Y50K candidates await YES decision

Having submitted their final business plans and market analyses last week, Yale’s budding entrepreneurs await the judges’ pending responses as to who has what it takes to start a business in New Haven.

Y50K, Yale’s annual business plan competition run by the Yale Entrepreneurial Society, was created as a launching pad for student- and faculty-run companies aimed at revitalizing the New Haven community. Although the contest has produced only a few successful companies in its six years of existence, local entrepreneurs said they are optimistic that this can change.

The contest, which awards a total of $50,000 to winners in three categories to start their proposed businesses in New Haven, was designed to promote an entrepreneurial culture at Yale, something that is more prominent at universities like MIT and Harvard, YES cofounder Sean Glass ’02 said.

“We felt that many people at Yale had an interest in creating new things but didn’t really have a way to do so,” Glass said. “I am excited about the direction Yale has taken in recent years toward entrepreneurship. It is a big benefit to business in New Haven and to young professionals in the area.”

Founded in 1999 by Glass and Miles Lasater ’01, YES originated as an outlet for these undergraduates’ entrepreneurial energy. With the support of Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander, they initiated the Y50K competition as an incentive for Yale students to remain in New Haven after graduation and to promote economic development in the city.

With its convenient location between New York and Boston and its lower cost of living, New Haven has become an attractive spot for recent graduates to start up a business. Last year’s for-profit winner Robin Goldstein LAW ’02, who along with Clare Murumba LAW ’04 started Off the Map Press, a company that publishes restaurant guides, said he feels that he has a greater ability to develop personal relationships in New Haven than he would in a big city.

“New Haven is a fantastic place to run a business,” Goldstein said. “It has a style of life that is more relaxing and more intimate than most cities in the Northeast, and it is much more economical in terms of business space.”

Proximity to Yale is another benefit to business in New Haven, Goldstein said. Off the Map Press has hired two undergraduate interns from Yale to help create an updated version of “The Menu: New Haven,” a restaurant guide, which will be released this May.

In its first year, the Y50K competition included only for-profit businesses. A social entrepreneurship category was created in 2001 that met with equal popularity, and this year will be the first to offer a third category in the biotechnology sector. In addition to the $50,000, the winner of this category will receive free office space in Science Park to base their business.

YES president Nick Shalek ’05 said the biotech sector was designed to encourage professors and post-doctorates to get more involved in the competition as well as to support the flourishing life-sciences community in New Haven.

“In the past, Y50K has not produced many companies with much potential for economic growth,” Shalek said. “We want to create more exciting, fundable businesses that draw on all the resources at Yale.”

Although no undergraduate business classes are offered at Yale, School of Management professor David Cromwell teaches an entrepreneurial business planning class and encourages all of his students to enter the Y50K competition. He said the contest challenges aspiring entrepreneurs to act on their ideas and is a good learning tool for students, but it has yet to produce lucrative results in the New Haven community.

“The Y50K is mainly training, education and experience-giving in its impact,” Cromwell said. “Only a few real businesses come out of the contest, although some have. More could.”

Two groups from Cromwell’s class are entering the contest this year. YES Vice President Francois Magnant SOM ’05, who is submitting a proposal for a sports entertainment business with colleagues from the class, said Cromwell’s coaching and assistance has been extremely valuable.

“The contest helps students who have ideas to try and make them happen,” Magnant said. “Y50K hasn’t produced any big-name businesses yet, but we’ve had some successes, and eventually we’ll hit the spot.”

Last year’s social entrepreneurship winner, Mercado Global, has continued to grow since its official launch in May 2004. A not-for-profit company that sells indigenous Guatemalan art for five times its wholesale value, is currently funding 144 scholarships for young girls in Guatemala to go to school.

Mercado Global co-founder Benita Singh ’04 said the Y50K contest gave her a concrete opportunity to get her idea off the ground and taught her the necessary steps to starting a business. Although her company’s focus is international, Singh said working in New Haven provides resources that would not be as accessible in a bigger city.

“The students at SOM have been a really strong source of support, and there are always informative talks going on at Yale that are appropriate to my business,” Singh said. “And because most New Haven non-profit companies are local, I think Mercado Global adds an important global perspective to city life.”

Singh is a former News staff columnist.

Contest entrants are judged based on the uniqueness of their business ideas, the strength of their management teams and the quality of their strategies for making their businesses happen. Contest judges are mostly Yale alumni with previous business experience. YES members are responsible for selecting judges in each category, though they have no part in the judging process.

Mike Kai ’05 has been participating in the Y50K competition since his freshman year. This year, he is entering the social-enterprise category with a proposal to distribute a software program to non-profit groups that allows stakeholders in these organizations to collaborate in a personal and efficient way.

Kai said his past years’ experience with the contest has taught him to think seriously about certain aspects of a business that are often easy to overlook in the early stages.

“Every year has been a great opportunity to learn how to put business ideas into writing more effectively,” Kai said. “Having real-world experience in an academic setting is invaluable.”

Once the 18 finalists are notified of their advancement next week, they will prepare a presentation to give to the final-round judges on April 23. The judges will pick six winners, one first-place finisher and one runner-up for each category.

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