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College of Arts and Sciences

Students pitch business ideas to former Etsy CEO

By: Chukwudumebi (Joshua) Obi ‘23
Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity
December 14, 2020

Cornell student Ryan Tremblay ‘22 won first place in a student pitch competition Oct. 28, judged by Chad Dickerson, former CEO of Etsy and Cornell Tech fellow.

Tremblay's app, ReLearn, is designed to build classroom community by creating a shared knowledge base, which includes chat rooms, class recordings and collaborative class notes to help with studying.

The pitch competition happened at the end of a talk given by Dickerson, who visited with students in the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity as the first speaker in the program's "In Focus" speaker series. The series features industry leaders talking about the pivots and turns they have faced in their careers, the time between college and their first big breakthroughs and the pathway that led to where they are now.

More than 400 people listened in as Dickerson talked about his move from writing to technology, his efforts to improve Etsy’s infrastructure to meet rising demand and the importance of mentors and excellent communication skills in your career

“In a world where technology is pervasive, and everyone is using technology, the people who are creating technology have to ultimately be humanists,” Dickerson told the audience. 

After receiving his English degree from Duke University, Dickerson began working for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., where he had his first exposure to web technology as he watched colleagues build the backend for the newspaper’s website. Curious about the emerging technologies, Dickerson learned how to create websites and pivoted to the tech industry, working as Chief Technology Officer at InfoWorld, Salon and Yahoo! where he led Yahoo!’s Developer Network and Brickhouse incubator. He joined Etsy in 2008, becoming CEO in 2011.

Dickerson said one of the most valuable skills his liberal arts degree has given him is communication, which has served him well in every one of his positions.

“Never underestimate the invaluable skill of being able to articulate yourself clearly in the workplace...we live in a world dependent on written communication,” said Dickerson.

Dickerson also emphasized the importance of a support group at any stage of your life. Jerry Colonna, a CEO coach, gave him guidance and advice during his tenure at Etsy, and his father, Phillip G. Dickerson, taught him the value of money and hard work growing up. These days, Dickerson is an executive coach, helping business leaders grow themselves and their companies.

Following the talk, Dickerson judged the Milstein Program’s first  Pitch Fest competition, which featured six teams. Dickerson advised students to simplify their pitches and to seek feedback from their peers.

“One of the things I’ve observed in tech companies, and people who have really great education in tech, is there is a real tendency to try and overcomplicate things...it’s a real asset to be able to reduce a service down to what’s needed to provide the information,” Dickerson told one student developing an SMS based platform.

Along with ReLearn, Hana Hogan ‘21 was awarded second place for her app, COVID SMS, a text-based platform that makes COVID information more accessible to people  without internet access. Other finalists included:

  • C.R.E.E.D, Leila Reines ‘21
  • Drifter, Isabel Herczeg ‘21 & Lauren Deschenes ‘21     
  • Sync, Samuel Kantor ‘22
  • Omnibee, Josiah Kek ‘22


"It was great to witness the creative process that goes into project design — and the feedback from someone else well-experienced was also very insightful,” said Milstein student Marwa Bakri ‘24.

Launched in 2017, the Milstein Program in Technology & Humanity offers a unique multidisciplinary curriculum in the College of Arts & Sciences with workshops in design thinking, community engagement and technology topics, and spend two summers at Cornell Tech in New York City.