An eLab Spotlight on Shipfair
Recent Johnson School alumna Nichole Bestman (MBA ’19) brings a unique story and fascinating professional background to this year’s eLab cohort. Nichole, the daughter of immigrants from Liberia, was originally from New York but raised in Maryland. For her undergraduate education, she attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. where she received a double major in international business and marketing. She began her career with nonprofits as an undergraduate and worked with her mother’s small business, which served as a great learning opportunity to launch her career. Her mother exemplified the American dream inNichole’s eyes, moving to the United States with the passion to become an entrepreneur and the courage to learn along the way without knowing how exactly to go about it.
Though Nicole identified as Liberian-American growing up, she wanted to get deeper in touch with her parents’ roots and focus on nonprofits in the field. She decided to move to Liberia, where she founded and grew a nonprofit from the ground up by night and did marketing strategy for the Port Authority of Liberia by day. It was there that she gained exposure to the import and export industries as well as the difficulties that small businesses faced in emerging countries. She discovered that the primary challenges in these countries were factors impeding the growth of small businesses such as inefficient shipping networks and insufficient product volumes. Inspired by the growth of her mother’s small business and her own nonprofit, Nichole knew she wanted to give these businesses the same opportunities for success as well and began pursuing her MBA at the Johnson School of Management.
Reflecting upon this next step, Nichole explained, “I came into business school with an idea and I knew that I wanted to find a solution that would formalize existing networks. But I was struggling to find where to start. Shipping has so many components.” Once at Cornell, Nichole enrolled in a class called Starting New Ventures through the Entrepreneurship Program, which gave her the opportunity to speak with potential customers such as small business owners as well as logistics experts to get ideas. She discovered that many small businesses such as those in Liberia formed informal networks via professional groups or distant personal connections to pair their cargo with the appropriate travelers. Though these networks had a baseline level of trust among the travelers, there were still many risks, liabilities, and general uncertainties involved. In this class, Nichole was also introduced to eLab Managing Director Ken Rother as well as instructors Steven Gal and Andrea Ippolito, who provided insightful advice and mentorship and encouraged her to apply to be in the eLab cohort. Nichole officially joined eLab that fall and founded Shipfair, a peer-to-peer logistics and shipping platform serving small businesses in developing countries. It offers a robust review and rating system with a third-party mediator to help vet and screen all transactions, addressing safety and security concerns while enabling for more efficient shipments.
Nichole praised many resources which made the eLab program play an integral role in the development of Shipfair, providing a structured environment for her to meet with expert advisors and a support network of fellow student entrepreneurs who helped challenge her to think critically about her approach. She also had two major opportunities to pitch Shipfair both in New York City in the fall and on Demo Day in the spring. One of the most significant advantages eLab has given Nichole is access to funding necessary for her customer discovery process, allowing her to travel back to Liberia as well as to Kenya, Ghana, and South Africa. She established relationships with small businesses across the African continent, a task that would have been nearly impossible to execute remotely from Ithaca. Nichole is also grateful to havetraveled to Silicon Valley to meet potential funders, explaining that it was “great to get that long-term vision of people who have actually gone through the process.”
As Nichole continues to refine the platform, she looks forward to launching a preliminary application that is set to launch late fall of 2019. She begins to test it during peak travel times in Africa through January. Nichole is also excited about launching a digital marketing campaign for Shipfair, which will include a miniseries about the individuals who are travelers and shippers. “We’re going to be focusing on the people who do this, especially the African diaspora community–– people who live in New York City but whose parents are immigrants, people who travel to Africa for personal connections, and young professionals who need to stay connected. Culturally, it’s about sending things to family members, telling stories of individuals.” Just like Nichole herself since she began her career, Shipfair will be focused on improving the lives of individuals and creating more opportunities for them to achieve success.