Living the Future

Alumni at the Leading Edge of Business Shape the World to Come

As the business world evolves, Columbia Business School alumni continue to be at the leading edge.
As the business world evolves, Columbia Business School alumni continue to be at the leading edge.
Data & Business Analytics, Social Impact, Leadership
Laurie B. Davis

For more than a century, Columbia Business School has set thousands of students on a trajectory to leadership, championing research and innovations that have changed how businesses operate, how institutions create value, and how leaders promote social good. As the business world evolves, our alumni continue to be at the leading edge.

Here we profile five alumni—Ethan Brown ’08, Bar Ifrach ’12, Federico Marchetti ’99, William von Mueffling ’95, and Shaiza Rizavi ’96—whose work is shaping the future.

Turning Theory into Practice

Using Pricing Algorithms to Build a More Efficient Industry

NAME: Bar Ifrach ’12

COMPANY: Uber Freight

As a doctoral candidate in operations research and economics at Columbia Business School, Bar Ifrach, PhD ’12, understood the importance of getting pricing right.

He recalls working alongside Dean Costis Maglaras on a paper that examined how pricing strategies change as consumers learn more about a product’s quality through the reviews and purchase decisions of other customers.

“That was a really fun project, a fun area of research,” says Ifrach, senior director of applied science and head of the marketplace team at Uber Freight, a subsidiary of the renowned ride-sharing service.

Ifrach’s research with Maglaras—who also co-advised Ifrach’s dissertation—drew him toward the data science field, which has allowed him to apply operations management theory to high-impact business problems.

Nowhere is this clearer than in his current role at Uber Freight, where Ifrach is focused on helping shipments move around the country as efficiently as possible in a massive $700 billion industry.

After his arrival in 2019, Ifrach worked with his team to transform the company’s pricing stack, building it on solid theoretical foundations that mirror the mathematical formulations he originally used in his PhD dissertation.

Now Uber Freight offers dynamic pricing using an advanced algorithm rather than old-school haggling, allowing Ifrach’s team to determine the best price for each load. The team also uses models to group two or three loads to create a round-trip journey, improving efficiency for carriers and leading to fewer empty miles, he adds.

“It’s a big, big problem for carriers,” he says. “They don’t make money when they drive empty.”

By making carriers more efficient, Ifrach’s work at Uber Freight has gone some way toward alleviating the supply chain congestions of recent years, and it validates one of the aspects he loves most about working in the technology space: the ability to use data to drive positive change.

“We are bringing the algorithms, the machine learning, and the data to start building efficiencies that support what the shippers are looking for, which is reliable pricing, as well as helping carriers who want to maximize their earnings, but also want to be treated fairly and not have to haggle on prices all the time,” he says.

Ifrach faced a similar opportunity in his prior role as director of data science at Airbnb. The company hypothesized that its hosts were not doing a great job of pricing their homes, and so Ifrach launched a big investment in data and machine learning to understand the optimal price per night for each Airbnb host, eventually improving their pricing strategies.

“If someone tells you something that doesn’t sound right, go deeper, understand where it’s coming from and why your process was wrong.”

“Over the past 15 years, there have been massive improvements in our ability to manipulate large data sets, both with data infrastructure, as well as machine learning and artificial intelligence.”

“We amassed a huge data set of user interactions and locations, and all sorts of variables, to help determine this,” he says. “And it’s not just one price, it’s every- thing—the right price for Christmas, for Thanksgiving, for the Super Bowl.”

Ifrach’s work at Airbnb also highlighted one of the potential pitfalls of using data to solve business problems: the data itself can be subject to errors made in its collection and wrangling.

He says it took him two months to gather the appropriate pricing data for each Airbnb host’s home. It was housed in different tables and data sets that corresponded to different products, he says, and was aggregated in a way that may have led to the wrong conclusions.

The moral of the tale is that data scientists should be inquisitive and “have a hunch for the business,” he adds. “If someone tells you something that doesn’t sound right, go deeper, understand where it’s coming from and why your process was wrong.”

The data science field has seen dramatic gains over the past few years due to innovations that allow companies to capture even more data, he notes.

“A lot more of our interactions are digital, and that offers breadcrumbs that we can later optimize,” says Ifrach.

“When you do things online, you leave traces of the path you walked through, and through machine learning we’re able to use those breadcrumbs, that data, to find better, more optimized, or personalized solutions for you and others the next time.”

Significant recent improvements in our ability to harness and use the growing amount of data now generated from every facet of our lives underscore the importance of having “experienced, smart, capable and inquisitive data folks on your team,” he says.

Those data leaders may well emerge from the Busi- ness School, given its strong focus on subjects such as analytics, big data, and artificial intelligence championed by his former PhD advisor.

“I’m a very strong believer in Costis’s approach to push the school and bring in more modern disciplines,” says Ifrach, adding that the Business School’s move to Manhattanville is a fitting step in Maglaras’s push to drive it forward.

“A change of scenery is a great way to change minds and change direction,” he says.

Healthy Business, Healthy Planet

Beyond Meat’s Creator Aims for a Lasting Legacy

NAME: Ethan Brown ’08

COMPANY: Beyond Meat

Value your shareholders, or value the planet? For Ethan Brown ’08, it’s not an either-or proposition.

“We need to create businesses that create value for shareholders at the same time we preserve and advance the health of the earth,” says the founder, president, and CEO of Beyond Meat. The company develops plant-based meat products that are nearly indistinguishable from the flavor of animal meats, offer health benefits, and help fight climate change. According to an analysis conducted by the University of Michigan, producing the original Beyond Burger uses 99 percent less water, 93 percent less land, and 46 percent less energy, and generates 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to a quarter-pound, 80 percent–lean beef burger.

Since Brown founded the company in 2009, Beyond Meat has expanded into the global markets, with operations in China and the European Union. Brown says his Columbia Business School education provided an understanding of world markets, making it possible to build a company on that scale.

“For a company that’s as young as ours, you really have to believe in that model, and we do. We’re investing in those economies because we know that we’re not going to impact the world in the way that we want to unless we create a global opportunity,” Brown says.

Expanding research and development capabilities abroad, in regions like China, takes the guessing out of what the local consumer wants. “We can be a homegrown enterprise there, developing products for the Chinese palate that really speak to those communities and those cultures. There are distinct culinary traditions that we want to honor and serve,” says Brown.

Exposure to world markets was one advantage gained at the Business School, but what the School did most for Brown was what he says it does best: “Instill in its students and in future business leaders an understanding of what it takes to build long-term growth and value, and to insulate yourself appropriately from short-term pressures, incentives, and gyrations in the market,” he says.

“We need to create businesses that create value for shareholders at the same time we preserve and advance the health of the earth.”

“It also taught me to keep focused on that North Star of building a long-term business of value and leaving a legacy. You don’t get taught that at every school,” he adds.

Brown says there are three goals driving Beyond Meat to its North Star: to make plant-based meat that is indistinguishable from animal protein, to continuously advance the health benefits of its products, and to drive the prices equal to or below those of animal protein. The science and technology behind Beyond Meat helps the company reach goals and consistently improve its products.

“What we’re doing is finding the core parts of meat directly in plants: the amino acids, the lipids, trace minerals, vitamins, and water. We’re taking those plant materials directly and using technology to organize them in the architecture of animal meat,” says Brown.

He says slowing down climate change will take many disciplines, and building a curriculum around climate change and business, as Columbia is doing, will benefit the cause and give the school a competitive edge.

“I’m thrilled about the school’s willingness to take a stand on the need to integrate climate into business decision making,” says Brown. “I think that shows so much about the heart and character of the school.”

He’s happy, too, that the move to Manhattanville provides opportunities for the school to bring together interdisciplinary faculty and practitioners for climate conferences and other gatherings.

“It’s a tremendous business school, and to have that focus in this new infrastructure, in one of the most important cities in the world, gives me hope that we’re going to be able to get after this thing—this thing being climate—in a way that’s real,” says Brown. “And Columbia can have a real leadership position.”

‘Green is the New Black’

Setting a Sustainability Trend in Fashion

NAME: Federico Marchetti ’99

COMPANY: Yoox Net-a-Porter

Tech entrepreneur and founder of Yoox Net-a- Porter Federico Marchetti ’99 often relies on instinct to innovate.

In 2000, when the internet was still in its infancy, Marchetti led the way for selling luxury brands online by creating YOOX, a fashion retailer. His spot-on foresight of the future of retail put YOOX, and ultimately YOOX Net-a-Porter, on the online-shopping map and made Marchetti an early leader in ecommerce.

The combination of his Columbia Business School coursework and New York City’s vibrant culture propelled his venture. “This great alchemy between the education and the environment helped me formalize the business idea of YOOX,” says Marchetti.

“My passions were, and still are, around design, art, fashion—the aesthetic businesses, the creative businesses that make Italy very strong around the world. The so-called ‘Made in Italy’ brand,” says Marchetti. He returned to his native Italy and launched his ecommerce ideas in Milan.

Increasingly, Marchetti became interested in sustainability and believed customers were trending in that direction. In 2008, he built YOOXYGEN, which sold sustainable clothing and embraced environmentally friendly retail practices. He then aligned the entire YOOX Net-a-Porter Group operations with his green mission, including a sustainably designed Tech Hub in London and distribution center in Milan.

In 2021, Marchetti stepped down as CEO of the YOOX Net-a-Porter Group to take up a new endeavor with HRH The Prince of Wales. “I’m an entrepreneur. I thought my innovation instinct was going to be better somewhere else, especially in sustainability,” says Marchetti. His professional career and expertise made him a perfect fit for the HRH Sustainable Markets Initiative. He chairs the fashion task force, which represents one of many industries in the coalition.

“The next big boom is sustainability.”

Last fall, his task force launched the Digital ID, which uses technology to convey the history of every item sold by companies in the coalition. By scanning a QR code, consumers can easily learn the material used, where the piece was made, the ethical and social conditions under which it was made, and how to repair, resell, or recycle the item.

“The Digital ID creates transparency of the supply chain and makes the customer aware,” says Marchetti. “I expect many companies will follow and adopt the Digital ID because once the customer tries it, there’s no going back. I think it will have a huge multiplier effect within the fashion industry.”

The task force also will launch a “regenerative fashion project” focused on the start of the supply chain, from the very soil in which organic materials will grow to the fibers that will then be woven into the sustainable fabrics from which the clothing will be made. “So green is the new black, I would say, in fashion,” says Marchetti.

“The next big boom is sustainability,” says Marchetti, who teaches Creating a Startup in the Digital and Sustainable Economy at Bocconi University in Milan, where he received his undergraduate degree. The course, he says, “shows the students the magical intersection of sustainability and digital as the perfect place to create a new business of the future.”

Marchetti admires the sustainability and diversity aspects of the Business School’s Manhattanville campus. “This can only have a positive impact on the mindset of the Columbia graduates, who are the leaders of tomorrow,” he says.

Social Ventures

Connecting Past and Present for Future Good

NAME: Shaiza Rizavi ’96

COMPANY: Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co.

Shaiza Rizavi ’96, co-CEO and money man- ager at Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co., started her career in social work, first in Tennessee and then in Southeast Asia, where she helped combat child prostitution and child labor. “I was trying to negotiate with people to create other economic outlets,” Rizavi says.

When she shifted her focus to earning an MBA, it was with the intent to use it for social impact.

“I came to Columbia with a service lens,” she says. “I thought about how business could be used as a tool to include more of the world’s population in some of the choices available to the wealthier parts of the population.”

Ray Horton, the Frank R. Lautenberg Professor Emeritus of Ethics and Corporate Governance and founder of Columbia Business School’s Social Enterprise Program, advised her that courses in social ventures and nonprofit board leadership training could help her define and reach her goals. Her education and training at the School ultimately took her down dual paths: as a partner at Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co., where she has worked as a stock- broker/growth investor for more than 25 years, and as a committed volunteer for the span of her career.

Her volunteer work today includes serving as board chair of Acumen, a nonprofit venture fund for the poor and one of the pioneers of impact investing, which sup- ports entrepreneurs beyond monetary resources with mentorship and networking.

“There are so many conversations about the next phase of capitalism, whether they’re with the CEOs I meet with at work or in the nonprofits I work with,” Rizavi says. “Impact investing is leading to not just measuring shareholder returns—which is a flawed model—it’s measuring stakeholder returns in a different way and coming up with new metrics.”

Those metrics include the unexpected aspects of how a business and community come together. “Eventually, you start to see how an entrepreneur hires people in the local community and influences change, whether it’s in agriculture, housing, or energy,” she says.

“Impact investing is leading to not just measuring shareholder returns—which is a flawed model—it’s measuring stake- holder returns in a different way and coming up with new metrics.”

Rizavi’s nonprofit work extends to Columbia. She serves on the Columbia Business School Board, the Investment Board of the Tamer Fund for Social Ventures, and as co-chair of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise Advisory Board. She also is active on a number of other boards, including Columbia Investment Management Company, Weill Cornell Medicine, Seeds of Peace, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

In 2017, Rizavi and her husband, Jon Friedland ’97, received the Tamer Center’s Horton Award for Excellence in Social Enterprise, which recognizes individuals who have demonstrated a passion for social or environ- mental causes and have used their management skills to benefit society. Rizavi was honored for her work with entrepreneurship-focused students and alumni and her vast experience with nonprofits and social ventures.

“I feel like this connection that I have to Columbia is this beautiful seed that keeps growing and giving,” Rizavi says. Rizavi’s career was literally launched in a Columbia class- room. She met her former boss, the late Richard Gilder, when he was a guest practitioner in a class taught by former adjunct professor Patrick Duff. During the class, she was asked to analyze a company and determine if it would succeed, and she predicted the company would go bankrupt. Gilder took the opposite view, but Rizavi didn’t back down from her position.

Gilder invited Rizavi to continue the conversation at his office, where he grilled her on her arguments. “It was really intense, and I thought the back-and-forth was amazing, like two sides of one stock. He challenged me. He taught me. It began this big, two-decade partnership of tough- minded debate,” she says.

The meeting resulted in a job offer, and a professional relationship was born between the two, who continued to debate opposite sides on many issues, says Rizavi.

She says her first visit to Manhattanville made her look back to her beginnings at Columbia as well as forward.

“I think about having that type of building. If Pat Duff and Dick [Gilder] and I had been in that sort of building, I could see astronomical potential for growth and impact,” she says. “The light and the openness allow for the full force of creativity, collaboration, the spirit that’s needed to increase a networked world, where the out- side comes in and the inside goes out.”

Finance of the Future

Keeping Ahead of Complexity

NAME: William von Mueffling ’95

COMPANY: Cantillon Capital Management

William von Mueffling CC ’90, BUS ’95, president and CIO of Cantillon Capital Management, has made fortunes for many in the investment industry, building a reputation that from the earliest days of his career was dotted with words like “rock star” and “wunderkind.” Today his investment firm manages more than $17 billion.

Long recognized as an industry leader, he serves on the Columbia Business School Board, the Board of Visitors of Columbia College, and as chair of the advisory board for the Heilbrunn Center for Graham & Dodd Investing as well as chair of RIP Medical Debt. His many accolades include Columbia College’s John Jay Award for professional achievement in 2017.

At the core of this success is the Value Investing Program at Columbia Business School, he says. “The program was instrumental not only because it gave me an academically sound way to invest, but also because it allowed me to learn from real-life practitioners,” says von Mueffling.

New York City practitioners from multiple industries are connected to the school’s curriculum, and the city’s central role in global markets puts students in the heart of daily business activity. Local business leaders, many of them alumni, volunteer their time to guide students in their courses, continuing a tradition that von Mueffling experienced as an MBA student.

The curriculum, though, is an ever-evolving experience.

“The Value Investing curriculum today looks nothing like the offerings when I was a student,” von Mueffling says. “First, the number of courses offered has increased several-fold. Second, students today can get exposure to much more than just investing in public equities,” including a class in endowment management taught by practitioners.

The increased number of adjuncts and the quality of their experience and credentials is critical to the education mission, says von Mueffling. He also supports a focus on the links between data science and investing, particularly as the complexities of public equities grow. The changes in this area have been dramatic since launching his business in 2003, he adds.

“Investing requires more resources and more specific industry knowledge than ever before.”

“In the world of public equities, the trend of indexation has gathered momentum and continues to take share from active management. Among equity hedge funds, the market has handsomely beaten ‘absolute return’ long/ short funds,” he says. “As a consequence, it has justifiably become much harder to launch a new equity business.”

Innovation and disruption are the causes of these changes, he says. “As a result, investing requires more resources and more specific industry knowledge than ever before. The days of a two-person boutique are long over, in my opinion.”

As the finance landscape continues to shift, von Mueffling expects to see new products and entire new asset classes. “The next generation of investors will need to think outside the box to figure out how to add value in an industry that attracts some of the brightest minds,” he says.


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