Courtesy of Tsai City

Since its inception five years ago in a small office space above 254 Elm Street, the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking has grown into a stronghold for student innovation and entrepreneurship.  

Now located in the heart of Becton Plaza, Tsai CITY’s release of their 2021-2022 report reflects the rapid growth of the center in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report boasts of the center’s projects and events held last year, in which statistics included 2,337 attendees across in-person and virtual formats and 94 community workshops.

Additionally, the center awarded $48,000 to 24 teams participating in their Accelerator program, a sharp increase from the $28,000 awarded to 30 teams back in 2020-2021. 

“Seeing the culture that we’ve built, our ability to really grow as a team, being able to nurture the culture that was created and continuing, both with our staff and our student body, has been really impactful and memorable for me,” said Tsai CITY managing director Zoe Hunter. “We’ve been able to create programming and resources around the different pathways to make sure that we’re serving students along the full spectrum of innovation.” 

Hunter and members of the student advisory board at Tsai CITY believe that this recent report highlights how the values of Tsai CITY have remained steadfast in its five-year run. Both the report and CITY’s website emphasize the mission of helping students solve “real-world problems” through exploration and innovation, especially through the Pathways series, which allows students to navigate Tsai CITY’s offerings through an interdisciplinary lens. 

The report also showcases significant Tsai CITY student venture projects including, a talent engine dedicated to recruiting in the digital age developed by Zongjian He SPH ’22. Via Tsai’s creative pathway, the Midnight Oil Collective, cofounded by Frances Pollock MUS ’25, Edwin Joseph MUS ’20 and Danilo Gambini DRA ’20, also takes a spotlight as a student venture meant to aid artists with funding during the pandemic. 

Hunter describes the past year as a testament to the mastery and accessibility of Tsai’s venture development programs. Currently, students across 12 of Yale’s schools participate in programs at Tsai CITY, including students from the Divinity School and School of Nursing. The report also highlights a nearly 50/50 split between men and women participating in Tsai CITY programs, something Ananya Asthana ’24, co-chair of the student advisory board, said she wished she saw in the broader entrepreneurial world. 

Despite these impressive enterprises however, this year’s report demonstrates total funding dropping from $466,731 in 2020-2021 to $371,450 in 2021-2022 due to a repurposing of funds “to create more grants for student innovators pursuing projects of their own.” In addition, after what Tsai CITY called a “refinement” of eight intensives to six and a transition from online to in-person instruction, participation in the Intensive program dropped from 550 students to 167 students. In the 2020-2021 report, Tsai CITY records that the asynchronous format of several intensives, some of which included, “shipping ‘Idea Kit’ boxes” or “capturing live content and turning it into on-demand format” allowed for the intensives to reach “broader audiences.” 

While Tsai CITY offered both in-person and virtual formats for their events and workshops during their return to in-person programming, student advisory board co-chair Sandra Temgoua ’23 expressed some hesitation when it came to understanding whether students benefited from this open format. 

There were institutional and social hurdles, moving from online to in person, that slowed the general enthusiasm for the new building,” said Temgoua. “The staff had many conversations about different ways Tsai CITY could safely engage students during this time. What are people looking for? Is there a way that we can go to them? Or is there something that we can do for them to come to us?” 

Temgoua also suggested that the new location of the center increased the struggle of narrowing the focus of Tsai CITY’s enterprises last year. Claiming that the current building was and often is still treated as a library rather than a nucleus for student collaboration and discussion, she expressed her desire to continue outreach to sharpen students’ understanding of Tsai CITY and its offerings.  

While the report claims Tsai CITY’s mission is to “inspire students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines,” especially by offering five exclusive pathways for student entrepreneurs to do so, other members on the student advisory board said there remained uncertainty about which entrepreneurial students find Tsai CITY a welcoming space to begin their own ventures. 

“My sense is that there are a lot of entrepreneurial students I know that don’t engage with Tsai CITY,” Asthana said. “Tsai CITY manages probably the most stakeholders out of almost any institution on campus under a super broad mandate. But given the broad mandate, and the broad population, several possible avenues for growth with regards to serving certain stakeholders or certain types of students still exist.”  

Tsai CITY is open to all students Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.