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Learning Entrepreneurial Skills at Yale SOM 

Yale SOM is a focal point for Yale’s thriving community of entrepreneurs, providing student founders with workspace, mentoring, and an array of classes—as well as a supportive group of peers. 

While Tejas Kataria ’18 was applying to MBA programs, he was also mulling over an idea for an analytics startup. A consultant who had worked with restaurants, he envisioned a venture that gathered data from restaurants and used it to help them plan staffing and food purchases using big data.

When he arrived at Yale, Kataria found a variety of resources for budding entrepreneurs, including a slate of classes at Yale SOM and the Tsai Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Yale’s startup accelerator, where he spent six weeks in a training program. But just as important was his network of classmates.

“Any resources they had in their professional network or connections they had in the restaurant space, they were able to connect me with them,” he says. “Any article they came across, or a job posting, they were happy to share. The community really helped me in that entrepreneurial journey.”

Kyle Jensen, Yale SOM’s associate dean and the Shanna and Eric Bass ’05 Director of Entrepreneurship, agrees that Yale SOM’s thriving entrepreneurial community, shaped by the school’s collaborative ethos, is a key benefit for student entrepreneurs.

“We have a have fantastic culture and that extends to entrepreneurship,” he says. “It creates a community of entrepreneurs that are supportive of each other and makes it a wonderful place to be an entrepreneur.”

Since 2014, Jensen has led Yale SOM’s efforts to teach entrepreneurship to students at the School of Management and across the Yale campus through the Program on Entrepreneurship. Those efforts include a growing slate of classes, mentorship for student founders, hosting of visiting speakers, and coordination with entrepreneurship programs across the campus, including the Tsai Center, known as Tsai CITY, the School of Public Health’s Innovate Health Yale, the Center for Biomedical Innovation and Technology, the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, and the annual Startup Yale pitch competition.

In total, Yale SOM offers about 20 classes in entrepreneurship, with additional classes in related fields available at SOM and at other Yale institutions, including the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the School of Engineering & Applied Sciences.

Jensen himself teaches Startup Founder Studies, which brings together a group of student entrepreneurs from across the Yale campus to meet weekly with visiting speakers who have experienced the highs and lows of starting their own companies.

On one level, says Kwasi Kyei ’18, the class is very structured, with each session devoted to a different point along the startup journey—“two and a half or three hours talking about exits, talking about customer discovery, talking about building a team.” But having set a theme, Jensen invites the students to guide the conversation, asking practical questions prompted by the challenges facing their own ventures. “We sit in a circle and we just talk,” Kyei says. “It will surprise you how many questions that 20 or 25 people have. It’s probably the best class I’ve had here to date.”

Jennifer McFadden ’08, Yale SOM’s associate director of entrepreneurship, teaches Startup Founders Practicum, a course for Yale SOM students actively working on new ventures. Using “lean startup” methodology, the course provides mentorship to students as they develop a project, raise investments, and build a team.

Some of the students in the course choose to pursue their startups full-time after graduation; others take more traditional MBA paths. But, McFadden says, they all benefit from the experience of learning entrepreneurial skills and creating a venture.

“We view entrepreneurship as student first, venture second,” she says. “Given how rapidly the world is changing, we think it is important for students to acquire a set of skills that will be useful whether they are launching their own ventures or trying to create impact within a larger organization. By taking an idea from concept to launch, students are able to apply the lessons learned in other Yale SOM courses and gain practical experience that will make them valuable change agents in the future.”

Each semester, Jensen notes, about 500 students take courses in entrepreneurship at Yale SOM. Only a handful of those will immediately launch their own companies.

“People might be an entrepreneur now,” he says. “They might be one later. They might run a small business. They might be entrepreneurial within a large organization. They might be starting a nonprofit.”

Yale is a liberal arts institution, he adds, training students not for a particular path but for a way of thinking on whatever path they take. “You don’t take a music class to be musician. You take it to be musical. You take an entrepreneurship class to be entrepreneurial, not necessarily to found a company.”

But a growing number of students are founding companies—and finding success.

For example, Chen Chen ’16 arrived at Yale SOM with a PhD in mechanical engineering and a goal of starting his own company. Two years later, after taking Startup Founders Practicum and spending a summer at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (the predecessor to Tsai CITY), he left with nearly $2 million in venture capital and grants for Saphlux, which makes high-efficiency, low-cost LED components using technology developed by a Yale engineering professor.

Chen attributes his company’s success to both the formal resources available at Yale and the support of the fellow entrepreneurs with whom he worked in Yale SOM’s Honest Tea Entrepreneurship Suite, which provides workspace to student ventures. “You have this community feeling,” he says.

He likens an entrepreneurial venture to paddling a small boat to a distant island. You paddle and paddle, he says, but never seem to get any closer to the island. Yet if you look back at the beach you left from, you can see how far you’ve come. “The journey will always go on,” Chen says. “Don’t look just at the outcome; look at what you’ve achieved compared to where you started.”

Many student ventures have a double bottom line, seeking to make a positive social or environmental impact as well as a profit—a focus that reflects Yale SOM’s mission to educate leaders for business and society. (Recently, the school announced the creation of a new lectureship in social entrepreneurship; the person who fills that role will teach and mentor students who are interested in building businesses and organizations that combine both purpose and profit.)

At a recent gathering of student and alumni entrepreneurs, for example, ventures in attendance included Triple Bottom Line Brewing Company, which aims to create good jobs in its Philadelphia neighborhood and support local farmers; Tuckerman & Co., which sells sustainably made dress shirts; and RxAll, which connects pharmaceutical companies with drugstores in Africa to help them avoid counterfeit drugs.

“SOM has been instrumental in helping us get off the ground,” says Tess Hart ’17 of Triple Bottom Line Brewing Company. “This business got started in Sharon Oster’s Nonprofit Management class. We had [associate director of entrepreneurship] Jen [McFadden] and Kyle [Jensen] to support us and help us build our financial model and our business plan, which has helped us get investor funds and apply for bank loans. The really big thing is that the community has supported us. That makes it a lot less intimidating to start something new.”

Nancy Pfund ’82, a founder of the impact venture firm DBL Partners and an early investor in such double-bottom-line companies as Tesla, Pandora, and Solar City, is co-chair of Yale SOM’s Entrepreneurship Advisory Board and has also funded summer internships for students who have taken positions with a social impact and entrepreneurial focus. Her interest in giving back stems from the fact that her own time at SOM sparked the direction of her career.

“The student body was more diverse and represented various sectors in a way that wasn’t as present at the time in other business schools,” she says. “I think that helped me as I went through my career to find a way to knit together business with impact.” And today, she adds, “Yale’s attention to entrepreneurship with a social-impact dimension is very much in tune with where the entrepreneurs of tomorrow are headed.”

And what about Tejas Kataria’s restaurant company? Shortly after arriving at Yale SOM, he created a protype product—called WorkerWhiz—and began testing it with restaurants in the New Haven area. He spent the summer of 2017 as an intern at an existing restaurant tech startup, which, he says, gave him more insight into the market for his product. During his second year at Yale, he’s refining the concept and pursuing software development resources to build a revised prototype.

He’s also taking Startup Founders Studies; meeting the visiting entrepreneurs in the class, he says, has provided him with both practical advice and larger lessons.

“I think one of the takeaways was, there are no shortcuts,” he says. “The startup journey can be really lonely, so find the mentors and the team members that can help you get there. It’s not easy, and it’s not as glamorous as it’s made out to be in the media. But it’s a very rewarding journey if you’re passionate about what you’re working on.”

More on Entrepreneurship at Yale SOM

Video: Arix Technologies
Dianna Liu ’18 is building pipe-crawling robots to tackle corrosion in the energy industry.

Meet Yale SOM Student and Alumni Startups
The Yale SOM Venture Showcase highlighted dozens of startups from recent alumni and current students in industries including food service, home living, technology, and healthcare. 

New Lectureship to Bolster Social Entrepreneurship Education
A new lectureship in social entrepreneurship at the Yale School of Management will expand the school’s support for students interested in creating businesses that strive to create social impact and systemic change.

Webinar: How Does an Idea Become a Startup?
A practical discussion on building a venture with Jennifer McFadden ’08, Yale SOM’s associate director of entrepreneurship, and Brad Hargreaves, founder of General Assembly and Common and a 2008 graduate of Yale College.