Building the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

FedEx. 23andMe. Rent The Runway. One Medical. MongoDB. Pinterest. All founded by Yale alumni, they represent a small sampling of the companies that have sprung out of the Yale ecosystem, a cohort of passionate and increasingly public entrepreneurs. It was not always this way, but thanks to the gift of Joe Tsai ‘86, ’90 JD to establish the Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY) and the recent reorganization of Yale Ventures with the hire of Josh Geballe ‘87, ’02 MBA, it is ramping up.

The energy on campus around innovation and entrepreneurship is a welcome change for the founders of Accelerate Yale and Yale Angels, who include Chris Brady ’05, Sam Hendel ’03, and Adam Brenner ’05. “When I was at Yale, virtually no one talked about starting a company or going into venture capital,” says Brady. 

After graduating, all three found their way into the venture industry, albeit through different paths: Brady briefly worked at a military R&D center before raising an $80m venture fund to invest in defense technology; Hendel co-founded Dataminr, now a unicorn, with two of his Yale roommates and is an active Angel; Brenner established himself as a prominent startup lawyer, currently a Partner at DLA Piper.

The three reconnected after a few years and concluded the Yale entrepreneurial community was much larger than anyone realized. They saw an opportunity to tell the story of entrepreneurship at Yale by bringing together the community -- connecting alumni, the university and students around shared interests.

Accelerate Yale was born in 2016 in New York City, starting out as a series of networking cocktail parties. The events provided a forum for alumni to meet other Yalies in the startup world, and the enthusiasm at each event was palpable.

“We wanted to build an ecosystem of entrepreneurship within the Yale community. Our vision was to connect Yale alumni founders with students and build from there,” said Brenner.

By 2019, the membership had grown to 250 people. The launch of Yale Angels in late 2019, held at Kevin Ryan ‘85 backed coworking space, Company, in Manhattan and organized by leadership team member Grace Hsieh ’07, again expanded the community to an astounding 900 members.

That event featured a keynote by David Rose ’79, Founder of New York Angels. It also showcased a panel of Yale alumni founders who are angel investors, including Tom Lee ‘90 (One Medical, Galileo), Jenny Fleiss ’05 (Rent the Runway, Jet Black, Volition Capital), and Matthew Brimer ’09 (General Assembly, The Fund). Alumni and students traveled from throughout the tri-state area to celebrate the launch and network with each other across years, industries, and interests.

Hendel said, “After a few years, we saw the need for Yale founders to connect with investors in the Yale community. While Yale Angels is not a fund, we aim to serve as a connection point between founders and investors.” And now Yale Angels counts the Y Startup Index, which provides capital to qualified Yale startups (while donating carry back to Yale), as another partner and new player in the ecosystem.

The pandemic marked another period of significant growth for Accelerate Yale and Yale Angels, adding more diverse leadership team members and student interns, as well as launching a series of webinars, featuring founders and innovators from across the Yale ecosystem. 

To date, the team has hosted more than 40 virtual fireside chats with innovators from around the world, including Jeff Hoffman ’83 of Priceline; Ann Miura-Ko ’98 of Floodgate; Jen Fong ’96 of Reddit; and Justin Borgman ’11 MBA of Starburst. Replays of all events can be found on the Accelerate Yale YouTube channel.

Part of Accelerate Yale’s ecosystem-building strategy includes active partnerships with a number of entities on campus, such as Tsai CITY, Yale Ventures, Yale Law School, and the Yale Entrepreneurial Society (YES). When promoting events, Accelerate Yale casts a wide net and reaches out for co-sponsorship to Yale Alumni Association Shared Interest Groups, such as the Yale Black Alumni Association, YaleWomen, 1stGen Yale, the Yale Latino Alumni Network, and Yale Blue Green, among others.

The Yale Office of Development has also served as a steady partner and significant supporter over the years. 

Finally, corporate players such as DLA Piper and Newfront Insurance have played a role as well, hosting event space and contributing sponsorships to the organization.

Those partnerships have paid off. Today, Accelerate Yale counts more than 6,000 Yale alumni, students, and friends as part of its mailing list.

With all of this momentum, Yale Angels decided to initiate a virtual pitch competition in 2021 with cash prizes.

The inaugural competition, held in February of 2021, focused on underrepresented founders with a cash prize of $5,000 for the winner. The second competition, hosted in October of 2021, invited female and underrepresented founders to compete for a cash prize of $10,000. The most recent competition in June of 2022, invited all founders in the Yale community -- from current Yale College students to alumni -- and offered a total of $15,000 in cash prizes to the winner and runner-up. Finalists in all three competitions received high-value pro bono services from Yale alumni with expertise in growth marketing, fundraising, and pitching. 

screenshot“The pitch competitions are an amazing opportunity to see innovation bubbling up in the Yale community,” said Wendy Maldonado D’Amico ’93, Director of Accelerate Yale and Yale Angels. “We received so many high-quality submissions with each competition. We are grateful to all of our volunteer reviewers, judges, teammates, and sponsors who made these competitions possible.”

Accelerate Yale and Yale Angels are 501c3 volunteer-led organizations and rely on the energy and time of its leadership team members and supporters to keep going. “We’re finally seeing real energy coalesce around entrepreneurship at Yale, and we plan to continue to be an integral player in the work of building the ecosystem along with Yale Ventures, Tsai CITY, and the Yale Entrepreneurial Society,” said Hendel. 

To learn about future in-person and virtual events, you can subscribe to the Accelerate Yale mailing list here. Follow Accelerate Yale on LinkedIn, subscribe to the Accelerate Yale YouTube channel, and join the private Accelerate Yale Facebook group here. Shape the future of entrepreneurship at Yale by volunteering — contact Accelerate Yale if you would like to get involved and find out how you can support these programs.

Accelerate Yale is a global community of diverse alumni and friends of Yale who are engaged in innovation, tech, and entrepreneurship. Its mission is to cultivate an active, inclusive ecosystem that thoughtfully promotes meaningful connections and collaborations, while also serving as a bridge between alumni and Yale students.