Since its launch in September, the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale has worked with students to create interdisciplinary solutions to real-world problems, despite facing difficulties due to its small staff and a lack of publicity.

At the moment, Tsai CITY has just seven staff members, and only one full-time employee: Andrew McLaughlin ’91, the center’s executive director. According to Cass Walker Harvey, Tsai CITY’s program director of social entrepreneurship, the organization’s biggest challenge has been raising awareness among students about the center’s offerings.

Still, the center is working hard to develop and run programs on innovation and entrepreneurship, with the goal of bringing students with different backgrounds and skills together. The center recently selected 19 Yale teams to participate in the Startup and Nonprofit Accelerator Programs, a six-week curriculum involving workshops, mentorship and peer collaboration. In September, Tsai CITY launched three tracks of workshops on “innovative mindsets,” “professional skills for social entrepreneurs” and “professional skills for tech entrepreneurs.”

“The beauty of our center, if we pull it off, and that’s a big if, is that we are providing resources for students to build innovative solutions for real, serious problems,” said McLaughlin. “It is something I wish I had when I was a Yale undergrad.”

Tsai CITY was founded through a donation from Joseph Tsai ’86 LAW ’90. In a May news release, University President Peter Salovey said the center would serve as a “hub of creative activity,” bringing diverse students together to solve real-world problems.

McLaughlin stressed that the center aims to reach out to minority students who “may not have felt completely welcome” in activities related to entrepreneurship and innovation.

The first cohort of student teams participating in the Tsai CITY Startup and Nonprofit Accelerator Programs has tackled a range of global challenges, like creating incentives for Ethiopian farmers to produce nontimber forest products, building a co-working space in Sri Lanka and transitioning from railways to renewable energy. Tsai City is also dedicated to connecting projects that have progressed beyond early stage discovery with additional resources to help them advance. One such project is Snackpass, an app created by Yalies and used by more than 4,000 students to get discounts at local restaurants.

Sheila Qasemi ’19, Tsai CITY’s student advisory board leader, has been participating in the accelerator program as a representative for a nonprofit called Firoz Academy, which teaches math, English and technology to Afghan youths to help them prosper in the global services economy. Tsai CITY has connected the nonprofit to an extensive network of mentors and financial resources to refine their curriculum and offer robust services, Qasemi said.

According to Brita Belli, communications officer at Tsai CITY, the students in the Accelerator Programs have had two training sessions so far, which focused on refining project plans with the help of faculty and entrepreneurial mentors.

“They are absolutely inspiring in the problems they are tackling and the energy they are bringing into solving [them],” Belli said.

According to Belli, a diverse body of 40 students has been recruited to serve on the CITY Student Advisory Board, which oversees the center’s activities. Belli added that the board members were drawn from all corners of the University, including student clubs like Design for America and Net Impact, the graduate schools, the residential colleges and the LGBTQ community.

According to Walker Harvey, Tsai CITY is seeking to be more integrated on campus by increasing collaboration with cultural houses, the Office of LGBTQ Resources, student clubs and professional schools.

“We hope Tsai CITY will push boundaries on what entrepreneurship and innovation education looks like — especially around diversity,” Walker Harvey said. “We hope to break down the stereotypes of entrepreneurship and create a center where all feel welcome.”

Serena Cho |