Jim Boyle, the co-founder and Managing Director of Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI), has established a series of programs at Yale that have encouraged on-campus entrepreneurship since YEI’s inception in 2006. YEI offers various programs, including Venture Creation, ($1,000), Summer Fellowship ($15,000) and the YEI Innovation Fund ($100,000+). The newest addition to the league is Social Venture Creation—a program created to spur Yale’s interest in solving social problems through business ventures.
Last month, I sat down with Jim Boyle in his office in downtown New Haven to discuss the goals of the new Social Venture Creation Program and his vision for the start-up culture at Yale.
What motivated you to establish the YEI?
There was an article published in the Wall Street Journal that made us think about what we had as resources for student entrepreneurs. The article called Yale out for lacking the resources to support student entrepreneurship. There were groups of students at Yale looking for project engineers, mentors, and investors; because they lacked support, they ended up going to California to do startups. We realized that we were missing an opportunity to have that here, which is why we pulled a little money together and did a little experiment. Let’s see what happens when we solicit every single student at Yale for a potential venture idea. If we like your idea, we’ll give you $5,000 and keep you here for the summer and teach you all about starting your own venture
We got 52 applications from students and ended up picking 12. That first summer was very ad-hoc. We brought 50 speakers in 50 days and it was crazy and insane! There were just too many people in too short a time. But 3 of the teams that came out that summer went on to raise capital and become mildly successful. One team in the initial class composed of three young guys who started a company called Go Cross Campus, an online game based on the board game, Risk. They ended up raising over one million dollars from venture capital firms. The game ultimately got shelved, but two of the founders of that venture got together two years later with two other partners and formed a very interesting company called General Assembly. They now have campuses in 10 cities around the world.
How did the Social Venture Creation Program start?
The program started with a conference in downtown San Francisco this past May called the Yale Entrepreneurs and Investors Conference. We lent our name to the conference, which was run by alum Victor Wang (VP at Facebook). There were more than 200 West Coast investors at this conference in downtown San Francisco. And one of the people who came to talk was Mitch Kapor, a successful serial entrepreneur and investor who founded Lotus. He talked about the importance of measuring social impact while we were all thinking about tech ventures, social media, Internet, consumer-facing businesses, and high-tech semiconductors. But Mitch was talking about the social impact of all of those things. That impact can be positive if it’s gap narrowing, or it can be negative if it’s gap widening. For example, if you were to start a concierge medical service with very high-end clientele, we would consider that gap widening. If you were to consider building a set of health tools for people in impoverished urban areas, we consider that to be gap narrowing. Whether you consider yourself a social entrepreneur or high-tech entrepreneur, your venture has some degree of social impact, either positive or negative.
I loved that construct so much; I wanted to bring a program to Yale where we are asking students and faculty about their ideas on social impact ventures. What are you doing to narrow the gaps in education, health care, water, and food? We are taking a small amount of grant money and setting that aside for people who come to us with those ideas.
Who are the key people overseeing this program?
We’ve been very fortunate to get Patrick Struebi to spend time with us. Patrick has actually come onboard with us at YEI to be our Social Entrepreneur in Residence. He’s a very successful social entrepreneur with his own venture of importing produce from Central and South America while paying fair wages to farmers. In addition, we have Jennifer Stable Clark, who is the CEO of Unite for Sight as one of our operating board members. As we read through applications, we’re looking for people who can build viable, sustainable, and scalable ventures that also have positive social impact.
How are the applicants in the Venture Creation Program different from those that apply to the Social Venture Creation Program?
There are some ventures that are coming to us already [through the Venture Creation Program] that could claim they have or could have social impact. We are not sure if we are going to get the same applications coming from the same people. My hypothesis is that there are many people and students at Yale who want to solve a real-world problem, but don’t want to bear the burden of starting a company. But if we can raise awareness about solving social problems in the context of a viable and potentially lucrative business, we can attract people who previously may not have considered social entrepreneurship as a career. We are hoping to attract a different group of people than from before.
What is your official launch date?
Our first deadline is September 25th so we are looking for applications for Social Venture Creation Program. The word might not have gotten out as forcibly as we would like. We will have another deadline towards the end of October or early November so there will be a second and third opportunity for the students to submit the idea to us. We have 3 deadlines over the course of the academic year.
Anyone in the Yale community (students, staff, faculty) is eligible to apply.
How do you see the Social Venture Creation Program changing Yale’s social enterprise and start-up scene?
We are one of several organizations at Yale promoting social impact. For example, the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale (CBEY) runs the Sabin Sustainable Venture Prize. They are looking for ventures that lend themselves to high sustainability, better clean practices in forests. The school of Public Health has Innovate Health, which is interested in ventures that impact global health.
YEI is like the third or fourth party to the table in terms of trying to put resources out there for social venture. But we would like to see these entities become more coordinated and centralized. We need to go up the chain for social impact and actually start to scale up.
What is the long term plan for YEI and the Social Venture Creation Program?
We see New Haven as a cooler, more entrepreneurial, and denser locus of talent for people who want to start new ventures that mainly draws people from the university. However, we don’t have the collection of investors or the cachet of entrepreneurs and software developers to really give us that critical mass yet. There are still a lot of people who graduate from Yale and go to New York or Boston for jobs in finance or consulting. We need to answer 2 big questions: Can we make entrepreneurship an attractive post-graduation career path? How do we make it easier for undergraduates, graduates and faculty to start a company? At the end of the day, value creation and impact is really what we care about the most.
The first year we ran YEI, we had 10 kids in the program. Now we have 150 students each semester coming here asking for advice. But there are 11,000 students at Yale, so we are still seeing only a tiny fraction of the whole. They are going to look back in 50 years and think this is the easiest time in their life to think about creating a venture. You are being fed, housed, and have free time outside of class. It is a great time to take some risk and create something, because 10 years from now, when you are an aspiring management consultant and settling down with your spouse, the risk profile changes dramatically for people. We want undergraduates and graduates to feel that it’s a good time to experiment and see what they can create too.