What advice does Tom Lehman ’06, the CEO and co-founder of the internet startup Genius, have for Yale students? “Chill out a little bit.”
Lehman, who graduated from Yale magna cum laude with degrees in mathematics and philosophy and Ethics, Politics and Economics, gave a talk Friday to about 40 students in Sudler Hall discussing his entrepreneurial success and the internet-startup industry. The talk was hosted by the Yale Computer Society, an organization that aims to create a community for students interested in computer science, and was moderated by Kyle Jensen, associate dean and director of entrepreneurship for the Yale School of Management.
“It was very random,” Lehman said, speaking about his first job out of college — an IT position at the investment firm D. E. Shaw & Co.
However, he identified this job and his subsequent progression in the firm as prompting his foundation of Genius, formerly called Rap Genius. Lehman said it was difficult to appreciate how seemingly insignificant events in one’s life could have such large consequences.
Throughout his talk, Lehman stressed the theme of unpredictability. He said that while he was an undergraduate, he took his schoolwork very seriously, adding that at the time, he intended to enroll in law school.
But when asked what advice he would give his younger self, Lehman said, “Stop trying to make plans. Stop trying to predict what’s going to happen.”
In October 2009, Lehman, along with Genius co-founders Ilan Zechory ’06 and Mahbod Moghadam ’04, founded their startup as an online hub for analyzing rap songs. Lehman said that he often had difficulty understanding rap lyrics, and that he and his cofounders thought it would be useful to create a website that would break down the songs and provide context and analysis to the lyrics.
Today, the company has grown to become a line-by-line annotation website that allows users to highlight text and contribute explanations and interpretations of a wide array of documents, ranging from Shakespearean plays and political speeches to menus and even drug facts for certain medications.
Yale Computer Society President Felipe Pires ’19 said he has used Genius often in the past, adding that when he discovered that the website’s founders were Yale alumni, the club made it a priority to invite Lehman to speak.
The talk marks the Yale Computer Society’s first speaker event.
Lehman said in his talk that Yale did not play an overly significant role in facilitating his ability to create Genius. He noted that some aspects of the Yale environment limited his ability to take a more relaxed, creative view on the future.
Nevertheless, Lehman said he loves Yale and credits the University with connecting him to important and knowledgeable people, including his cofounders.
Pires said he thinks YCS allows students to learn and apply technical computer-science skills .
“You don’t learn a lot of technical [computer science] when you’re at Yale,” he said. “[The computer science department] is very theoretical.” He added that he thinks it’s the responsibility of the students, not the department, to organize and provide a place for technical learning.
In a 2014 interview with the News, Genius cofounder Mahbod Moghadam — who resigned later that year — said, “The main ingredient that Yale and [Genius] share is close reading. I think of Harvard as a university where you learn to be very, very powerful and Princeton to be where you learn to wear boat shoes. But at Yale they teach you how to do close reading … The [annotations on Genius] are close reading to the text and this is what makes this the ‘most Yaled-out website’ out there.”
Kenneth Seals-Nutt ’18, a computer science major who attended the talk, said Yale’s intensity could help aspiring entrepreneurs like himself succeed in the tech business.
“I don’t know if it’s worth it for everyone,” Seals-Nutt said. “It definitely worked out for [Lehman], and I think we have the opportunity to do something similar.”
Last January, Spotify began a partnership with Genius that provides an in-app feature called Behind the Lyrics. The feature gives insight into the meaning of song lyrics as they play.