In today’s era of disruption, the most effective business strategies are unconventional. No need to tell this to IE Brown 2018 Nathaniel Allen and Gray W. Rifkin. Their individual entrepreneurial careers have followed non-linear journeys through R&D, M&A, advanced manufacturing, global expansion, and, in the case of Allen, an around the world year-long family sabbatical.
Their trajectories converged, first when they met as students at IE Brown, and then when Allen joined Rifkin at Commonwealth Diagnostics International (CDI), a specialized clinical diagnostics service provider, independent CLIA-certified laboratory, and medical technology company focused on the early detection and diagnosis of functional gastrointestinal disorders. Currently Gray serves as the company’s COO, and Allen as director of innovation.
In this story, we learn from each of their perspectives the value of IE Brown for driving innovation. We also find out how they’re using this experience to advance CDI to create a more healthy and prosperous world.
Entrepreneurs at Heart
Allen and Rifkin have a lot in common. In addition to their successful careers, they both exude a sense of purpose, and genuinely connect with whoever they’re talking to. Most strikingly, they share a willingness to follow their heart – a trait that perhaps most defines entrepreneurialism. How else does one muster the courage to take risks and navigate unchartered territory?
For Rifkin, this trait came through loud and clear from the beginning of his career when he chose, after graduating from law school at the top of his class and beginning a promising career at a leading law firm, to leave corporate law and the courtroom behind to pursue business.
“I grew up in a family of lawyers where discussions focused more on social and legal matters than business issues. Pursuing law was an obvious choice for me in college and early in my career but I was always fascinated by business. When my client offered me the opportunity to go in-house as general counsel, I seized the opportunity.
I quickly learned to wear many hats. Within a year of arriving, we entered into a competitive bidding process and negotiation for cutting-edge technology emerging out of Cedars-Sinai that transformed the diagnosis of IBS from a four to six-year diagnostic process of exclusion to a simple blood test.
After securing rights to the technology, I switched to strategizing and execution on all aspects of the company and product launch – working with economists to determine healthcare savings, key opinion leaders and scientists for clinical validation, advertisers and consultants for marketing research and strategy… It was baptism by fire.”
The company’s commercial success resulted in an acquisition of part of the company’s operations by a publicly traded company. Rifkin then joined the members of the executive team at their new company, Commonwealth Diagnostics International.
For Allen, entrepreneurialism was in his blood from the beginning. In 2007, he founded Tenshon, Inc, a shade sail and canopy manufacturing company that leveraged cutting-edge high-density polyethylene shade fabrics and structural steel for its innovative design. In 2016, the company was acquired. With his financial windfall, Allen followed his heart and set off on a year-long trip around the world with his family.
“Taking the road least followed apparently is part of my DNA,” said Allen. “Carving out new markets and building new businesses has always come naturally to me. When I sold my last business, I realized we had a rare opportunity as a family to travel the world. I can’t say we did it on a whim. We had three small kids from the ages of 2 to 6.
I’m so glad we braved it. I’ll always be grateful for the success of the business and everyone that was part of it to have made this amazing journey possible for my family and me.”
Why IE Brown
Both Allen and Rifkin decided to get an executive MBA because they wanted to hone their business management skills.
In the case of Allen, he decided on IE Brown while on vacation with his family.
“I wanted to fully re-engage in a for-profit business but this time with a more holistic approach to the people component and with a wider vision,” said Allen. “For years in my own business, I focused on extracting more out of our assets, including our people. How do we improve performance? How do we help people do more for us…
I was looking for God in a dollar bill but I found him in the heart of the people that worked for me.
I knew first hand, as a business owner that the phrase, ‘It’s not personal. It’s business,’ is meaningless when you have to live with your decisions that directly impact people’s lives – both as employees and customers.
This objective made me want an MBA with a humanities focus. IE Brown was the only program that even pretended to show a connection.”
In the case of Rifkin, his prior success had been a function of his ability to grow his business skills organically. But to globally scale CDI, he wanted to turbo-charge his capacity as a leader, innovator, and entrepreneur.
“I’m in healthcare because it merges my interest in business with my desire to positively impact the world,” said Rifkin. “IE Brown’s business pedagogy focuses on cultivating leadership that’s responsible and expert in dealing with complex 21st-century markets, like healthcare.”
Applying IE Brown for Rethinking Strategy in an Age of Innovation
According to Rifkin, IE Brown played an instrumental role in his development of a US-based and international strategy for CDI, including the official US re-launch of IBSchek™, a first-in-kind blood test for Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
“The IE Brown program coincided with an intense and transformative period at CDI. I was consumed with supporting management’s efforts to build out CDI’s state-of-the-art certified laboratory, and operations for medical device manufacturing; registering and meeting international standards for our growing product line, and putting together a robust commercial team and systems infrastructure.
IE Brown’s curriculum was key. A day never went by when the subjects we studied weren’t relevant – forecasting, change management, developing new technological and manufacturing systems… Most importantly, IE Brown strengthened my emotional intelligence and resilience – the most critical skills for leading new ventures, evaluating risk, and securing buy-in from a broad range of stakeholders.”
According to Allen, IE Brown gave him a network of like-minded people that ultimately landed him at CDI.
“Rifkin and I connected working on an IE Brown team project early in the program. We spent a lot of time brainstorming about CDI and the healthcare sector using the program’s curriculum to advance our strategic thinking and see new opportunities.
Since I was in Boston that summer with my family, I suggested I spend a day with him at CDI. Then I suggested he give me a desk. Now I work there full time as director of innovation.
It was a natural transition since we had simultaneously cultivated an approach to growing businesses that meshes strong traditional fundamentals with the social, political, economic and psychological aspects of being human.
IE Brown offers a powerful model for driving innovation that benefits the bottom-line, advances industry, and, in the case of CDI, helps people around the world live healthier lives.”
To read the latest news from CDI, Commonwealth Diagnostics Announces New Corporate and Strategic Updates