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Celebrating Cele: Start-Up Built Through Action-Based Learning

students sitting at a table

After competing in the inaugural +Tech Innovation Jam competition at the Ross School of Business, an interdisciplinary team of five University of Michigan Graduate students’ entrepreneurial spirit is still strong. After leveraging opportunities at Michigan Ross, they are giving back by opening the door for student mentorship. 

When Cele founders Dev McConnell, MBA ’22, and KJ Green, MBA/MS ’24, enrolled at Michigan Ross, they didn’t intend to pursue tech entrepreneurship. Following the spirit of action-based learning, they signed up for the inaugural +Tech Innovation Jam Competition, a 6-week sprint to build a startup hosted by the Business+Tech initiative at Michigan Ross. 

McConnell and Green were assigned to a team with fellow Michigan Ross student Cory Cooney, MBA ’23, as well as Xinyi Wang, MS ’22, and Jeremy Huang, MS ’23, from the School of Information. "We immediately gelled,” said McConnell. “We each had unique strengths and worked really well as a team.”

Cele Students Celebrate Competition
Inaugural +Tech Innovation Jam Competition, 2021

From competition to company

Ultimately, the team finished second place with their project, Cele (pronounced cell-ee), a gift-giving platform that leverages AI to help streamline the gift-giving process. Due to their success, the team was invited to participate in the esteemed Living Business Leadership Experience course. LBLE provided a pathway to build their business and continue the work they’d done for the +Tech Innovation Jam through structured mentorship to help the team refine their product and goals.

Cele Business Model

The LBLE course not only introduced me to valuable frameworks such as the business model canvas and pitch canvas, but also provided a collaborative environment where I worked alongside a diverse group of students to enhance Cele's business model. We are inaugural participants in this collaboration, which marked our success as the first winners of the +Tech Innovation Jam Competition and selected members of the LBLE course. Being the pioneer students to come through this pipeline, we saw considerable success within just two years.

KJ Green

Kate Witt, BS Architecture ’24

Professor Mike Barger and Phillip Brabbs, managing director of Business+Tech, offered the team timely feedback and guidance, helping to propel the project forward.

“The Cele team had obvious chemistry, but they also believed that they were on to something and were willing to go through tons of experimentation and refinement to generate both a viable and valuable product for their target users,” said Brabbs. 

An interdisciplinary partnership

After completing the Winter ’22 LBLE course and participating in additional competitions throughout the U-M, Cele began to take shape. One key milestone was building the team with other interdisciplinary U-M grads. 

Shiv Saxena, MA ’22, joined the team and shaped the backbone of the Cele website architecture and algorithm. “Launching the beta version of the Cele app has been a great learning experience on the technical development side,” said Saxena. “Being a MA Applied Data Science graduate has helped me iron out a strategy for developing and deploying content and collaborative filtering-based recommendation systems. Putting theory into practice has been a rewarding and fulfilling experience for me."

Cele officially launched the beta version of the site last month, in part due to the support of Michigan Ross professors, support staff, and students. Although their idea was formed prior to the +Tech Innovation Jam and LBLE, many of the features available today can be traced back to U-M’s action-based learning initiatives

From mentees to mentors

In the semesters since McConnell and Green’s initial enrollment, Cele has returned as a corporate sponsor in LBLE. Their goal as a sponsor is to provide U-M undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to learn about the fast-paced startup environment alongside the Cele founders. 

“The most fulfilling part of this journey has been our ability to reciprocate the enrichment we received from the university, which nurtured our ideas and set them into motion,” said Green. “Furthermore, collaborating with some of the university's brightest minds has not only been an excellent experience, but has also uniquely afforded us leadership opportunities that have typically been out of reach for other students and alumni.” 

Most recently, in the Winter ‘23 semester, students joined Cele to work on customer experience, go-to-market strategy, and engineering workstreams. 

“Working with Cele and LBLE was an unforgettable part of my academic journey,” said Gabriel Hassan, BBA ’24, who participated in the program. “The LBLE program’s emphasis on self-initiative, teamwork, and problem-solving has equipped me with essential skills for my future in business. One of the most valuable lessons I learned while collaborating with Cele was navigating ambiguity when working with an early-stage startup." 

 Learn more about the Business+Tech Initiative at Michigan Ross.