Jonathan Levene 4.13.15

Jonathan Levene ’97, MEng ’98

Jonathan Levene ’97, MEng ’98 is a Boston-based career coach specializing in engineering leadership and career development. Levene recently advised alumni interested in working in startup world in a live Lunch and Learn webinar hosted by the Alumni Association. As a follow up, Levene answered three questions for alumni interested in transitioning from the corporate sector to a startup.

What factors should be considered when deciding if a move to the startup world is the right choice for you and your career?

I recommend clarifying what you’re seeking in terms of an ideal work experience and then investigating how well this maps to a startup experience. For your ideal work experience, think of three favorite projects from the past few years that you led. Pick ones in which you felt most energized and would like to replicate.

Next, assess how well the mindsets and behaviors you demonstrated in your chosen projects align with those that startups typically value. Use the following questions as a guide.

To what degree did you demonstrate the following mindsets during the projects?

  • Building a vision for success
  • Embracing uncertainty
  • Learning through experimentation
  • Accepting change (such as a change in direction) when it arose
  • Resourcing creatively (“begging, borrowing, or stealing”)
  • Motivating others
  • Influencing the views of senior management or peers

To what degree did you demonstrate the following behaviors during the projects?

  • Being open to others’ ideas, opinions, and feedback
  • Straight talking, speaking factually and truthfully on key issues
  • Engaging others in a positive way, avoiding blame and resolving conflicts quickly
  • Being accountable through strong commitments, follow-through, and requests
  • Effective decision making involving others by evaluating data, exploring options and opinions, and creating consensus
  • Realizing innovative ideas through a bias for action

What advice do you have for being mentally and financially prepared for moving to a position with (or founding) a startup?

 In small companies, particularly those under 50 employees, you are freed from a lot of the process that slows innovation and hampers creativity at larger companies. Many people also find that there is greater acceptance of new ideas and organizational support for realizing them through one’s own initiative.

It is important to anticipate that you’ll need to embrace uncertainty, accept change when it comes, and resource creatively. It’s not uncommon in startups under 50 employees for sudden change to result in new priorities. This means that technology you create today may need to be quickly altered, released, or sometimes even scrapped down the road. It’s important not to be overly attached to what you build or have too-high a quality standard.

You’ll also be exposing yourself to greater financial risk as a result of this uncertainty. You can plan for this by calculating the number of months you might be unemployed if the company goes under, and setting aside the required number of months of salary.

What are some common shocks that may occur when transitioning from corporate to startup? How can you prepare for these?

Many people aren’t prepared for the lack of onboarding when they start. You should expect that you’ll need to pull information from people and be a self-starter. If you’re considering a move to a startup, it will help to spend some time learning about another technology or product that your company has that is new to you. Practice pulling knowledge out of others’ heads.

Another shock can sometimes be the intense cross-functional exposure. For example, it’s not uncommon in startups under 50 employees for engineering to work closely in sales. If you haven’t had experience with this, you can expect to encounter different aspirations, values, and norms in sales – in short, a different culture. Call up a peer in one of these functions and learn about what they’re up to and what is challenging for them.

Levene has 15 years of experience leading product development teams in Boston-area startups and serves as an executive coach at Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development.



The U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings on America’s best colleges and graduate schools were first released in 1983. In that time, the rankings and comprehensive guidebooks have become an integral part of the college application process and MIT has placed high in nearly every applicable category.

The magazine’s 2016 graduate rankings were officially released on March 10 and the Institute ranked first in more than 20 categories and sub-categories, including the best engineering graduate program for the 27th consecutive year.

The first-place School of Engineering’s top-ranked graduate programs include aerospace/aeronautical/astronautical engineering, chemical engineering, computer engineering (tied), electrical/electronic/communications engineering (tied), materials engineering, and mechanical engineering.

MIT’s other top-ranked graduate programs and departments include:

Biological Sciences
Computer Science
Discrete Mathematics and Combinatorics
Information Systems
Inorganic Chemistry
Materials Engineering
Mechanical Engineering
Supply Chain/Logistics

The MIT Sloan School of Management was ranked the fifth best graduate program for business and Sloan’s graduate program in entrepreneurship ranking third. Overall, more than 60 MIT programs and departments ranked in the top 10. View all of U.S. NewsMIT rankings.

In determining rank, U.S. News weighs factors such as reputation, research activity, quality of faculty, research, and students, and student selectivity to rank the top graduate engineering schools.

U.S. News released its most-recent undergraduate ranking in September 2014. MIT was ranked seventh overall among national universities and had the top-ranked undergraduate engineering program for the 25th consecutive year.


Brint Markle, AvaTech, MIT Alumnus

Photo credit: Philipp Becker

An increase in avalanche deaths has paralleled the rise in recreational backcountry activities in recent decades. Although avalanches can happen unexpectedly, many of the warning signs can be detected. Key risk factors include recent rain or snowfall, visible cracking and sounds of shifting terrain, extreme temperature changes, and weak layers of snow in the snowpack. These weak layers can often cause an avalanche when no other signs are present and they are the most difficult to detect with basic manual tests, such as digging snow pits and feeling layers, which offer only subjective insight.

After Brint Markle MBA ’14 had a close call in 2010 while skiing with friends in Switzerland, he wanted to know much more than the surface characteristics of snow. With this goal in mind, he enrolled in the Sloan School of Management.

SP1 Probe, AvaTech

The SP1 Probe, created by MIT alumni

While at MIT, Markle teamed up with Jim Christian SM ’14 and Sam Whittemore ’14 to form AvaTech, a company focused on proactive avalanche safety that starts with a better understanding of snow. Their first product is the SP1 probe, which was launched in September and was recognized as a National Geographic Gear of the Year for 2014 and one of the Top 100 Innovations of the Year by Popular Science. The probe is inserted into snowpack and reads the characteristics of the layers through numerous sensors—determining hardness, resistance, slope angle, aspect, GPS orientation, and ultimately detecting weak layers that could cause slides. Along with the SP1 probe, they also launched AvaNet, a cloud platform that helps backcountry travelers share critical snowpack and avalanche safety data all across the world.

The product is being marketed to professionals and forecasters, helping to make their evaluations of snow safety more informed. “The snowpack is really complex,” says Whittemore, “and we want the SP1 to make it much easier for the people out there in the backcountry to assess how the snow changes in space and time.”

Brint Markle, AvaTech, SP 1 Probe, Himalayas

Markle (right) tests the SP1 in the Himalayas, Feb. 2015. Photo credit: Brennan Lagasse.

Today Markle, who is AvaTech’s CEO, Christian, the lead product designer, and Whittemore, the lead engineer, are based in Park City, Utah, the most popular backcountry locale in the US. From there, they travel around the world demonstrating their product. For much of February, Markle has been working with the SP1 and AvaNet in the Alps and the Himalayas. “We’ve spent the last two years validating our technology with leading industry professionals,” says Markle. “Today, we have more than 400 organizations from 35 countries sharing data on the platform, spanning ski patrol, guiding companies, forecast centers, departments of transportation, snow scientists, and other snow professionals.”

Up to this point, most research and development in the avalanche field has been focused on equipment and devices to save individuals already caught in an avalanche, but a more technical understanding of avalanche prevention could truly revolutionize the industry.

Originally, the vision of the company was focused on developing the first proactive avalanche safety technology in the world, says Markle. But they have come to realize that the SP1 is the cornerstone of a much broader information sharing platform. “We talk about building a global mountain community that can share information in real time to benefit the safety of all mountain travelers. That to us, is extremely powerful.”


How can you sharpen your business thinking while connecting with MIT alumni entrepreneurs and leaders in the Institute’s innovation culture? Sign up for Entrepreneurship 101 and 102, the free massive open online courses (MOOCs) created at MIT for edX, the global online learning platform established by Harvard and MIT.

The courses are based on the legendary MIT course 15.390 New Enterprises, which is taught by Bill Aulet SM ’94, the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. New Enterprises has been a cradle to hundreds of MIT startups, such as A123 Systems, Lark, and Okta among others.

Because the courses let you learn at your own pace, you can start as soon as you register—now through the end of March. A bonus: if you register for a verified certificate you can earn $1,000 in Amazon Web Services credit when you complete the course.

What will you learn?

MOOCs, free online courses, link students to MIT entrepreneurial culture.

MOOCs, free online courses, link students to MIT’s entrepreneurial culture.

According to Erdin Beshimov MBA ’11, who leads an MITx group creating these courses, the first class, Entrepreneurship 101: Who is your customer? teaches aspiring entrepreneurs how to find a customer for their idea. “Essentially, the course is about learning to look at the world through the eyes of the customer, an essential learning stage for every entrepreneur,” he says. “The course includes numerous case studies of MIT entrepreneurs from fields as diverse as power electronics, watchmaking, 3D printing, and mobile apps. For example, you’ll meet Hyungsoo Kim MBA ′12 of Eone—and be touched by his inspiring story of making watches, or timepieces as he calls them, for people who are visually impaired.”

In another module, students learn from Hanna Adeyema MBA ’13, who was born in Nigeria, raised in the former Soviet Union, and cofounded Tenacity Health after studying at the MIT Sloan School of Management. In a video interview, she describes challenges facing her startup and what she finds fulfilling.

Learn from Tenacity Health co-founder Hanna Adeyema MBA '13.

Learn from Tenacity Health co-founder Hanna Adeyema.

“Being an entrepreneur is very exciting because every day you are making decisions that impact the development of a new product that never existed and that maybe, in the distant future, is going to change someone’s life,” she says. “To know that you are directly responsible for this is pretty powerful.”

In the second course, Entrepreneurship 102: What can you do for your customer?, students use their knowledge of the customer to understand how they will solve the customer’s problem and, ultimately, what product or service they would build. Entrepreneurship 102 is also based on case studies of MIT entrepreneurs, such as Sandra Richter of Soofa and Max Faingezicht and Adam Blake of ThriveHive.

Alumni Connections

Beshimov says the two courses have already enrolled more than 120,000 students worldwide. And, he says, his group at MIT would welcome input from alumni on how to make the courses better. You can write to him at or tweet them at @erdinb or @mit15390x.

“What we are doing is making the entrepreneurial magic of MIT open to anyone in the world for the betterment of the world,” says Beshimov, “and we want MIT alumni to be involved in that process.”

Find out more about the impact of MIT’s entrepreneurial culture in a short video and explore other edX courses.



Canine Advisory Board member Romero models the device. Photo: FitBark

When activity trackers and wearable devices like Fitbit first became popular, many people jumped at the chance to measure their steps, quality of sleep, and calories burned. Davide Rossi MBA ’10, however, wondered how these devices could help him care for his dog. “I thought if it can be helpful for me, of course, it can be even more helpful for somebody who doesn’t talk,” Rossi remembers.

This idea compelled him to create FitBark, a wearable activity tracker for dogs. Like human devices, FitBark tracks time moving, at rest, and general behavior patterns, but the dog data is used in different ways. “The activity data set can tell you a lot more than just counting steps. You can see what kind of day your dog is having,” Rossi explains.


FitBark works in connection with your smartphone. Photo: FitBark

The FitBark device, which snaps onto a dog’s collar, tracks your dog around the clock and transmits data to a smartphone app when it is in range of the FitBark. The data each FitBark device collects is compared to a baseline for your dog and other dogs of similar breeds and ages. From this information, Rossi says, you can see if your dog needs more exercise, is feeling sick, or is acting differently. “It’s possible to identify how your dog is reacting to a new product or drug or even if your dog has a medical problem,” he says.

Outside of tracking the health of your dog, Rossi says that the social aspect of the FitBark excites him most. “Social means having an app where I, my sister, my wife, and my vet can all comment and collaborate on hard data around the health of my dog,” he says.

Rossi says he has seen interest in FitBark from individual dog owners, doggie daycares, and pet supply stores. For now FitBark is marketed for dogs, but that doesn’t mean other pet owners aren’t taking note, “I’ve received requests for cats, bunnies, horses, cows, falcons, chickens, and for penguins,” Rossi laughs. “The device is ideally for dogs, but other pet owners may see benefits,” he says.

FitBark will be an exhibitor at the 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week. Sadly, no dogs are allowed on the show floor.



Image: Globe Magazine

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe’s Globe Magazine unveiled its annual list of the top 100 women-led businesses in Massachusetts. At least five MIT alumnae were named to the 2014 list.

According to the Globe, the 13th annual list—a collaboration between the magazine and the non-profit Commonwealth Institute—highlights organizations with impressive records of innovation, diversity, revenue, and large employee numbers.

2014 Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts,” Globe Magazine

“We looked at revenue or operating budget and, for the first time, added other variables: number of full-time employees in the state, workplace and management diversity, and innovative projects. We then ranked organizations according to our own formula. We considered both for-profit and nonprofit organizations.”

Check out the MIT alumnae who were named to the list, then read the full list of 100 woman-led businesses and a Globe Magazine interview with Anita Rajan Worden ’90.

Laura Trust MBA '96

Laura Trust. Photo: MIT Technology Review

  • Deborah Theobald ’95, executive director, Vecna (10)
  • Martha S. Samuelson SM ’86, president and CEO, Analysis Group (15)
  • Laura B. Trust MBA ’96, president, SJB Bagel Makers of Boston/Finagle a Bagel (16)
  • Anita Rajan Worden ’90, CEO and cofounder,  Solectria Renewables (61)
  • Mary G. Puma SM ’81, chairwoman and CEO, Axcelis Technologies (86)

Is there an alumna we did not mention Slice’s list? Let us know if the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

According to the Globe, leaders in the list were in place at the end of 2013.


Laura Trust MBA ’96: Entrepreneur and Alumnus Husband Finagle a Bagel—Literally,” MIT Technology Review

Mary Puma SM ’81: With leading alumni, a global community,” MIT Sloan Alumni Magazine


Social media isn’t going away any time soon—and, in fact, it will expand in industries like utilities and be used in new ways—according to a new MIT Sloan Management Review (SMR) research report.

8.12 SMR logo

SMR has been conducting the social business survey since 2011.

Those insights come from annual surveys on social business conducted over the past three years by SMR and Deloitte. The report defines social business as “activities that use social media, social software, and technology-based social networks to enable connections between people, information, and assets.” This year’s survey, which included 4,803 business executives, managers, and analysts, found that social business use is deepening across industries.

The report, authored by Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron, and Natasha Buckley MBA ’97, notes that some industries that have eschewed social media in the past—like consumer finance and utilities—are increasingly social.

Consumers are increasingly demanding that utilities connect with them via social media, and utilities report seeing social’s value in improving crisis communications and educating consumers about energy efficiency.

In fact, many businesses are now using social media to problem-solve and address needs outside of promotion. For example, the Red Cross used social media outlets to alert those affected by Hurricane Sandy to the locations of Red Cross trucks. They even helped people who did not engage the organization directly—like a babysitter that took to Twitter with questions during a tornado warning. The organization connected with that tweeter by tracking Twitter keywords like “tornado.”

MIT Alumni Association building community socially.

MIT Alumni Association building community socially.

Social business success stories have a lot to do with leadership, the report concludes. Not surprisingly, a majority of survey respondents from companies with effective social business strategies have leaders who support their ideas. Companies where leadership embraced a vision “premised on the belief that social can fundamentally change the business” found greater success with social business than other respondents.

Companies can no longer ignore social business, the SMR report notes. As consumers are increasingly deciding when and how social business happens, more industries can be expected to engage socially.

Read the complete findings and the supporting research.

How is the MIT Alumni Association using social media to build a community of alumni? Check out our channels: FacebookTwitterLinkedInGoogle+Instagram

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Leadership on Boards speakers Sonnabend, Parrish, and Johnson.

Leadership on Boards speakers Sonnabend, Parrish, and Johnson.

In short, yes, says Michele Parrish SM ’05, founder of Women Leaders in Global Operations (WLGO), an MIT alumnae group.

“In a nutshell, women must be represented on corporate boards in order to influence the direction of our companies and our society,” says Parrish. “Plenty of data supports the conclusion that adding women to a corporate board improves the performance of the company. Quite simply, it’s good for the business.”

Learn more next week during a free WLGO webcast titled Leadership on Boards: Improved Performance through Director Diversity. Find out why women leaders improve organizational performance—and how to become an effective board member yourself. Sign up now for the webcast scheduled for Thursday, May 22, Noon PDT/3:00 p.m. EDT via WebEx.

Betsy Berkhemer-Credaire, author of The Board Game: How Smart Women Become Corporate Directors, will moderate this panel:

  • Denise Johnson SM ’97, SM ’97, vice president of Caterpillar’s largest division
  • Mark Parrish SM ’95, SM ’95, president and CEO of the Stuart Dean Company
  • Stephanie Sonnabend SM ‘79, former CEO and president of Sonesta International Hotels Corporation and co-founder of 2020 Women on Boards

Parrish established the group in 2007 after she left the corporate world to found her own coaching and consulting business. “The idea of starting a women’s group for LGO occurred to me as a way to give back as well as a way to get to know the many amazing alumnae of the program,” she says. “Most of us share the challenge of leading professional careers while staying true to personal priorities, including family.”

As these women advance in their careers, they could benefit themselves and corporations by becoming board members. And too few are now in that role—women comprised only 16.6 percent of corporate directors in Fortune 1000 companies  in 2013, despite holding half of management positions.

Women on boards can influence company leadership, mergers and relocations, executive compensation, and discussions on balancing profits with social responsibility.

And then there is the bottom line. Companies with women board members got a boost in equity, share price performance, and growth, according to a recent Credit Suisse Research Institute survey.

“Large firms with at least one woman on the board performed 26 percent better than those without, according to the survey,” Parrish says. “There’s a 17 percent gulf between small and mid-size companies with female board representation and those without. The study suggests that women leaders may bring a more diverse mix of leadership skills, a deeper understanding of customers, improved corporate governance and a more risk-averse outlook.”


At what point would you pay $20 for a piece of advice—rather than just searching online for an answer? According to some research, consumers are becoming more amenable to paying that much, on average, for some face time with experts in the field.

Mikel Graham '08 uses Helpouts for math tutoring.

Mikel Graham ’08 uses Helpouts for math tutoring.

While video tutorials have long saturated the web, the market for live chats with experts has grown exponentially thanks to better bandwidth and a glut of tech-savvy experts. Many MIT alums now showcase their expertise in virtual marketplaces as a means of gaining consulting experience, making at least part of a living, or being charitable with their time.

Mikel Graham ’08 is an engineer in Atlanta by day, but in his free time he uses the Google Helpouts platform to share his expertise in math with high-school students, parents returning to school, and college students preparing for exams.

Graham started out by offering his service for free. Over 100 students have taken him up on it, and he has used the platform to develop a reputation and get experience. “Being able to interact with someone live and ask them questions is invaluable,” Graham says. “You can’t compete with that.”

While working on startups of his own, Matt Palmer ’03 advises other aspiring entrepreneurs on, a site that offers live video-chats with over 30,000 experts for prices ranging from $0 to $500 an hour and more.

“When people have a business question that can save them time or boost their revenue, they seem willing to pay to get an expert answer,” says Palmer, who earns some income from the site, which also offers ways for experts to redirect their payments to charity.

Mahesh Bhatia SM ’99 has offered advice to entrepreneurs on Clarity for over a year. Bhatia says live online help sites may soon be the way people do business with any service provider, at least initially. Experts may use such sites to begin conversations with potential clients who then sign up for full consulting services offline.

But even that may change. “If virtual reality technologies  (courtesy of Oculus, say) or 3D holograms end up becoming mainstream over the next decade, we might start making less of a distinction between online and in-person meetings,” Bhatia says.

Stefan D’Heedene PhD ’05 founded Wizpert in 2011, a site offering live-help sessions with expert techies. Wizpert now boasts 6,000 experts and 30,000 users. Instead of experts charging users by the minute or hour, Wizpert’s platform lets users determine pay scales based on the usefulness of the advice. And the payment is in virtual coins that experts can cash in via Paypal. This flipped model, D’Heedene suggests, creates more of a community feeling than competing sites that are more purely transactional.

Wizpert founder Stefan D’Heedene PhD '05.

Wizpert founder Stefan D’Heedene PhD ’05.

“We are the first platform that matches and connects users for an instant conversation with an expert in a fun, low commitment and community-driven environment,” he says. “We’re more of a quick, fun help desk than a tutoring platform.”

For two years, Michel Rbeiz ’04, MNG ’06 managed Probueno, a site that sought to create even more of a community platform in the expert services field. Punning on pro bono, the site offered experts the chance to donate their services to entrepreneurs and non-profits in need of business advice, coding help, or other talents. Though he has since moved on to other projects, Rbeiz says the market for paid, individualized advice will continue to grow.

“We’re seeing this unbundling in marketplaces,” Rbeiz says. “Over time, a number of startups have essentially unbundled Craigslist. Now if you want short-term rentals, you use Airbnb, or guitar lessons,…but it’s still not that easy to give money or your talents. I see that these specialized [expert] sites will allow you to give all or part of your earnings to charity.”

What about the newly-minted college grad? Will she someday be able to market her expertise online right out of college and make a living by it? I think they’re a good add to income,” Rbeiz offers, “but I don’t think they’ll ever be income replacement.”


In Côte d'Ivoire, Harris demonstrates grafting cocoa plants.

In Côte d’Ivoire, Shayna Harris demonstrates grafting cocoa plants.

Shayna Harris MBA ’11 is fighting to make chocolate sustainable. In a recent BusinessWeek article, she described a looming shortage of cocoa by 2020 if farming methods do not change. While the demand for chocolate grows, cocoa farmers are among the poorest in the world and neither governments nor agribusiness have invested in improving productivity. With a background in sustainable agriculture, she is throwing her Sloan management skills into helping farmers in remote areas of West Africa and Southeast Asia improve their odds of success.

Before attending Sloan, Harris served as Oxfam America’s coffee program officer, developing a global ethical trade campaign in US, East Africa, and Central America. She spent her Fulbright fellowship year studying the impact of market access and agro-ecology programs for small-scale farmers in Brazil. While at Sloan, she co-founded the MIT Food and Agriculture Collaborative while she studied sustainability in agricultural value chains.

Harris’s current job as cocoa sustainability manager for Mars Global Chocolate puts her on the front lines of the battle for sustainability—with corporate assets. She choose to work for Mars after graduation because “I was impressed at the public commitments that Mars had made to sustainability and that the sustainability work is embedded in the operations of the company.” Although she’s officially in procurement, she works with the company’s research scientists and policy experts to support a long-term supply of cocoa—and help farmers in the process.

One project offers improved planting materials, fertilizers, and training aimed at boosting the yield per hectare. “We are establishing networks of rural entrepreneurs who can lead cocoa plant rehabilitation in remote cocoa growing regions. Rehabilitation, which involves using a branch, or budwood, of a new tree to restore an old one, produces more fruitful trees,” Harris told BusinessWeek. “In Indonesia and West Africa, this kind of support can help farmers triple their yields.”

Another plus of her current job is working with fellow MIT alumni. “I work with Sourcemap, an MIT Media Lab start up, to map our impact in cocoa and monitor our programs globally,” Harris says. “They are building us a custom tool that allows us to monitor the rollout of our programs in real time, meaning that our truly global team can stay connected and know what’s going on in different parts of the world.”

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