Say ‘no’ to YES: Entrepreneurs need better support

Monday’s business page made me happy. But only for a little while.

My feelings changed when I read its mention of the Yale Entrepeneurial Society (YES), which is something of a sore spot with me.

The highlight of my experience with YES was when I joined them on their trip to meet Warren Buffet. Even though I wound up paying $450 to sleep on a hotel room floor, I did get to take a picture with Buffy while he wore my fedora, so I’d pay the money just for that. It was worth it; my portfolio was up 5 percent the following week. Coincidence? I think not.

While I credit YES with strengthening my retirement account by putting me in touch with the right people, there’s very little else for which I can thank them.

I say NO to YES because I have been an entrepreneur on campus for nearly three years, and YES has never done a thing for me. I had been CEO of the Dinosaur Candy Company for a full year before I even heard of YES. So I went to a meeting. The CFO of Abercrombie & Fitch came and told us he had the greatest job in the world (hard to dispute). Then YES began its recruitment drive by showing those present that over 20 Yalies had padded their resumes by becoming Vice Presidents of this-and-that and were looking for anyone else with similar aspirations. How many Elis does it take to drop Yale’s name to get speakers to come? Maybe I was foolish to hope to find someone who was willing to code www.dinosaurcandycompany.com for me, but I still walked away disappointed.

The YES article recited the usual “statistics” that set me on edge. 1,000 active members? A Facebook search reveals a whopping eight currently enrolled students who have “YES” or “Yale Entrepreneurial Society” listed in their activities or interests. By the same logic, I can found the Brian C. Thompson fan club. By reading this column or going to class today you have joined. And the biggest success story of YES is that of its founders who went on to form Higher One. It’s ludicrous to think that the founders of the club needed its support to become great entrepreneurs.

I’m disappointed because I think there is a strong entrepreneurial spirit on campus that needs to be served.

I would rather see a club like YES focus on real Yale entrepreneurship. There are countless students with good ideas that need developing. When friends hear about my own business interests they mention unrelated “wouldn’t-it-be-great-if…” ideas they would like to see an on-campus business satisfy. With solid ideas as the foundation, they could easily become entrepreneurs but lack a support system beyond having YES tell them to slap together a business plan and try to get some money from the Y2K or Y50K, two YES business-pitching competitions. I think YES could be an important resource on campus if it formed workshops for people without much business savvy or contacts. These innovators should be shown how to effectively develop and research their ideas. Building a business plan and participating in the Y2K and Y50K contests undoubtedly helps; but there are still many aspiring Eli entrepreneurs who have ideas they are passionate about but wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with any prize money. YES should find a way to help them rather than talking about the past success of Higher One and its founders.

There is some hope.

This summer I was able to take part in the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI) run by the Office of Cooperative Research. Twelve Yale entrepreneurs were given a stipend to stay in New Haven over the summer and form various small businesses. Entrepreneurs, lawyers, venture capitalists, angel investors and more lawyers came to share their knowledge of entrepreneurship with us. I learned so many important skills as a result of the program, and had the opportunity to work in a real live start-up.

However, the best part of my YEI experience came when each of the gathered entrepreneurs talked about their project and got feedback from others in the program. Partnerships were formed, new directions were considered and there was a real energy in the air. It was like we had formed some kind of real entrepreneurial society at Yale. If that’s what a YES meeting were, I would be there in an instant.

Brian C. Thompson is a senior in Branford College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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