Presented by the Colgate University Alumni Council and Thought Into Action, the Entrepreneur of the Year award recognizes the achievements and qualities of an alumna/us who best exemplifies the ideals of entrepreneurship. The award is given out at the annual Entrepreneur Weekend on campus.

Award Recipients

When Nick Kokonas graduated from Colgate three decades ago – Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in philosophy – the idea of making a paycheck “seemed so limiting.” So he passed on interviews at investment banks, withdrew from Penn’s law/PhD program, and learned to trade derivatives. 

He said of the eleven months he collected a paycheck: “[It was] always with an eye to it being a path to knowledge, not money.” Through the ’90s he built and merged his own firm, innovating with traders in Chicago and New York. Events at the turn of the 21st century – including his father’s passing and the terror of 9/11 – gave pause to reflect.

While taking stock of what to do next, Nick became friends with chef Grant Achatz. Together they conceived the restaurant Alinea, which they opened in Chicago in 2005, acclaimed variously as Best Restaurant in the US, North America, and the World. Alinea Group has expanded to five signature restaurants and bars with five more in development, each designed to provide diners, in Nick’s words, “an emotionally resonant moment.”

Using Alinea Group’s restaurant “Next” as the prototype, Nick went beyond traditional, online reservation services to build a system that essentially tickets a table and time, improving patron contacts while maximizing restaurant resources. In 2014 Nick made the service – Tock – available commercially. Tock was managing customer contacts for 7,000 restaurants in 30 countries when it was purchased in March 2021 by the website-hosting service Squarespace. Nick continues as Tock’s CEO.

The onset of COVID-19 proved Nick’s ability to convert crisis to opportunity. He pivoted Alinea to take-out and went from daily serving $300 meals to 100 people to boxing $30 meals for 1000 people. Tock-To-Go extended that capability to the thousands of restaurants in Nick’s client base, saving countless jobs and businesses. 

Of the liberal arts as grounding for an entrepreneur, Nick said: “English literature, art history, and science were all equally as important to doing business as any economics class I ever took.” He values lateral thinking, a willingness to “embrace risk and responsibility,” and a mindset that considers a paycheck a limitation, not a goal. He generously shares his wisdom and experience with Colgate folks who reach out. Nick’s wife Dagmara [Ceprutis] ’91, a milliner, is an entrepreneur in her own right.

We are pleased to honor Nick Kokonas as Colgate’s 2021 Entrepreneur of the Year.

Seven years ago on E Weekend, senior Maggie Dunne ’13 gave a “Little Talk about Big Ideas” describing the non-profit she founded to enrich the lives of kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. David Fialkow – a TIA advocate and mentor – was in the audience. On the spot and by personal example, he raised $25,000 to help Maggie serve Native American kids.

“I love working with creative people and helping them make a difference,” David says on the website of General Catalyst Partners, which he co-founded 20 years ago, and where he serves today as managing director. David and his partner Joel Cutler built and sold four companies before starting General Catalyst, a venture capital firm that makes early-stage and transformational investments in a portfolio of well-known or soon-to-be-well known companies. 

In investment circles, David is known for his “Midas touch” identifying and nurturing talent and growing new business. Associate Vice President for Career Initiatives Michael Sciola said: “David is one of our most successful examples of someone drawing on his Colgate experience to bring new solutions into the world.”

An avid athlete, David has raised millions of dollars to support children’s programs by biking, running, climbing, and rowing. He was board chair of the Pan-Mass Challenge, which supports cancer research.

Over the years David has shared his experience with Colgate students and alumni as an adviser and presenter for TIA. He’s spoken and secured other headline presenters for E Weekends. He has hosted interns and Day-in-the-Life visitors at his Cambridge offices. And he traveled to San Francisco to join a distinguished panel at a weekend event launching a professional network of Colgate folks working in Digital Media and Technology.

In a foray into documentary film-making, David recently produced the Academy Award-winning Icarus, an exposé into blood-doping among Russian athletes. 

David holds a juris doctor from Boston College Law School in addition to his bachelors from Colgate. He is a generous supporter of Colgate whose gifts helped fund the Class of ’65 Arena and endow the men’s hockey coaching position. 

David Fialkow makes things happen. We are proud to recognize him as Colgate’s 2020 Entrepreneur of the Year.

Robert Johnson believes two essential qualities of an entrepreneur are optimism and stubbornness. When did he know he had those qualities? “My parents would say I’ve been stubborn since Day One.” 

Robert started his first software company in eighth grade, and another in high school. “Neither of them did that well,” he admits.

At Colgate he developed skills and experience that helped him succeed. “A liberal arts education is exactly the foundation you need to be an entrepreneur,” he said. A psychology and computer science major, he learned to manage people and operations while working at CUTV.

Back home in Dallas after graduation, Robert joined a startup software company, Sundance Digital, that automated control of TV stations. He became majority owner, developed the company to industry prominence, and sold it to Avid Technologies in 2006.

From the early 2000s he also co-owned an East Texas oil company, which he sold to Canadian interests in 2011. 

In 2008 Robert founded the cloud-based B2B software company TeamSupport to help companies improve customer service. He continues today as CEO.

Robert is also a mentor/investor with venture funds such as Tech Wildcatters and Blossom Street Ventures.

On campus, Robert provides leadership and vision for the next generation of Colgate entrepreneurs through programs such as SophoMORE Connections, A Day in the Life, and Thought Into Action. 

Robert is a Colgate Trustee and a director on the Alumni Corporation Board, and often pilots his own plane to meetings. He and his wife and classmate Kelly are Presidents’ Club members and past presidents of the Dallas Alumni Club. They are parents of teenagers Nick and Carlyn.

We are proud to recognize Robert Johnson as Colgate’s 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year.

 

Katie Finnegan remembers fretting to her father about career decisions. “Do what you’re passionate about and everything else will follow,” he told her. 

Over the 13 years since Katie earned a degree in history and religion, Dad’s advice has been her inspiration. Today, as principal and founder of Store No 8, she is leading an effort to seed and develop the next generation of business ideas. 

Store No 8 is backed by Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, where Katie is vice president for incubation. 

Just six years ago, parents and alumni attending Colgate’s first Entrepreneur Weekend saw the promise in Katie’s pitch for an online shopping service and helped launch her career as an entrepreneur. 

She left that weekend with pledges of enough financial backing to quit her position with a global consultant and devote herself full time to developing Hukkster. Within a year, her startup was being hailed by Time magazine, Fashion Group International, and The Business Journal.

As happens with good ideas in the startup world, Jet.com bought Hukkster. 

And then – when Walmart peered into the future and saw where business is headed – the company acquired Jet.com and Katie to help lead them there.

Katie’s mother says Colgate taught her daughter to think critically. In giving back, Katie has served on the Alumni Council, raises support for the Presidents’ Club, volunteers for her class, counsels students about careers, and fosters the college’s network of entrepreneurs. “You find the time if it’s important to you,” she said.

In 2010 Katie Finnegan won the Ann Yao Young Alumni Award. In 2015 she won a Maroon Citation. And this weekend we recognize her as Colgate’s 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year.

Oak Atkinsion’s mission for Tumbalina is “Touching hearts, one by one,” which she achieves by designing “one-of-a-kind gifts of caring.”

Growing up in Masaka, Uganda, Oak created handmade collage cards to celebrate the special occasions and achievements of family and friends. Years later, and a world away, that same personalized sentiment is at the core of Oak’s thriving business, which serves the greetings and announcement needs of customers online and at retail locations across the country and around the world.

After graduating from Colgate with a degree in fine arts and history, Oak worked in marketing for several national brands, earning an MBA from Fordham along the way.

In 2003 she “followed her dream and created Tumbalina.” In the intervening years she has grown the business from a small core of crafters in her hometown of Bedford, New York, into an award-winning paper-goods company that harnesses the expanding capabilities of technology to reach a global market. The Greeting Card Association’s “Louie” that honored one of Oak’s humorous birthday card designs is the industry equivalent of an Oscar.

As a mentor in Colgate’s Thought Into Action program, Oak travels back to campus to coach aspiring undergraduate entrepreneurs. “Refuse to fail,” she tells them. “Once you take failure off the table, you have only one way to look.” Helping students to achieve is as important to her as it is to them, she says. 

For her visionary approach, her determination, imagination, creativity, and the model she provides for those who would follow her path, the Colgate Alumni Corporation is pleased to honor Oak Atkinson as its 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year.

From the corporate headquarters of Craftsy in Denver, Colorado, CEO John Levisay and his fellow founders offer online classes in quilting, sewing, knitting, cake decorating, crocheting, photography, cooking, and a variety of other skills to upwards of 10 million artisans around the world.

Flagged by Forbes Magazine the past two years as one of the nation’s 100 most promising businesses, Craftsy has grown exponentially since John and his three partners launched their enterprise in 2010. Today, crafters can choose among more than 1,000 classes designed to let users learn at their own pace while interacting with expert instructors.

With a bachelors in history from Colgate, John took a turn in commercial and investment banking and earned an MBA from Michigan before heading West to join eBay, where he helped launch eBay Motors. 

Ten years later, as he told The Colgate Scene, the urge to set out on his own was fueled by a desire “to create an online platform that captured the magic of a live classroom.” In his favorite classes at Colgate, professors acted as facilitators, he said. Craftsy aims to produce that same sort of interplay on the Internet.

John told the Denver Business Journal that Craftsy is a “proxy for a societal desire to use our time productively and engage in stuff that makes us better.” 

For recognizing that need and finding a way to harness technology in service to users around the world, the Colgate Alumni Corporation is pleased to recognize John Levisay as its 2016 Entrepreneur of the Year.

 

Pete Sheinbaum had been a not-so-good waiter, a better financial analyst, and a very good electronic commerce manager and computer consultant before he joined DailyCandy.com – the website that advised women about the best in “food, fashion, and fun.” That’s when his entrepreneurial career truly took off. 

The website for Techstars – a startup accelerator where Pete now serves as a mentor to other aspiring and promising entrepreneurs – describes the arc of his career at DailyCandy: from consulting on the website’s launch and development, to COO, to CEO, to guiding a smooth transition after DailyCandy’s successful sale to Comcast Interactive Media.

In Boulder, where he now makes his home with wife Laura and kids Zachary and Charlotte, Pete founded two additional tech startups, the most recent of which – LinkSmart – he sold in 2014. Just this year he was named chief operating officer of Ello, which describes itself as: “...a revolutionary social network that is transforming how people connect, free from advertising, manipulation, and exploitation.”

Pete was an economics and philosophy major at Colgate, a varsity soccer player, and president of Theta Chi as a senior. His MBA is from the Anderson School at UCLA. 

When Pete and his fraternity brother Greg Blatt ’90 were featured at an installment of Colgate CEO Conversations, Pete coached young entrepreneurs to be patient and keep their focus. “Getting really big really fast,” he said, can be “a recipe for disaster.” When approached by a party interested in acquiring your company, Pete advised, “...ask tough questions. Will employees be taken care of? Will you be able to continue the creative spirit that’s behind your organization?”

Sage advice from an entrepreneur with a growing record of successes.

Peter Sheinbaum is the 2015 Colgate Entrepreneur of the Year.

In June 1996, on his 30th birthday, a month after his eighth Colgate reunion, Warren Adams quit his management-consulting job at London-based Mitchell Madison Group to pursue an idea that first occurred to him as a Colgate junior: through the Internet he would create a directory that allowed users to keep track of their friends. 

Over the course of the next two years, working around the clock from an office in a parish building just off Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Warren ran the business and arranged the financing as colleagues developed the technology to launch PlanetAll.com. By the time Amazon bought the rights to PlanetAll in August 1998 for roughly $100 million in stock, it had grown to 45 employees and more than two million subscribers. (Mark Zuckerberg was 14.)

Warren then did a turn in Seattle, initiating and launching Amazon’s wireless shopping division, but was soon off on his own again, advising and investing in bold new ideas through his Vineyard Ventures fund, based on Martha’s Vineyard.

Inspired by the natural beauty of Chilean Patagonia, in 2007 Warren established Patagonia Sur, a for-profit model for acquiring, conserving, and protecting large tracts of ecologically sensitive habitat there. Colgate and Harvard, among other universities, are investors in carbon offsets that help to sustain the effort. 

In addition to his degree in psychology from Colgate, Warren holds an MBA from Harvard. He has advised and encouraged undergraduate entrepreneurs, and engaged Colgate students, faculty, and staff in hands-on sustainability in the Chilean forest.

Megan Weeks was working on a different start-up in the same building where Warren launched PlanetAll. Somehow they found time to start a relationship that led to a marriage that led to a family that now includes three daughters. 

Warren Adams is the 2015 Colgate Entrepreneur of the Year.

If you are one of the five million people who daily play the games DragonVale, Paper Toss, NinJump, or Ragdoll Blaster on your mobile device, then you’re personally familiar with Julian Farrior’s work as founder and CEO of Backflip Studios.

A double major in art history and economics, a Beta, and half of a Colgate couple, Julian told the alumni and parents at a Silicon Valley technology event in December that the broad education he received here helped him become a successful entrepreneur.

Professor Mary Ann Calo says the senior thesis Julian wrote about the alignment of the art and commodity markets in the 1980s “stretched” her as an adviser and influenced the way she teaches classes on contemporary art. “It was the first thesis I had that really looked at the impact of the art market,” she recalls.  

In his keynote address a year ago to aspiring entrepreneurs in the Class of 2015, Julian advised: “Opportunity is not linear; ... you always have to be attuned to and looking for those opportunities that will catapult you to the next level.”

That advice drew on years of experience. Julian joined a fledgling Yahoo! in 1999 and seven years later was heading the firm’s search for emerging markets. He was a vice president and angel investor in the app developer Earthscape before yielding to his inner gamer in 2009 to found Backflip – a majority share of which he’s just sold to international play and entertainment company Hasbro.

Recently, Julian applied his entrepreneur’s instincts as an investor and adviser in early-stage tech startups TapToLearn, Pepper Data, BabyBytes, and P2B Investor. 

He’s a modern visionary, a Hall of Fame mobile game developer, and a frequent speaker at leading industry conferences. 

And today he becomes the Colgate Alumni Corporation’s first-ever Entrepreneur of the Year.