From April 3 through 5, Yale student innovators joined investors, community leaders, and cross-sector practitioners at Startup Yale 2019. Over the course of the event, four student teams won Startup Yale prizes, Yale’s biggest entrepreneurship awards. Beyond these awards, a full lineup of events featured student pitches, expert perspectives, and thoughtful discussions on interdisciplinary innovation. Here are three themes we heard in these conversations.
If you don’t win a prize, it’s not the end of your venture.
Startup Yale’s signature events are the pitch-offs for the four Startup Yale prizes, which provide $15,000-$25,000 cash awards to teams. Over the course of Startup Yale’s three days, however, a chorus of voices emphasized that these prizes were just one marker of success — not the only path to success for a student startup. An April 4 panel, titled “I didn’t get, but I did it anyway,” tackled this head-on: the panel brought three alumni who had competed for — but not won — Startup Yale prizes back to campus to share their perspectives. Each of them has continued to work on their venture since graduating: Zoe Geller sells healthy, plant-based frozen foods through Zoni Foods; Sam Teicher is launching the world’s first land-based coral farm with Coral Vita; and Ben Young’s company, Hugo & Hoby, partners with local fabricators to make custom, sustainable furniture for commercial clients.
The panelists reflected on what they had learned by not winning prizes, and from other experiences like being passed over for selective opportunities or facing challenges raising funding. “You don’t need to win these prizes to have a great company,” Young noted. “[When you don’t win] you really ask yourself, ‘Am I motivated to really do this idea, even though I didn’t get the money?’” All three panelists underlined the importance of this internal motivation, particularly in the face of the challenges that any entrepreneur will face; for Geller, remembering her overarching vision — and seeing customers light up when they sample her product — helps propel her forward. For Teicher, the enormity of the problem he’s tackling keeps him going. “I get a lot of motivation from the fact that reefs are dying,” he said. “I don’t need any more motivation than that.”
As the panel wrapped up, the participants encouraged audience members to stay focused on their purpose — and to take advantage of Yale’s ecosystem of support for entrepreneurs, which extends far beyond the prizes. “The [ventures] that are successful are sometimes just the ones that survive,” said Young. “If you can have the patience and grit to just stay afloat…there’s an incredible network of people who want to support you.”
Firsthand understanding of the problem you’re working on is powerful.
“I look for the women who have gone out and created products for the problems that they’ve felt and haven’t found solutions for in the mainstream,” explained Alysia Nicely as she shared her experience launching Beauty in Color at the WE@Yale Summit, a Startup Yale event that this year focused on knowledge equity. Early in her career, Nicely worked in multicultural marketing at Target, helping the company better understand, reach, and serve broader audiences. “I brought my entire self to my work in multicultural marketing, and my lived experience was something I pulled on daily to do my job,” she noted, sharing how she had made her own beauty products as a kid and had often been frustrated by gaps in existing product lines. These days, Nicely runs Beauty in Color, which supports underrepresented entrepreneurs in the beauty industry — many of whom are creating the products they wished they could find in stores.
Over the course of the WE@Yale Summit, Nicely’s fellow panelists — Yale School of Medicine associate professor Chyrell Bellamy, VidaAfrolatina founder Lori Robinson, and Urban League of Southern Connecticut Vice President Virginia Spell — shared their perspectives on linking learned experience with lived experience, drawing from their work in fields from mental health to economic empowerment as they emphasized the importance of valuing and supporting leaders with lived experience.
Elsewhere at Startup Yale, innovators working in diverse fields shared personal connections to their projects and ventures. At the CITY Accelerator Pitch-Off, for example, Lolade Siyonbola told the audience about her experiences watching movies growing up and seeing a lack of access to stories from the African disapora. Driven by this experience, she and her sister hosted an informal Nollywood film festival for their friends and network; after successfully replicating this model in different formats, she’s now working to scale up through the venture she has co-founded, NOIR FEST. During the next day’s prize pitch-offs, Hand Me Up co-founder Melissa Mazzeo shared how her years spent working at her mom’s consignment shop had shaped her approach to building a platform for used children’s clothing, while OnTrack Rehab co-founder Brian Beitler explained that his motivation to develop a better tool for concussion diagnosis and rehabilitation stemmed in part from his own experience of the lingering effects of concussion.
Student innovators are hungry for meaningful, in-person connections.
A clear theme linking many of the pitches and conversations throughout Startup Yale was a hunger for meaningful connection. “We know that while millennials are distributed, they are connected,” said the Thinkspaces team, which is building a platform to facilitate team-forming and project collaboration, as they presented at the Accelerator pitch-off. “They are diverse, but they are collaborative.” This focus on connection was echoed at the Chun Challenge for Change pitch-off, as a number of Yale College student teams shared ideas for fostering more in-the-moment connection on Yale’s campus. Homecooked pitched a cross-disciplinary supper club, for example, while several teams proposed developing simple apps to schedule and facilitate in-person meetups with fellow Yalies.
This was a fitting theme, as Startup Yale brought together a diverse community to exchange ideas and connect over shared passions. Over the course of the event’s three days, participants took part in thoughtful conversations on inclusivity and impact, heard about exciting new ideas in fields from medicine to graphic design, and met fellow innovators from across and beyond campus. As this community gathered for a reception at the event’s conclusion, a loud buzz of conversation rose up — the sound of Yale’s vibrant, and ever-growing, innovation ecosystem.
By Laura Mitchell Tully