Talk of the Yale business scene might conjure images of Yalies putting on slick suits and corporate demeanors in an attempt to schmooze their way into the world of consulting or investment, but not all of Yale’s business hopefuls take this traditional path. Often, campus capitalists find success in synthesizing innovation with entrepreneurship, yielding decidedly strange underground operations ranging from an oft-tardy airport shuttle service to digital-age bake sales.
“I had baked a batch of truffle cookies and brought them back for my roommates freshman year,” Brett Lazer ’07 said in an e-mail. “Someone suggested we sell them, so we created the AIM screenname YaleCookies so that people would send us an IM with their order and where they were, and we would deliver them.”
Divine inspiration is always a challenge for the average entrepreneur, but amid the wealth of intellectual capital present at Yale there seems to be no shortage of innovative Yalies with marketable new ideas. Yet those students who dare to put their ideas into practice by starting their own businesses while still in college face a variety of obstacles in operating their ventures, let alone making money through them.
There is a general impression among Yalies that their peers harbor the ambition and drive to start their own business, yet Yale didn’t even make the cut for Forbes Magazine’s 25 Most Entrepreneurial Campuses, losing out to schools like Notre Dame, Louisiana State and Northeastern. UNC Chapel Hill, which topped the list, was noted for its undergraduate business program, a feature lacking in Yale’s academic offerings. As a result, many would-be business majors at Yale end up in the overwhelmingly popular economics major, forcing them into a discipline that focuses primarily on theoretical knowledge rather than practical applications.
There may be countless challenges to starting a new business, but according to Josh Helmrich ’09, the biggest hurdle is still coming up with an innovative idea.
“It’s discouraging, because it can seem like every idea you come up with that you think is original has already been taken,” Helmrich said. “An original idea is definitely the hardest part, no question.”
While Helmrich doesn’t operate his own business yet, he and some of his friends have been tossing around ideas for start-up ventures ever since they heard about Y50k — Yale’s flagship business competition, offered through the Yale Entrepreneurial Society — which awards a total of $50,000 in cash every spring to winners in the categories of social entrepreneurship, biotechnology, and for-profit companies. While the contest is open to anyone affiliated with Yale, including professors and employees, YES Development Director Nate Loewentheil ’07 said the overwhelming majority of applicants are undergraduates.
“YES’s basic mission is to promote entrepreneurship on campus, be it through Y50k, regional events that connect students with businesses, or our Yale Entrepreneur magazine,” Loewentheil said. “We also educate students who have business ideas and give them a background in aspects like advertising, marketing and intellectual property rights.”
With 30 staff members and a mailing list of more than 800 students, YES certainly has the scope to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to the Yale community, yet this alone is not enough to sustain most student businesses. Even equipped with a popular idea and a feasible means of implementing it, Lazer’s YaleCookies was short-lived due to a flawed business plan and expensive operating prices, Lazer said. Low profit margins meant that the two freshmen were putting in too much work for not enough money in return, and the appeal soon wore off.
“On top of schoolwork, having to spend all of that time in the kitchen, and then being on call for deliveries between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. … was just too much for two people,” Lazer said. “That’s not to say that it wasn’t a fun time, and a good experience, but with activities, schoolwork, trying to have a life — it was just too much.”
Striking a balance between work and play is a dilemma familiar to nearly every Yalie, but most students who are able to manage a business on top of everything else say the extra time and energy is worth it.
“We don’t worry about balancing our business with things like extracurriculars because that business becomes our extracurricular,” said Rawen Huang ’07, winner of Y50k’s 2005 competition and founder of the Globalist Foundation, a network of student-run international-affairs magazines that seeks to connect student leaders around the world. “It’s also about priorities — for people who are business-minded, running your own venture and making it successful means a lot more than getting an A.”
Dain Lewis ’07, winner of Y50k’s 2004 competition and president of Mercado Global — a student-run nonprofit retail business that finds markets for hand-made products crafted by women’s collectives in developing countries — said that while he thinks Yalies are very fortunate to have sufficient resources at their disposal, there are other things the University could do to cultivate even more entrepreneurship among its students.
“My sister is a senior at Brown and the epitome of the artsy-theater type — one of the last people you would expect to start a student business — but Brown offers an introductory entrepreneurial class, and … it completely changed her outlook on the world and inspired her to begin working on a theater-focused business project,” Lewis said. “I think Yale students who might not ordinarily consider business could benefit tremendously from a few classes of that nature.”
Others, like Justin Ash ’07, chief financial officer of Elmseed Enterprise Fund, a student-founded microcredit nonprofit, disagree.
“I don’t really think it’s the place of the University to be an incubator for student businesses,” Ash said. “The idea of starting your own business is really exciting, and Yalies tend to be very ambitious already.”
Ash is a former Production and Design Editor for the News.
Loewentheil said Yale’s culture of politics and humanities could also be responsible for a less entrepreneurial student body than those found at some of its counterpart universities.
“Schools like Stanford and MIT are renowned for entrepreneurship,” Loewentheil said. “That’s probably because schools like MIT have more tech-savvy people who are creating original products and marketing them rather than finding a new service to provide or a new way in which to provide it.”
Campus Bus is one example of a service that could stand to improve. The student-founded travel-brokering service secures bus rides for its customers at a discounted rate, but in spite of its founders’ bright idea and the burgeoning demand for its services, Campus Bus ran into operating difficulties over spring break. One of its vehicles broke down en route to picking up students and driving them to the airport, causing students to be more than an hour late, and several missed their international flights.
Campus Bus founder and Directing Manager of LC Advertising Francisco Liquido ’08 said that while such a problem could happen in any business, the use of third-party drivers makes it particularly difficult for Campus Bus to manage that aspect of the service.
“I’m not saying there’s not room for improvement — there obviously is — but we really do try our best to accommodate everyone and make things run smoothly,” Liquido said. “The fact that we’re a bus ride-brokerage venture and not an actual bus service makes that difficult at times.”
Ash said startup cash can also be an initial problem for would-be entrepreneurs.
“There is a fair amount of entrepreneurial spirit among Yalies, but there’s always a resource problem,” Ash said. “The fact is that most students just don’t have access to that kind of capital.”
Liquido also said other obligations are
a constant challenge for him and his business partner, Campus Bus Managing Director Louis Gresham ’08. Gresham is on the varsity football team and Liquido serves as co-president of the Filipino Club, while both serve as dining hall student managers.
“On top of everything else, business is also hard because you’re giving all that up to take a risk,” Liquido said. “Even when you pitch this idea to customers or other companies that you want to advertise for, you have no background or success rates to point to and they have to rely on your word and your commitment. There are no guarantees.”
Even aware of the daunting obstacles that face them, there are still those Yalies who have a brilliant idea, see an unprecedented opportunity, or just want to acquire some business practice. Helmrich said that while he and his partners are still cultivating several ideas, he hopes to start his own business at some point in the future.
“It’s not an immediate goal, but it’s something I’d like to do if I get the opportunity,” Helmrich said. “I figure there’s a much better opportunity to start a business at Yale than at any other time in my life. Plus, even if you lose some money or fail, it would still be a great learning experience.”