Yale’s entrepreneurs are increasingly seeking to do good while turning a profit.
In recent years, social entrepreneurship — which encompasses ventures hoping to solve social problems through business models — has become a defining feature of Yale’s entrepreneurial scene. Because of growing student interest in the field, groups like the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute and the Yale Entrepreneurial Society have begun offering more resources and guidance in social entrepreneurship, such as fellowships, professional mentoring and conferences and competitions. On Nov. 7–8, YES, an undergraduate student group, will host a panel at the Ignite conference at Columbia University for the first time to teach students from universities across the country about Yale’s successes in social entrepreneurship. Similarly, beginning this academic year, YEI — a University department that provides workshops and funding to budding entrepreneurs — is guaranteeing at least three of its fellowship spots to socially-minded ventures. YEI Communications Officer Brita Belli said YEI consciously decided to invest more in social entrepreneurship after recognizing the broad scope of student and faculty interest alike.
“Yale students are really interested in the big impacts of ventures and they are not motivated simply by making a lot of money,” she said. “We have said a lot internally that we are interested in ventures that make an impact first and foremost.”
The YEI now guarantees fellowship opportunities for winners of InnovateHealth Yale’s Thorne Prize and the Center for Business and the Environment at Yale’s Sabin Prize, as well as the winner of the new Yale College Dean’s Challenge on Social Innovation. All three competitions are intended to reward promising business ideas that solve significant global challenges. YEI Fellows attend a 10-week summer program, receive up to $15,000 in funding and gain access to YEI office space and business networks.
YES Chief Operating Officer Christie Ramsaran ’17 said part of the reason social entrepreneurship is growing in popularity is that students really care about why they are doing things and the product of their education. They think not just about making money, but also how to contribute to the world, she said.
In recent years, Yale students and faculty have launched social entrepreneurship ventures hoping to tackle issues ranging from child literacy to gender equity in the sciences. StoryTime — the winner of the Thorne Prize in April 2015 — was founded by Phil Esterman ’17, Henok Addis ’17 and Jillian Kravatz ’17 and sends stories via text message to parents in low-income families to improve literacy rates among children from poorer backgrounds. Lab Candy, founded by 2014 YEI Fellow Olivia Pavco-Giaccia ’16, aims to inspire more young girls to pursue science-related careers by creating and selling colorful, patterned lab gear. Khushi Baby, a company that creates necklaces for infants that contain the child’s complete medical and vaccination history, won the Thorne Prize in 2014.
Fred Kim ’18, YES co-director of conferences and competitions, said StoryTime, Lab Candy and Khushi Baby are similar to the kind of ventures YES members commonly propose. He added that social entrepreneurship projects seem to happen more frequently than other types of entrepreneurship projects at Yale.
“The kinds of ventures we see depends on the kinds of students at Yale and what they’re interested in,” Ramsaran said. “Social entrepreneurship pops up a lot because that’s what Yalies care about.”
YEI Fellow Jesse Rich SOM ’16 said many believe Yale’s focus on a liberal arts education may be a reason for this trend. Students, he said, are taught to see themselves as part of the larger society and understand their duties to the community.
Rich added that Yale’s focus on social entrepreneurship distinguishes it from other universities with perhaps more established entrepreneurial scenes, like MIT, where students often focus on new technology and gadgets.
This year for Columbia’s Ignite conference, groups from participating universities — which include Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business — are tasked with hosting an event specific to the field of entrepreneurship representative of their school. YES chose social entrepreneurship.
“We chose social entrepreneurship [for the conference] because we were essentially supposed to choose a topic that best reflected the scene at Yale and for us, that seemed to be it,” Kim said. “Students and professors alike are involved with social entrepreneurship and it’s the thing that defines Yale.”