I was saddened to read Charles Finch’s column yesterday in which he mischaracterizes both myself and the Yale Entrepreneurial Society. Finch’s basic premise — that YES is essentially about making money — is flat out false. I would also like to dispute his apparent argument that entrepreneurship in general has no place on the Yale campus.
Finch begins his piece with a quotation from me, in which I assert that “[entrepreneurship] may be the cause to — galvanize students and alumni the way bigger national issues” like the Vietnam War did in the past.
I would absolutely never claim that entrepreneurship is of equal import to the national issues and protest causes of the 1960s; that would be a totally ridiculous and offensive notion. Rather, I simply noted in that comment that YES’s alumni programs, though they serve no deep moral cause, do facilitate a new breed of lively, positive interaction between students and alumni. Nothing more, nothing less.
That skewed portrayal of me aside, Finch chides YES for being a greed-driven organization whose “true aim — is to encourage the accumulation of wealth among its own kind.” This assertion is wrong on many levels. First, YES’s basic mission is not to accumulate wealth but to help Yalies create successful for-profit and non-profit businesses. Although we go to great lengths to provide Yalie-founded companies access to investors and service providers, YES takes no financial stake in the companies we help create.
Moreover, most of our members do not expect to make money either: Less than 10 percent of all new companies ever make it — your chances of getting rich are far higher on Wall Street than as an entrepreneur. It’s true a select handful like Bill Gates will make it big, but they represent a tiny minority of all entrepreneurs.
In addition to helping start companies, YES also helps them to stay in New Haven by bringing all the resources they need into the city. Each company that emerges from YES means new jobs and capital flowing into New Haven, and for that reason YES has the potential to support economic development in the area. City Hall and Yale’s Office of New Haven & State Affairs work closely with us for this very reason. We have no “rhetoric of idealism” about our role in New Haven, as Finch claims, but we are inevitably linked to the local economy, and we try hard to strengthen it.
YES also runs several programs that have unambiguously altruistic aims. Most significantly, our Social Entrepreneurship Prize annually funds and supports three new non-profits. Last year’s SEP prize-winner Touch Base, an advocacy and resource clinic for homeless people in New Haven, exists because YES provided the organization with seed money and free legal work last year. Our Community Consulting program sends out students to work for free with local startups and non-profits. And we publish a monthly magazine (YES & Know) and host speakers and workshops for the educational benefit of all interested students.
Having hopefully dispensed with the notion YES is about making money, I would like to agree with Finch that our Ramen noodle posters were inappropriate and ought not to have ever gone up. With those posters — which dramatize the prize money students can win in our Y50K Business-Plan Competition — YES intended to get people excited about entering the competition.
The posters were meant to be playful gimmicks; they were not meant to create the impression that we are all about money, and they were certainly not meant to offend Chinese people as Finch implied. (Ramen noodles were chosen because they are a staple of a stereotypical college diet). On behalf of YES, I would like to apologize for any offense caused by the Ramen posters. After a first run of only 50 copies, YES Officers were alerted to their content, and we pulled them immediately.
And so if the flyers’ focus on making money was wrong, what then are the Y50K and entrepreneurship in general about? More than anything else, the entrepreneurial process is about creative thinking and problem solving. Entrepreneurs see something they want to change in their environment, and they figure out how to do it. Dean Richard Brodhead, in his introduction to last year’s inaugural Y50K Awards Gala, spoke eloquently about how intellectual challenges lie at the heart of entrepreneurship, challenges that make entrepreneurship fundamentally compatible with the mission of a liberal arts institution.
YES does not encourage Yale students to bypass their education, and we do not even encourage them to start companies. But if a student wants to start a company, we try to help him or her learn about the process, and we try to empower that student to turn ideas into reality. YES’s events and programs ought to complement participants’ Yale educations, not compete with them.
I’m proud of my role in YES, and I’m proud of the value we have added to the Yale community. Finch instructs us to “take what is noblest and best about our time here into our hearts” (as he no doubt does when he writes his Parties @ Yale column for the News’ Scene section). I’m sure I don’t always meet this goal in my life at Yale, but it’s certainly not because of YES.
David Pozen is a junior in Trumbull College. He is president of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society.