Gilt CEO explains path to entrepreneurship

Gilt Groupe CEO Kevin Ryan ’85 discussed the skill sets valuable for aspiring entrepreneurs at a Yale Business Society lecture Wednesday.
Gilt Groupe CEO Kevin Ryan ’85 discussed the skill sets valuable for aspiring entrepreneurs at a Yale Business Society lecture Wednesday. Photo by Jennifer Cheung .

Gilt Groupe CEO Kevin Ryan ’85 broke down conventional notions of entrepreneurship by describing his success in the e-commerce sector in a talk Wednesday evening.

The lecture, sponsored by the Yale Business Society, showcased Ryan’s career as a successful investment banker who decided to work in e-commerce in the mid ’90s as the industry began to gain momentum. During his presentation, Ryan — the founder of Gilt Groupe, a fashion resale website — told an audience of roughly 40 students about the entrepreneurial skills he gained as an undergraduate at Yale.

“I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities on the leadership side,” Ryan said. “I was always running student organizations, and I guess I’m still doing that now, just with older people.”

He said the managerial skills he learned while participating in extracurricular activities at Yale established the foundation for his career in business. The term he spent abroad in Paris was crucial to his college experience, he said, adding that a business in Paris eventually gave him the idea to start Gilt over 20 years later.

Beyond managerial skills, the ability to detect trends and to catch them when they are viable but not yet obvious distinguishes successful entrepreneurs, Ryan said.

“If you’re a surfer, you want to be in that perfect position on the surfboard so that the wave just pushes you along,” he said, adding that in the case of DoubleClick — his first Internet startup that helped businesses advertise online — he “hit the wave perfectly.”

Ryan urged the audience to consider the benefits of seeing a business venture through despite major obstacles. After joining the newspaper syndicate United Media in 1994, he helped to turn the organization from a failing enterprise to a profitable company with a website ranked in the top 10 most visited in the United States in 1995.

Following the success of United Media’s website, he realized that “this Internet thing is going to be big,” he said, but he met resistance from United Media’s parent company when he suggested developing an online division. Ryan said he then left United Media and sought out existing Internet companies to find a way to deliver services substantially better than competitors’.

Ryan said students should pursue the sciences and a foreign language while at Yale to prepare for a competitive and rapidly evolving global market in which the most sought-after careers of the future may not even exist today.

“Entire industries that are now worth trillions of dollars, not only did not exist, but nobody had even thought of them,” he said.

Students need to adapt to “industries that you don’t think of as being technology industries becoming technology industries,” Ryan added.

Ben Gordon ’16 said he agreed with Ryan that interpersonal and executive skills are essential for an aspiring entrepreneur.

Kellen Svetov ’16 said he found Ryan’s willingness to discuss the current state of Internet retail candidly particularly engaging.

Ryan also started the online publication Business Insider.

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