iii Alumni Startup Team Selected for VentureBridge Summer Cohort
By Jess Ignasky
Sometimes gift cards feel like they multiply in your wallet when you aren’t looking. After returning gifts that didn’t work out from her bridal shower, Alex Cusell (MSTV ‘22) was all too familiar with this feeling.
“I went around returning gifts, and in return, received a bunch of store credits. Between the store credits and the gift cards I had received at my bridal shower, my wallet was bursting at the seams!”
The influx of new plastic placeholders in Cusell’s wallet got her thinking.
“I started to wonder why there wasn’t a standardized way of using gift cards from my phone and that plastic gift cards were still the norm,” Cusell said. “I decided there had to be a better way of managing gift cards and sending digital gift cards more personally.”
After enrolling in the Startup Creation class in the MSTV program, Cusell developed her idea into a formal startup, Jisell.
We're all familiar with too many gift cards lining our wallet after a birthday or the holidays!
In the Startup Creation class, Cusell’s classmate Yunfan Jiang (MSSM'21) joined the team as a cofounder.
“Growing up in China, gift cards were a familiar thing to me. In my culture, they were used as a popular format for work bonuses, loyalty programs, and reward programs,” said Jiang. “After I came to the United States to study, I realized gift cards had a different sentiment here, being more personal and used to express wishes and emotions.”
“When Alex brought up this idea to me, it resonated with me immediately. We went on to conduct a lot of retailer and consumer interviews and I came to the realization that the gift card space not only has a lot of potential, but also immense room for disruptions.”
Alex, Yunfan and fellow team members
As Cusell and Jiang worked on Jisell in class, MSTV program director and professor of Startup Creation, Sheryl Root, encouraged them to pitch their idea to Venture Bridge, an initiative of the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship focused on helping Carnegie Mellon alumni founders succeed in their entrepreneurial ventures by providing seed funding, office space, access to a large network of mentors and investors, and help with startup growth and future larger scale fundraising rounds.
“The first round of applications required a two-minute pitch video. It was difficult to cram everything about Jisell into two minutes, but through a lot of iterations, we finally did it!” Cusell shared. “The next round was a live pitch and questions from the judges. It was definitely nerve wracking but the judges asked great questions and this helped inspire a lot of new thinking.”
Cusell and Jiang’s hard work paid off when Jisell was accepted into Venture Bridge’s Summer 2022 cohort, but their work was far from over.
Jisell is accepted into VentureBridge's Summer 2022 Cohort!
The founders worked to establish a team of UX Designers and Product Managers, Augmented Reality Developers, Software Developers, and Advisors to help them as they spend the summer further developing the app through Venture Bridge. Additional founding team members include Adrian Ma, Charles Li, Hung-Kuang Han, Katie Mendoza, Tiankai Wang, and Zhongtian Xia.
“I think the biggest challenge [so far] arose when we found that there were a lot of players and third parties in the space, inducing friction to make innovative changes,” shared Jiang.
“We took the time to gather knowledge, learn about the problems, and brainstorm our solutions creatively. This enabled us to pivot several times and craft our unique positioning to attain the most value and decrease risks.”
Cusell and Jiang are excited to work with the Venture Bridge program over the summer to grow Jisell further.
“What I’m most looking forward to is getting connected with other founders who share our passion for entrepreneurship,” said Cusell. “The founder journey is rough, so having other people in your corner who know what it’s like makes all the difference.”
“As a first time entrepreneur, I am ready to learn as much as possible from mentors, prominent entrepreneurs, and alumni,” Jiang stated. “I am also looking forward to networking with diverse people and growing with them together as part of the program.”
An insider peak at Jisell's interface
Currently, Jisell is available for download in the App Store. The team plans on developing their first AR release at the end of the summer with help from Venture Bridge and will release a second version that will focus on holiday gifting.