Follow me

How universities can help students and alumni work in the tech industry

“CEO is the new Analyst.”

My former Partner John Frankel of ff Venture Capital observes that 20 years ago, the defining movie of the generation was “Wall Street”.  Everyone wanted to work in finance. But now, the defining movie of today’s twentysomethings is “The Social Network”. Everyone wants to work in tech startups.  

So universities have realized that for many students, promising a career in technology and entrepreneurship is key to recruiting high potential students.  Universities are figuring out that if they support their students’ entrepreneurial aspirations, it will also more broadly help to drive innovation and prosperity.  This is a topic I care a lot about, given my long-term strategy for partnering with universities and my forthcoming book on “hacking the university”.

Universities are trying to figure out the best levers to support their students, alums, and faculty.  Along with some friends from Yale (my alma mater), I recently brainstormed some ideas to accelerate a university’s campus tech community.  Yale has had such noteable alumni successes as Alibaba (Joe Tsai, mentioned below), Business Insider, Dataminr, MongoDB, Pinterest, Twitch, Zola, and many others.

I’ve listed the most common levers that universities use below, with some live examples from Yale:

Strong technical departments: Computer Science, Math, Physics

Teaching and research on entrepreneurship: SOM’s Program on Entrepreneurship, Kyle Jensen’s courses

Specialized alumni tech networks: Accelerate Yale (which had merged into it YaleFintech and Yale Tech), Yale Science & Engineering Association

Innovation centers: Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY), Yale Entrepreneurial Society

Competitions: YHack, Yale Venture Challenge, $25K Entrepreneurship Prize, Venture Clash at Yale SOM; NYU vs. Yale Pitch Event; Yale vs Harvard Pitch Event, Startup Yale

Mentorship programs: Association of Yale Alumni Mentorship Program, Yale Office of Career Strategy Workshops

Dedicated funding: Yale Center for Business and Environment Grants, InnovateHealth Yale Prizes, Blavatnik Fund for Innovation; YEI Innovation Fund

Accelerators & Fellowships: CITY Accelerators, Social Innovation Lab, Yale Center for Engineering Innovation & Design Fellowship; Yale Canaan Fellowship

Events and Conferences: Yale Innovation Summit, Yale Cyber Leadership Forum, Yale Alumni Nonprofit Alliance (with focus on innovation)

Marketing of tech community: Yale Tech News, Yale Entrepreneurship Magazine

Access to University’s Intellectual Property: Office of Cooperative Research

Angel and VC Investment: Many alumni Yalies in institutional VCs; a very partial list includes Bessemer Venture Partners, Betaworks, HOF Capital, Floodgate, Proton Enterprises, RibbitCapital,, Village Capital.  A few funds focus specifically on Yalies in different ways, e.g., Bulldog Innovation Group, Blue Ivy Ventures, Elm Street Ventures, Dorm Room Fund.

The launch of the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking is particularly exciting (courtesy of Joe and Clara Tsai).  That said, there’s still a lot of work to be done for Yale to be as attractive as Stanford for students interested in tech and entrepreneurship.  

Most universities have unique selling points, typically among the reasons why students chose a particular school.  Those unique assets are sometimes leverageable into a resource for strengthening the university’s tech community.  For Yale in particular, I suggest its most relevant strengths include:

  • Cross-disciplinary innovation.  Some of the greatest areas of innovation opportunity are at the intersection of sectors historically segregated, e.g., computational biology. Yale has strong schools in almost every major academic discipline, all located in one small area. As President Salovey said, “The [new] Schwarzman Center will build on … the communities ​within each of our schools and departments to inspire engagement in ways we can only begin to imagine.”  Many universities (University of Washington, NYU, etc.) have mounted formal efforts to promote interdisciplinary innovation.   For instance, Columbia has launched a variety of explicitly interdisciplinary centers in recent years, including the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, Columbia Data Science Institute;  the Brown Institute for Media Innovation; or cross-school courses such as Columbia Business and Engineering’s Research to Revenue course.  
  • Political science, government service, and law — Yale has the #1 rated law school in the US and a long history of alumni serving in government.  These could be translated into research programs focused on topical regulatory issues related to emerging technologies.  For example, Yale could launch a center focused on applying political science thinking to the governance of major internet businesses (e.g., the world’s largest country, Facebook).  Or Yale could develop a legaltech incubation program and to help improve lawyers’ productivity, a profession whose primary tech tool is Microsoft Word.
  • Strong Asian ties, especially to China — Yale has among the strongest ties to China of any major Western university, matriculating its first Chinese student in 1854.  There are currently over 1,000 Chinese students and scholars at Yale. Yale is unusual in offering need-blind admissions to international students.  In 2011, Yale launched Yale-NUS, a sister university based in Singapore. Yale is uniquely positioned to offer an exchange of talent and opportunity between the Asian and American tech scenes. For example, when Asian tech companies expand to the US, Yale can position itself as the preferred provider of local talent. See Why Venture Capitalists Are Investing in International Startups.
  • Density – Yale’s campus is dense by design. Its residential colleges are designed to cross-fertilize students and faculty from different disciplines. Proximity drives spontaneous interaction and frequency of the exchange of ideas.
  • Room to expand, particularly in life sciences – Most noteably, a few years ago Yale purchased 136 acres and 17 buildings to make Yale West Campus, formerly the Bayer Pharmaceutical campus. This offers ample space for corporate partners to grow nearby with connectivity to NYC and many potential employees/interns from Yale.
  • Drama and arts — Many of the humanities programs that Yale is renowned for will become increasingly relevant in the tech world. Yale has one of the best drama programs in the world. The same can be said in fine arts, where USNews ranks Yale first. The video game and Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality industry actively hire for people with design, screenwriting, and other visual arts skills.  Some AI companies hire people with comedy-writing and script writing experience. Research on high-performing cultures (e.g., The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle) use improvisation as a model for improving collaboration in small teams; Yale has one of the strongest improv communities of any major university.
  • Economics — Yale currently shares the #1 spot in graduate Economics programs ranking.  Companies in certain sectors (e.g., blockchain, persistent world video games) require team members with strong economics foundations.   Training in big data/statistics is highly valued by many companies.
  • Psychology — Yale’s graduate Psychology program is currently #3 in the country. Psychology has increasingly become a focus of the tech industry, particularly as AI practitioners attempt to expand their opportunity set. Yale’s new Cognitive Science Program combines multiple fields (Computer Science, Biology, etc.) to better understand cognitive processes.
  • Healthcare, biology and chemistry — Consistently ranked among the top programs for these fields, Yale could pursue the creation of other initiatives focused on bioinformatics or biotechnology.  Yale-New Haven Hospital, Yale Medical School, and their associated institutions are among the country’s leaders. Yale’s InnovateHealth and Innovation to Impact initiatives are good examples.
  • Top history program — The History program is the largest undergraduate major and shares the top rank for best graduate History department in the country. It’s been popular recently to challenge those studying the humanities, like English or History majors, for their apparent lack of employability in an increasingly tech-focused job market; yet tech is in dire need of humanities majors in a number of roles. History majors are trained to help tell truth from fiction, a skill the tech industry needs to master. Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield cites his background in the history of science as helping him realize “the ways that everyone believes something is true … until they realized that it wasn’t true,” a powerful context to have whenever pursuing a truly disruptive venture.
  • Forestry and environmental science — Yale has a long history of environmental studies.  There are already a number of prizes and grants to fund initiatives in sustainable tech under the Yale Center for Business and Environment umbrella.
  • Statistics and data science — Yale’s new addition of Data Science to their Statistics major makes them one of the few top universities with a dedicated undergraduate major with a Data Science focus. I’m an investor in a data science company which says their #1 pain point is hiring enough people with the right skill sets.
  • Yale sports — Yale Men’s Lacrosse won the National Championship; Yale Football won the Ivy League with a resounding win over Harvard; Yale Crew won two national championships in 2018. Yale has 32 other varsity sports teams. This provides ample opportunity for partnerships with the School of Medicine for sports medicine programs, as well as initiatives in sports wearables, fitness tracking, nutrition, sports analytics, and other exciting spaces.

So what else can Yale and other universities do?  My friends and I brainstormed some ideas, listed below.  

  • Match students with relevant startup internships.  Students have three main options if interested in tech entrepreneurship: VC (a tiny industry, extremely difficult to enter); major tech companies (only a small number of them, and limited job openings), and startups (huge appetite for interns, but enormous variance in the quality of your internship). The problem with interning at startups is that it’s hard to tell which ones are worth your time.   Students typically use internship search sites like AngelList, Internships.com, and Experience.com; Yale uses an internal job board powered by Symplicity. All of these sites suffer from two conflict of interest problems: a) all jobs must be manually posted by companies, decimating the opportunity set; and b) it is hard to filter for which internships offer greatest professional growth. You’re not normally going to get either branding or or much training working for a 5-person startup with an inexperienced CEO and a virtual office.  

    For our origination purposes, we have developed an in-house scraper which pulls multiple data sources to identify startups that meet certain criteria, such as a founding team with high-caliber work or educational experience.  It would be ideal if Yale built a similar tool which allowed students to filter for companies with a) quality teams, b) >10 employees, c) backed by a credible VC, and d) (optional) a Yale cofounder.
  • Creating a for-profit business with the goal of helping students conduct research projects for businesses, so that they’re more connected with potential employers.  I wrote a blog post on this.  The vision is to connect students doing research with businesses that may find that research productive, likely most applicable to MBA students but could go beyond that. The University of Chicago runs micro-internships for this purpose. Companies that are currently pursuing similar products include 10eqs (connecting experts with applicable research projects); Article One (patent and IP research); Experts 123 (expert articles with revenue sharing); and Wonder (connect people to company research questions; I’m an investor via ff Venture Capital).  None of these focus on high-quality research from university students. Additionally, the research projects on those  sites are more often than not smaller questions concerning market analyses or things of that ilk, and are essentially ways to outsource work rather than conduct truly important research that could potentially be published. Other institutions such as Stanford and Columbia have launched “Hacking for XYZ” courses such as Hacking for Defense at Harvard and Hacking for Energy at Columbia, which pair student teams with government and industry organizations who have problems needing to be solved.  
  • Zoom in on a growth sector and take leadership there. For example, Yale’s Quantum Computing Institute is home to leading researchers such as Robert J. Schoelkopf and the birthplace of such quantum computing startups as Rigetti ($120M funding to date) and Quantum Circuits ($18M funding to date). There are other growth sectors which might benefit from this level of focus.
  • Incubate non-Yalies. In 2016, ff Venture Capital partnered with the NYU Future Labs to be the venture partner for the AI NexusLab, a program focused on accelerating AI-related startups, which to our surprise we discovered was the first such partnership between a VC and a university.  One of the unique provisions of that program was that it was open to people without any NYU affiliation; they just had to work physically at the NYU Future Labs.  NYU was smart enough to know that even someone who didn’t get a degree from NYU will benefit the NYU community, and NYU will benefit from their presence, if they are physically on campus.  It’s a cliche that one of the most important benefits of attending an elite university is the network. NYU just widened the door for more people to benefit from and contribute to their network, at nominal cost. Another example is PowerBridgeNY, a NYSERDA-funded energy startup accelerator run jointly with Columbia, NYU, Cornell Tech, Stony Brook, and CUNY.  I suggest Yale and others consider a similar model.  (Kudos to my former colleague Ryan Armbrust on leading the ffVC-NYU initiative.)
  • Better connect the community. According to some current undergraduates, Yale’s tech community is fragmented and has limited connection to the broader university or its students. Organizations like Accelerate Yale and Columbia Entrepreneurship have made important strides in bringing different university tech groups under one umbrella and hosting high-quality events in.  It’s important moving forward that they expand their reach to other regions (particularly Silicon Valley) .
  • Create a Yale-affiliated angel group, under the university’s official auspices.  A great way to engage alumni interested in tech is by creating an angel investment group affiliated with the university. That way, alumni can stay involved with the university, interact with frontier tech, collaborate with each other, and have the opportunity to invest in school-affiliated and non-school-affiliated startups. Harvard Business School Alumni Angels could potentially be a good model to follow.  For more on what we built at HBS Alumni Angels of NY, see HBS Alumni Angels NY Accomplishments to Date.  These will inevitably have tighter ties with the university than the private, for-profit similar initiatives, e.g., those backed by Alumni Ventures Group.
  • Educate more alumni angel investors.  At Harvard Business School Alumni Angels of NY, we’ve seen enormous appetite for angel education among high net worths and family offices.  We have evolved into an educational organization, holding investor education events in New Jersey, NY, Florida, Connecticut, Toronto, and San Francisco, as well as many webinars.  You can see content & video from one of our educational programs for new angels here.    Yale could hold similar programs, perhaps tied to reunion.  This accomplishes several overlapping goals: increase alumni engagement with Yale; increase capital flow to Yale-affiliated startups; and increased exposure to potential mentors.
  • Tap the broader Yale community efficiently by enriching the university’s database.  Almost every investor in private companies likes to market the “community” they’ve built around their firm.  Yale has a far larger, more powerful, and more affiliated community than any one firm, yet doesn’t take full advantage of this community.  For example, Yale could identify and market all the different mechanisms that alums could use to interact with and even get paid by Yale-affiliated companies; use advocate management software (e.g., Influitive) to encourage alums to engage with Yale-affiliated startups; annually solicit alums to update their online profiles, including such important data points as their interest in angel investing or their industry — both of which typically change a lot during an alum’s career. 
  • Run data-informed instant mentoring.  Yale could market to alumni the chance to spend a day meeting with students who share their interests.  This would cost almost nothing to organize, just one staff person’s time to coordinate. Yale could sends out the alum’s bio to all students interested in being mentored, and students could sign up for a 20 minute slot.  Yale could do this for all speakers invited to campus, allowing students to reap more value from the fact that a given alum is on campus. Virtually every alum (including the non-celebrities) can be connected with a group of current students who would be excited to meet that alum.  For example, a tech club might invite a prominent executive to speak on campus, who happens to be a woman and a Latina. Today, the various womens’ groups and Latino student groups would not have any idea in advance that she’s on campus. By sending them a notification, they could be invited to cosponsor the occasion, and that will increase both the alum’s benefit from appearing on campus and also the Yale community’s benefit. 
  • Create a gated Founder community.  Tsai CITY could sponsor an online community of aspiring tech founders within the university so that they could learn from and support each other.  This would need to be gated, to ensure that only students who are seriously pursuing launching a company join. A potential model is the Columbia Venture Community.
  • Market the tech community. Yale is perceived as a less successful innovation hub than it actually is, because the school historically has not positioned itself as a tech hub.  Alumni successes could be brought to campus for recruiting, talks, and seminars. There could be periodic newsletters sent out focused on the intersection of Yale and tech to keep alumni and students updated. Prospective students should know of the amazing companies that Yale has produced, just as they all know that among Yale alumni are such prominent non-tech leaders as George Bush, Meryl Streep, Paul Krugman, Jodie Foster, Fareed Zakaria, Maya Lin, Samantha Power, Sonia Sotomayor, Tom Wolfe, Eli Whitney, and the Clintons.  James Murphy, Yale ‘11 and a venture developer, observed, “At a recent Accelerate Yale event, we served only food and beverage products from companies run by Yalies; it was a small way to celebrate what others in our community are building!”  

Gregory W. Piasecki, Yale ‘92 and an entrepreneur/investor, observed, “We should also consider how universities sometimes inhibit the development of their tech community.  Some of the factors that I have seen as restrictions are:

1)     high fixed cost of negotiating tech transfer agreements;

2)     doctrinal, inflexible course requirements;

3)     (perceived) high crime rates reducing ease of movement across campus, especially for women;

4)     disdain for practical arts, e.g., computer science tends to get a lot more attention than mechanical engineering;

5)     lack of flexible space for students;

6)     social retaliation for questioning or challenging commonly held ideas;

7)     academic silos;

8)     ideological monoculture—for example, Yale ranked 26th on the Heterodox Academies’ ranking of the top 150 Universities’ climate for the diversity of its ideology.”

With Yale as an example, we can identify initiatives that can translate to most any university. Most important is to connect the parts of the startup process that universities have access to and that are likely fragmented right now: founders, mentors, accelerators, and funding. All of the components above want to connect to the others, but benefit from the university’s help to do so. Then, for differentiation, it’s important to play to your strengths; take whatever expertise or characteristic which sets your  university apart and establish yourself as the leaders in producing research and companies within that niche. Finally, provide tools that will connect interested students to each other, to startups, and to learning opportunities, to lower the informational barriers to founding. As our economy increasingly migrates towards tech, this is what universities must be thinking about to stay relevant and useful for its students and alumni.

For further reading:

A Holistic Approach to Interdisciplinary Innovation Supported by a Simple Tool

Entrepreneurship the Princeton Way

The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University

A Guiding Framework for Entrepreneurial Universities

Thanks to Cristobal Gonzalez, Yale ‘20 and HOF Capital former intern, for great help in researching this, and to Kyle Jensen, Erika Smith, Dan Delmar, Orin Herskowitz, Mae Yuan, and others for helpful input.  

 

Subscribe to my newsletter