Helen Chen ’97 earned her degree in molecular biochemistry and biophysics, but she never planned on going to medical school.
Now the director of business development at bio-tech consulting firm Ambryx, Chen has managed to find a way to incorporate her personal interest in science into her business career. Though the majority of business-oriented Yalies go into pure I-banking or consulting, some Yale graduates stick to their passions, either using them as influences or to create their own businesses from scratch.
After graduation, Chen went on to earn her Ph. D at the University of San Diego in 2003. During her second year in the graduate program, Chen became interested in consulting and started her own company specializing in scientific consulting with a couple of her fellow students.
She said she was drawn to consulting because of the variety it offered.
“I wanted something different,” Chen said. “I like it because I get to have the flexibility of wearing different hats.”
Moving on from the group she helped to form, Chen joined Beachhead Consulting, a small biotech-focused company, for one year while doing some independent work on the side in the non-profit arena. She was first introduced to her current Ambryx boss when he was a client of hers.
Chen said she is happy she was able to take advantage of her scientific knowledge in her consulting career.
“You want someone with a passion for science rather than someone who is just completely doing business,” Chen said. “It’s easier for a science person to understand business than for an businessman to get the training of a scientist.”
John Edelson ’80, president of Time For Learning, which markets an interactive education program did not find his niche in the business world immediately. Edelson, who went to West Africa with the Peace Corps after graduating from Yale, dabbled in consulting before making and losing several small fortunes in the dot-com industry.
Eventually, Edelson decided to pursue his own interests.
“Trying to discipline yourself to do something you don’t want to is generally a losing battle,” Edelson said. “You have to find how to find the right mix, and that requires a lot of creativity and courage. It often involves doing something that may seem completely bizarre. It’s deeply personal.”
Laura Scher ’80 was similarly motivated by her philanthropic interests in forming Working Assets, a telecom company whose revenue recently hit $150 million and has already donated $45 million to organizations and companies that she and her partners deem worthy causes. The CEO of Working Assets, Scher was profiled in Inc.com’s Hall of Fame and invited back to Yale five years ago to speak at an event celebrating accomplished female alumnae.
By some standards, Laura Scher ’80 was already destined to be a failure when she graduated from Yale. Her major in economics seemed promising, but she was contemplating going into education, and it looked like she was going to spend some time in Europe. Basically, she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
After graduating from Harvard Business School, Scher decided to combine her interest in philanthropy with business and start Working Assets — a company whose mission mirrors her interest in progressive causes. Starting with only one full time employee, Scher built her company from scratch, attributing her success partly to chance and partly to innovation.
“We had the right idea at the right time,” Scher said. “That’s why we’re successful. We were one of the first people to say that people would like to have their first products reflect their personal values.”
Initially, times were hard, Scher said. There were problems with banks, and the company remained relatively small for the first seven years.
“There are definitely situations that are difficult,” Scher said. “The joke about entrepreneurs is can they figure out how to sell their product before they run out of money.”
Successful as she is now, however, Scher never set out with the intention of making it big. When she graduated from Yale, she planned on being a teacher, and the thought of running a corporation wasn’t first on her list of priorities.
“I didn’t start Working Assets with the intent of building a big company,” Scher said. “I didn’t start out trying to be successful.”