“Make This Place Your Home:” Reflections from Three CITY Innovation Fellows
If you’ve taken part in a CITY program, joined us for a workshop or talk, or even just stopped by our office, you’ve likely met one of CITY’s Innovation Fellows. They’re recent graduates who bring fresh perspectives and experience from diverse fields to CITY, designing and leading programming and helping manage CITY operations.
This year, the CITY team included three fellows: Social Innovation Fellow Emma Funk, Innovation Fellow Nya Holder, and Environmental Innovation Fellow Sophie Janaskie (who split her time between CITY and one of our partner organizations, the Yale Center for Business and the Environment). As they each prepare to wrap up their fellowship, we talked to Emma, Nya, and Sophie about their experiences at CITY.
As a fellow at CITY, you’ve each helped build and run a diverse portfolio of programs, from one-off workshops to cohort-based programs like Intensives and Accelerators. What’s one program or project you’re particularly proud of? Why?
Nya: That’s a tough question. One cool thing about being a fellow was the fact that I got to work on and reimagine some of CITY’s core programs. I am particularly proud of the Accelerator that I co-lead with Emma. In the spring, we experimented with a retreat-style format rather than weekly sessions. We found that we really enjoyed bonding with the teams and creating the time and space for the content to sink in.
Emma: I’m also really proud of the Accelerator program that Nya and I co-ran this year. Like she says, this semester we totally reformatted it, from weekly sessions into three all-day retreats. We also redesigned a lot of workshops to be more interactive and tailored to the cohort as well as adding new content (business ethics, for example), and really prioritized building a community by creating opportunities for teams to interact and gain inspiration from each other.
One of those workshops, which I created with Kelly Wyche, one of our awesome Innovation Advisors, was a brand-new workshop on customer research. The session asked students to really question their assumptions about what they’re creating, through exercises that asked them to brainstorm other solutions to their core problem as well as other issues and opportunities that their innovation might create value for, and by starting to test their ideas through person-on-the-street interviews. It was so rewarding to see teams really engage with and explore those questions, and to later hear feedback about how that theme of questioning assumptions proved valuable for the development of their ventures.
Sophie: This year, we piloted a new CITY/CBEY joint program called the Climate Change Solutions Generator. This program, organized by Mikaela Bradbury, Cortney Ahern, Peter Boyd, and myself, grew out of last year’s “Net Zero Action Project.” The goal of the Generator was to bring together a passionate community of students from across campus to get inspired, build an innovation toolkit, and hatch a solution aimed at creating meaningful, positive impact in solving the global challenge of climate change. The vision was to provide an on-ramp to innovation for students who had a deep knowledge or passion for these issues, but did not yet have an idea for how to translate this into action or impact.
This was a new kind of programming aimed at the very early ideation stage. Though the emphasis was more on the innovation process than final outputs, the ideas that the teams presented at the end of the program were truly stellar! Seeing teams of students from all corners of campus coming together to form a community that was passionate and driven to make meaningful change in the climate change space was absolutely inspiring. It is my hope that the participants of the Generator will take these innovation skills and tools and apply them to their future endeavors.
Here at CITY, we think a lot about risk-taking, resilience, and making room for the unexpected — whether it’s a program that totally flops, a surprising piece of feedback, or a prototype that needs a few more iterations than you thought. What’s an unexpected lesson or insight you’ve gotten while at CITY?
Nya: While building and testing workshops, I focused a lot on the content and the key takeaways of the programs. I’ve realized that focusing on the experience and how that content is delivered is just as important for prepping.
Sophie: One of the best lessons I learned this year was the importance of remaining agile when piloting new programming. Nothing is ever perfect on the first try. Actively soliciting feedback from participants and quickly adjusting and responding to it led to some of the greatest improvements in the programs that I was a part of.
Emma: Part of my role at CITY has been to create and manage all of our data and evaluation systems, which includes gathering feedback about our programs and events. It was through this part of my work that I came upon one of my most surprising discoveries. We’d been asking folks who attended workshops to fill out online surveys, usually by emailing the survey to them after a session. For workshops of 15–30 people, I’d see a maximum of two responses, if any. In a conversation about how stumped I was by this challenge, Nya and CITY Innovator-in-Residence Baljeet Sandhu suggested using paper surveys, and asking folks to fill them out in person before they leave a session.
As counterintuitive as this was for all-digital me, I gave it a shot — to stunningly better results. We now see significantly more responses, and are able to gather so much more feedback that helps us evaluate and improve our programs. It was a great reminder that technology isn’t always the answer, and that sometimes something simple, and/or something analog, makes far more sense for the reality of the situation. I think of it as a reminder to always seek to better understand your customers or users, and maybe even more so, as a reminder to collaborate and ask others for help.
What advice would you give someone who’s new to the CITY community, whether they’re joining the team as a fellow, a new Yale student, or otherwise first exploring CITY and Yale’s innovation ecosystem?
Emma: Ask stupid questions, and don’t be afraid to be a complete beginner. During my time at CITY, I learned what a co-packer is (and what they do for food ventures), how “net-zero” approaches holistically consider the future, and what a blockchain is — all through being willing to admit that I had no idea what we were talking about. Broadly, embrace opportunities that are totally different from your background or your comfort zone; try fermented ice cream, experience a virtual reality environment, or hear a speaker from the world of fashion technology. Yale and CITY provide extraordinary opportunities to experience something totally new, that you didn’t even know existed — and those opportunities are worth taking advantage of.
Nya: Don’t be afraid to try your crazy ideas, but also be wary of overcommitting. FOMO is real, especially at a place that has so many incredible programs, speakers, workshops all the time! Make this place your home and take time to get to know everyone. Everyone at CITY is incredible!
Sophie: My main piece of advice would be to simply stop by and say hello! The CITY staff is incredibly welcoming and passionate about connecting students to Yale’s innovation ecosystem. Yale as a whole is home to an incredible amount of activities, resources, centers, and programs, which also means it can be a bit difficult to navigate. CITY can serve as a wonderful starting point to help you chart your path in innovation and entrepreneurship, whether or not you are actively working on an idea, and office hours with CITY staff are a fantastic, low-barrier way to start getting plugged into the community.