrated that often, through over-forecasting, fashion brands were manufacturing clothing that no one purchased and then incinerating the unwanted apparel and returns—hurting the environment by contributing to carbon emissions and waste.
Determined to do something about it, she applied to CBS and was accepted. “I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do but wanted to explore sustainable fashion and landed on this idea in my second year,” she says.
Lee’s startup now makes the Infinite Loop Bag, which consumers can use to “close the loop” on fashion purchases by recycling old clothing. Once they’re finished wearing a garment, they can drop it into the bag and send it to Infinite Goods, which partners with another Columbia alumni founded startup, Sortile, to upcycle or recycle at Columbia Startup Lab. Infinite Goods then sends back a $20 credit to the consumer to spend on sustainable Infinite Goods products—from crop tops to raincoats—on its website. The designer fashions on the site all come with a Sustainability Score she and her team developed to provide more transparency into the environmental and labor practices of each designer.
Lee’s startup is based at Columbia Startup Lab, one of two main hubs that house student start-ups. It provides subsidized co-working space for up to one year to 71 Columbia entrepreneurs in total, among them 32 graduates of CBS.
The lab, founded in 2014, is a living innovation laboratory that demonstrates Columbia University’s longstanding spirit of entrepreneurship and collaboration, serving as the hub for a community of dedicated founders. Run by Columbia Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and Design—a coalition across Columbia Business School, Columbia Law School, Columbia College, and the Schools of Engineering and Public Affairs the lab also connects current students with the Business School’s alumni network, providing a base for alumni to continue to grow their ventures after graduation. It was through the lab that Lee met Sortile founders Constanza Gomez ’22 and Agustina Mir ’21 SIPA, and partnered with them to recycle clothing from the Infinite Loop Bag.
Lee funded her startup with her own savings and a few small grants she won, but the Tamer Fund for Social Enterprise provided her with two full-time employees over the summer and the company’s heads of business development and marketing. She also received a steady stream of advice from faculty, turning to mentors such as Dan Wang, the Lambert Family Associate Professor of Business and faculty co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, among others. “Honestly, if you ask any professor for help, they’re willing to spend an hour with you white-boarding on strategy or marketing,” says Lee.
Meanwhile, Professor Pauline Brown, former chair of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton North America, took on a more formal role as Lee’s advisor, helping with the startup’s initial branding and messaging on its brand pillars and providing mentoring and motivation. Says Lee, “When I was doubting my path and considering working for a traditional brand that would be a great stamp on my resume, she always told me, ‘This is your time to really shoot for the stars and follow this startup idea. There’s something here you’re really passionate about and there’s no better time in your life to take a risk like this.’”
The Startup Lab isn’t the only place on campus where budding entrepreneurs can jump-start or grow a business. For engineering talent, Lee also tapped into the Eugene M. Lang Entrepreneurship Center’s Columbia Build Lab. The cross-school entrepreneurial hub connects MBA student founders with engineering students who are interested in contributing to a new startup by building a minimum viable product, a prototype that is expanded and improved upon with marketplace feedback. Columbia Build Lab provided Lee with engineers from Columbia Engineering’s graduate and undergraduate programs.
“The founders get technical help building out their prototypes, and engineers get excellent real-life experience working at a startup,” says Lara Hejtmanek ’99, managing director of the Lang Center. “Many of these teams end up staying together or becoming co-founders post-graduation.”
Avery Schonberger is currently the student president of Columbia Build Lab and a grant winner from the Lang Center’s Summer Startup Track (SST) student incubator program, and like Lee, he has tapped into many of the School’s entrepreneurship resources. He is the founder of Rubicon Robotics, which is developing robots that can autonomously film athletes looking to improve their performances through self-observation, as well as a related AI-powered platform that helps them analyze the nuances of their form.
Schonberger and his team designed their offerings with swimming coaches of high school and college teams in mind but see applications for golf and other sports. “Every team worth their salt is doing film study on the swimmers so that their swimmers can look at their form and analyze their technique, and the coaches can walk them through the different ways they can improve their speed and performance,” he says. But “setting up underwater cameras is always difficult for coaches, and it’s expensive.”
His answer is to have robots do the filming and use the AI-powered platform to help interpret what they’re seeing on film. Printing 3D parts of the robots for assembly, his team of engineers has already created a fully built robot prototype that can move on its own. Using this method and The Makerspace at Columbia, a workshop that offers a variety of tools to students, the team has found a way to make production-grade betas for about $1,000 each. “Normally, it would cost $100,000 for one of these,” he says.
Schonberger comes from a long entrepreneurial tradition. His grandparents started a supermarket when they first came to the United States in the 1940s, and his father carried it on. Finding that he, too, loved the idea of starting and running a business, Schonberger double-majored in engineering and business as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan College of Engineering. Although he worked at General Motors as a controls design engineer after graduation, he says, “I always knew at some point I was going to turn my career onto a very entrepreneurial path.”
Avery Schonberger, student president of Columbia Build Lab and a grant winner from the Lang Center's Summer Startup Track
In 2022, he enrolled at CBS to get an MBA and dove into the many resources available to support student entrepreneurs like himself. “There are so many things available to students that you can’t possibly do everything you want because you don’t have time,” he says.
He focused his attention on taking entrepreneurship classes and getting involved with the Columbia Build Lab and SST. Determined to start his business, he opted for the full-time option of Summer Startup, though a part-time track is available as well.
“I attended every event, every mentorship, every coaching event that I could,” he says. “You get out what you put in. They brought in a lot of exited founders, investors, legal counsel, and serial entrepreneurs to advise students. I went to a lot of the group coaching sessions, where people would be in a room with one of the mentors and we’d all share what we were learning, what problems we were facing, and how we were addressing them, so everyone could learn from everyone’s shared experiences. Only one person had to make a mistake to learn for the other 10 people in the room. It was probably one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had for my startup.”
When Schonberger began working actively on Rubicon Robotics, he, like Lee, turned to Columbia Build Lab for engineering talent. “There are not many opportunities in the country to get the quality of engineer that Columbia Build Lab can provide, with no cost of cash or equity to the founder,” he says. One of his engineers is a graduate student who worked for NASA for four years. “In the real world, you’d probably have to pay $140,000 to have someone like that working for you for a year,” he says.
All of the practical help Schonberger received at CBS has been essential to growing his startup for the past seven months. But he finds the intangible benefits of being part of the Build Lab community to be just as valuable.
“Over the summer, there were a bunch of us who were working full time on our startups who would co-work almost daily on campus,” he says. “And it was awesome because we could just ask each other questions. We’d be sitting there, doing work, and someone would say, ‘I’m trying to tackle my formation paperwork, or I’m looking at this type of technology. Do you have any resources for this? How did you go about solving this problem?’ It’s a great sounding board where we can all, irrespective of industry, provide general feedback to each other, from things we’ve all learned on our journey to a tech startup.”
That community comes in handy as students like Lee and Schonberger tackle the risks that come with starting any business that has the potential to bring big returns.
“I’ve always been very averse to failure, and entrepreneurship is just failure every day,” says Lee. “This morning, I woke up to a rejection in my inbox. It’s just part of the game. Not everyone is going to believe in your idea or see the world in the same way, so I think it’s shifting my mindset to say, “Oh, that one person said yes. Focus on that instead of focusing on the no’s—which is tough.”
But students like Lee and Schonberger find they can overcome that challenge, and both are giving back: While Schonberger presides over Build Lab, Lee is serving as a teaching assistant for an entrepreneurship class, Launch Your Startup. “It’s nice to give back to the program that helped me,” says Lee.