SEP./OCT. 2005 VOLUME 108 NUMBER 2 Currents


eVEN HOT, HUMID WEATHER AND PRESIDENT LEHMAN'S ANNOUNCEMENT of his resignation could not dampen the enthusiasm of the 4,038 alumni who returned to campus for Reunion 2005 on the weekend of June 10–12. They were accompanied by 2,228 spouses, kids, and assorted hangers-on, pushing total attendance well beyond 6,000. The Class of '80 made a big splash in their twenty-fifth year with 22.3 percent first-timers, and the Class of '55 marked their fiftieth year since graduation with 26.4 percent attendance--the highest for any reunion class. Ten classes topped their previous donation totals, with three--1950, 1955, and 1975--setting records for their reunion years. One of the weekend's many highlights was the Olin Lecture by President Emeritus Frank H.T. Rhodes, whose subject was "On Coming Home: Reunion with an Elderly Parent," an address about reconnecting with both Cornell as alma mater and Earth as terra mater.


tHE SEVEN VENTURE CAPITALists, all wearing crisp button-downs and fiddling with slick laptops, are silent as the lights go down in a Sage Hall conference room. They watch the projection screen, where a website displays an advertisement for an amazingly lifelike diamond that shimmers and sparkles in 3D. The new technology behind the image could revolutionize advertising media, from buses to affinity credit cards, if Big Red Ventures (BRV) backs the technology's owners. It's a gamble that could fizzle--or strike gold.

MBA candidate Justin Grimm leans back in his chair. "The technology's pretty neat," he admits. And the CEO, based in New York State, has forty years of industry experience and a handful of blue-chip clients. But he lacks a sales or marketing background--and, perhaps, is overly optimistic. He predicts that the company will rake in over $200 million in revenue in four years. "If it hits on all cylinders, OK," Grimm concedes."But, I mean, that's a lot of money." Fellow Johnson School student Mike Ye agrees. "Yeah, it's inflated." And how would the company manufacture such different media as credit cards and billboards at the same time? "Are they going to do it in-house?" Grimm asks. "How much capital does that take?"

It's all in a day's work for BRV managers, the only MBA students in the country who run their own venture capital firm. While about six other universities have VC funds, none but the Johnson School hands full management responsibility to its students, says fund advisor David BenDaniel, professor of entrepreneurship. "It's a practicum of the highest order."

With $500,000 in start-up capital provided in 2000 by Rob '69 and Terry Wehe Ryan '69 and Rich Marin '75, MBA '76, BRV has invested its fund in five companies in exchange for part ownership. In June, it put $40,000 into NovaSterilis, a Lansing, New York, startup that sterilizes biomedical materials, like human transplant tissue, with carbon dioxide. Other investments include Sight- Speed, whose technology turns any computer into a videophone using software developed at Cornell.

The nine second-year managers troll the Cornell community for alumni, students, and professors with small companies based on novel ideas and technology. They investigate more than 100 business plans each year, looking at competition, market size, and other indicators of potential, with the help of about fifty firstyear MBA students. BRV may refer the entrepreneur to its sister organizations: BR Incubator, which develops marketing strategies and business plans; and BR Legal, which helps set up corporations and establish trademarks. After months of review and nail-biting, the managers decide whether to invest. "In the back of your head, you always have the thought that maybe we're killing the next eBay or the next Google," says Travis Parsons, MBA '05. "And maybe we're hanging onto something that is going to be a total flop three years or five years from now."

The venture capital game is notoriously risky. One-third of all VC deals fail and another third break even, according to the National Venture Capital Association. But the rest make money--sometimes a lot.Microsoft and Federal Express, for example, were originally backed by VCs. So far BRV's holdings have, at least on paper, earned a 24 percent annual rate of return; most funds earn 15 to 26 percent in ten to twenty years.

After BRV invests, the real work begins, says Sam Tingleff, MBA '05. "We come in and provide capital and some labor--maybe have an intern help write a marketing plan--and take them to the point where they can take their products to market and seek another round of funding." Rouzan Agadjanian, MBA '05, developed a marketing plan and analyzed the competition for Medical Care Corporation, whose test detects early signs of memory loss due to Alzheimer's disease with 98 percent accuracy. And as a board observer, she witnessed the company's inner workings firsthand. "That's an experience that I would not have had until ten or twenty years out of business school," Agadjanian says.

Ten to 15 percent of the Johnson School's 500 students participate in either BRV or BR Incubator, a rate that has changed the school's culture significantly, BenDaniel says. "Students are talking about this deal and that deal. This is stuff that no other business school has." The Johnson's MBA applications have jumped by about 9 percent for the past two years, while those at many peer institutions have diminished, says Ann Richards, acting director of admissions and financial aid. "Is it exclusively because of BRV? No. But was it a factor? Definitely."

That said, BRV isn't a perfect replica of a "real world" venture fund. First, BRV managers have day jobs--as students. "Sometimes I would have rather focused on this rather than on Core Accounting," says Agadjanian. Second, while most VCs help run their start-ups for five to ten years (if the company stays afloat that long), BRV managers do so only for a year, with the aid of advisors including benefactors Marin and Ryan.

But the biggest difference is the size of BRV's fund. It not only prevents students from participating in later, more expensive, rounds of investment, it also puts them at the mercy of richer funds. (In 2003, the average venture fund was $145 million.) "A guy that's coming to the table with a million dollars can control the valuation and can sometimes urge or require rewriting of the initial terms," BenDaniel says. "It's frequently referred to as the Golden Rule: ‘He who has the gold makes the rule.' " Students are attempting to raise another $5 million, which, like the initial $500,000, would be donated to the Johnson School. Two alumni recently kicked in $450,000. Any gains will go into the fund--not donors' or students' pockets-- preventing lawsuits should the investments go south.

Nonetheless, managing even a modest fund gives students a thrill that they can't get at the chalkboard. "You can take something away from any class," says MBA candidate Alan Christensen. "But when it's real money, it's different."

-- Susan Kelley


jOSEPH BRUCHAC '64 IS GIVING A tour of his back yard in Greenfield Center, New York, a small town near Saratoga Springs. With one massive hand, he points out the garden where his maternal grandfather, Jesse Bowman, found an arrowhead when Bruchac was a boy. "He didn't really say anything about it," Bruchac recalls. "Just handed it to me. I didn't know what it was, but I just kind of felt that it was a connection to something much older than me."

In fact, it was a remnant of his and his grandfather's Abenaki ancestors, whose tales and history are now Bruchac's life work. But it wasn't until he was a teenager that it dawned on him that his grandfather was part Abenaki, Bruchac says. "I knew my grandfather acted different and looked different--he had dark skin--but when you're a kid, your grandparents are just your grandparents. It didn't really make an impact on me until I was old enough to make comparisons."

Since then, Bruchac has celebrated his Abenaki heritage in 108 books (with five more on the way) of contemporary and traditional American Indian stories, many of them for children, that often revisit conventional history from the Native American perspective.With that output of nonfiction, poetry, tales, and novels, he may be the most prolific author to come out of Cornell, says James McConkey, professor emeritus of English, who taught Bruchac fiction writing."Many well-known writers have attended Cornell, either as undergraduates or graduate students in our MFA program, but I doubt if any of them have sold as many books as Joe."

Bruchac's prose has been strongly influenced by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, who was Bruchac's dissertation advisor at Union Institute and University's distance-learning PhD program during the early 1970s. Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart, the subject of this year's New Student Reading Project at Cornell, depicts the Igbo people's take on British colonial rule in Nigeria during the late nineteenth century. "He used the language and the point of view of his people," Bruchac says. "He used stories and proverbs to tell the other side of a story that had been portrayed very badly."

Bruchac's novel The Winter People uses a similar approach to portray the Abenaki version of Rogers' Raid, when British troops attacked Odanak, Quebec, in 1759. Like most of his work, the book is based on historical records and interviews with descendants of survivors. "It's a 180 from the typical Indian captivity story," Bruchac says, "where white people are taken captive by Indian. In this case, Indians are taken by white--and that did happen." His novels Dawn Land, Long River, and The Waters Between depict Abenaki life before European colonization, while Code Talker tells the Navajo side of the World War II secret message corps.

Bruchac also disseminates American Indian culture as a professional storyteller, performing at forty to sixty schools and festivals each year. And through the Greenfield Review Press, the small publishing company that he and his wife, Carol Worthen, started in 1971, he's put out the first books of several other influential American Indian writers, such as Leslie Silko and Linda Hogan. The press stemmed from the Greenfield Review, their multicultural literary journal. In 1998,Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers named him both Writer of the Year and Storyteller of the Year. A year later, the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, an international literary association, awarded him its Lifetime Achievement Award. "When you look at the scope of what he's done on so many different fronts, he is not just one of the leading scholars but I would say also translators of American Indian culture to mainstream America," says Laura Donaldson, professor of English and American Indian studies at Cornell.

Equally as important, Bruchac's work combats stereotypes by putting native stories and spiritual traditions in context, says Donaldson. "You can't always go out and live in a native community, but through his fiction, you might be able to get at least a sense of what that means, and in my mind that's definitely a form of activism."

Bruchac agrees that his work is political--" How can it not be?" It's an approach embedded in his family's history. For three generations, Bruchac's maternal family hid their Abenaki ethnicity, with varying success. (His father's family is of Slovak descent.) His grandfather called himself French-Canadian as a matter of survival, Bruchac says. "Some people were physically harmed for being Indian. Murders took place in the Adirondacks and in New England and no one was ever prosecuted for them, not just in the 1800s but even into the 1900s. The Abenakis had several choices. One was to leave. The other was to try to blend in--hide in plain sight-- and that's what a lot of people did and continue to do."

Bruchac was raised by his grandparents, who ran a gas station and market adjacent to the house where Bruchac and Worthen live now.He had a close relationship with his grandfather, who taught him to hunt and garden. His grandmother, Marion Bowman, who was one of New York's first female lawyers, gave him a taste for poetry. Those interests deepened at Cornell, where he first majored in zoology, eventually switching to English, and was a varsity heavyweight wrestler. As Bruchac grew as a writer, he also discovered political activism. He marched in Mississippi for civil rights, gave public poetry readings against the Vietnam War, and protested a speech at Bailey Hall by ambassador-atlarge Averell Harriman, who was defending the U.S. government's actions in Vietnam. After graduation, Bruchac earned a master's degree in English at Syracuse University, studying with Grace Paley.

While at Syracuse, he began to actively embrace his heritage. He often rode his Harley motorcycle to the Onondaga Indian reservation in Upstate New York. "An Onondaga elder named Dewasentah-- Alice Papineau--would say, ‘Let me tell you a story, because the kids aren't listening to the stories, but I know that you'll pass them on.' And I have."

He's also passed them on to his sons. He has co-authored several books with Jim, thirty-seven, who teaches traditional outdoor skills like animal tracking at the seventy-acre Ndakinna Wilderness Education Center across the road from his parents' house. Jesse, thirty-three, a Web designer named for his great-grandfather, is the family's most fluent Abenaki speaker.

"I think a lot of what I've done in my adult life is seek out the stories my grandfather never told me," Bruchac says. "I made sure that what I passed on to Jim and Jesse was passed on very clearly."

-- Susan Kelley


iN HOLLAND,MICHIGAN,THE SMALL city on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan where Matt Urban '41 spent the last years of his life, you can steer your car down Matt Urban Drive and exercise at the Matt Urban Sports Complex. Despite these honors and the array of medals he won on the battlefields of Europe, some believe that Lt. Colonel Urban remains vastly underappreciated. But if the Polish-American Congress has its way, the nation will soon bestow its stamp of approval upon him--literally.

Matthew Urbanowicz was the son of Polish-American parents and a native of Buffalo, born just after World War I. He became a star high school athlete and then worked several part-time jobs to pay his way through Cornell. A member of the ROTC, Urban was called to active duty five months before Pearl Harbor, reporting to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 60th Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division.

He began as a morale and special services officer, but by 1944--when his seventh severe battlefield wound finally sent him home--he had risen to the position of battalion commander and military legend. During twenty months of front-line action in six major campaigns in Europe and North Africa, Urban's reputation for bravery was such that even the Nazi soldiers knew him well. They called him "The Ghost," presumably because no matter how many times they thought they had killed him, he always returned to fight another day.

There was the time in Renouf, France, for instance, when Urban grabbed a bazooka, exposed himself to enemy fire, and destroyed two tanks that had been raking his unit's position. His company moved forward, routing the Germans, and it wasn't until later that evening that Urban was evacuated for treatment of the tank-gun shrapnel in his leg. He was shipped back to England, but within six weeks he was back at the front, having limped out of the Army hospital and hitchhiked his way to St. Lo. There he resumed command of his men, who were pinned down by enemy fire. Urban ran across open ground, dodging bullets until he reached an abandoned American tank. He climbed in, returned fire, and again helped turn the tide of battle.

A couple of months later, Urban and his unit were in Belgium, trying to secure a crossing point on the Meuse River, when he received a serious neck wound. He couldn't speak above a whisper--and, indeed, would be raspy voiced for the next fifty years--but Urban refused evacuation until the river crossing was secure.

"The one through my neck finished me," Urban would later say, meaning his combat career was over. It was a stint that brought him twenty-nine combat ribbons and a chestful of medals for valor-- including seven Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, a Legion of Merit, France's Croix de Guerre, and the Belgian Fourragere. The only thing missing: a Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest decoration for valor.

Only forty-nine Medals of Honor were awarded to soldiers from World War II, and a letter recommending one for Urban was sent to 9th Division headquarters some six decades ago. Somewhere along the line, the letter got lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. It wasn't until 1980 that the oversight was discovered and President Jimmy Carter draped a Medal of Honor around Urban's neck. The citation concludes: "Urban's personal leadership, limitless bravery, and repeated extraordinary exposure to enemy fire served as an inspiration to his entire battalion."

After the war, Urban got married and settled in Monroe, Ohio, where he became director of the community center. He moved to Michigan in 1962, living first in Port Huron and then Holland. In 1989, the year when Urban retired as the city's recreation director and published his autobiography, The Matt Urban Story, the Guinness Book ofWorld Records identified him as "The Most Combat-Decorated Soldier in American History," a title more often associated with Audie Murphy. Sources differ on who actually won more medals, but Murphy clearly received more acclaim, even starring in a Hollywood movie about himself. In 2000, twenty-nine years after his death,Murphy was honored with a commemorative stamp from the U.S. Postal Service.

That's where Urban's supporters come in. They think he deserves a stamp, too, and soon after his death in 1995 his friend Richard Pearch wrote to the postmaster general. Pearch's efforts came to the attention of Anthony Bajdek, president of the Polish-American Congress of Eastern Massachusetts, who has since collected some 60,000 signatures on a petition-- not to mention many passionate letters from men who served under Urban."Had it not been for the misplacement of his records, he would have gained as much notoriety as Audie Murphy," says Bajdek.

Postal regulations state that a person must be deceased for at least ten years before he or she can be considered for placement on a stamp, making 2005 the time for action. Bajdek says that a U.S. Postal Service advisory committee-- which usually recommends only about two dozen new commemorative stamps out of thousands of suggestions it receives each year--appears somewhat uninterested in the movement, so he is also spearheading an effort to introduce a joint resolution in the U.S. Congress.

"As the memory ofWorld War II gets dimmer and dimmer, and as the number of living participants in the war diminishes," says Bajdek, "it's not going to be too many years now when we won't have anything left except memorials. Matt Urban deserves to be remembered."

-- Brad Herzog '90

To sign the Matt Urban petition, go to and click on "Links."


as an animal science major, Vanessa Spero '00 never thought of herself as a people person. That changed once she volunteered for two years in the Peace Corps in Niger, then moved to the rainforests of Uganda to intern with the Jane Goodall Institute, where she taught natural science to schoolchildren. "When you start to work with the kids, you meet their families," Spero said. "We spent a lot of time with the women, and they were incredibly motivated." To help pay for their children's school fees, mothers had organized a cooperative through which they wove grass baskets, purses, and table mats and sold them piecemeal.

But they lacked a building in which to market their work to tourists. "I was trying to find a way to get the women funding," Spero says. "But as one person, no one was going to give me any money."

Inspiration hit when she returned home to Pomona, New York, and saw an advertisement for Ideas Happen, a contest sponsored by Microsoft and Visa for young people's ideas. Spero entered, proposing that the prize fund a market in Uganda. "We are ready," she wrote in her essay. "We just need a building."

Then she persuaded everyone she knew to visit the contest's website and vote for her idea. She convinced her running group to post an announcement on its website, and contacted the local newspaper, which published a story about her quest. "I was a waitress," Spero says, "and I would slip the newspaper article into my customers' checks."

The gambit worked. Spero's idea beat out 19,000 entries, winning $25,000. But she didn't stop there. With the prize money, Spero has created a nonprofit organization, Education Creates Opportunity, which aims to foster economic opportunity for Ugandans through environmental education in crop rotation, business, ecology, and park ranger skills. "Something changed in me after I started working with people who don't have the opportunities we have," says Spero, who is now pursuing a master's degree in environmental education at Florida Institute of Technology. "It became so simple and so gratifying to try to effect change, on even the smallest of scales."

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