Tsai CITY opens doors for Yale students with curiosity and big ideas

During the early days of the pandemic, Sophia De Oliveira ’24 and her brother Nickolas came up with an idea. They devised an educational kit that could help children understand COVID-19 and how to stay safe. The kits — which included a story booklet, a lung model, and a stethoscope, among other instructional materials — were initially intended to help kids and parents in their home community in Wisconsin.

But suddenly they began to get a lot of attention. Orders started coming in from across the country, and media coverage brought even more interest.

I reached out to Tsai CITY to see if they had any advice on how to handle this type of traction,” said De Oliveira, who at the time was a first-year student. “Because we were just building these kits in our basement.”

Tsai CITY, or the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, is used to helping students with innovative solutions to real-world problems. Launched in 2017, it supports students, from those looking to take their company to the next level to those with of a whisper of an idea, at every stage of concept development, through programming, mentorship, and funding. There are also many programs at Tsai CITY for students who aren’t pursuing a particular idea but want to learn about what it means to think innovatively.

Sophia and Nickolas De Oliveira’s COVID-19 kit.
Sophia and Nickolas De Oliveira’s COVID-19 kit.

A lot has happened since Sophia and Nickolas De Oliveira first reached out to Tsai CITY. The siblings have participated in several Tsai CITY programs and have now launched Balma Health, a company that develops interactive, educational kits to help children understand their chronic illnesses.

The support we’ve received from Tsai CITY has allowed us to not only have a bigger impact,” said Sophia De Oliveira, “but to also have a more streamlined route to that impact that is helping us make that impact more quickly.”

That is exactly the point, said Clare Leinweber, executive director of Tsai CITY.

We want to inspire innovative thinking broadly,” she said. “For some students, that might be applied through entrepreneurship. For others, it might be through creative or civic engagement. And for those who are still exploring, we have programs for them too. Whichever innovation pathway students choose, our goal is to provide the resources and mentorship that will help them navigate it and support them as they move along it.”

Earlier this academic year, Tsai CITY officially opened its new building, located at 17 Prospect St., which includes a large, flexible workspace that can accommodate a variety of events as well as smaller meeting rooms and communal areas. While a planned public celebration in January became a smaller online ceremony due to the national rise in COVID-19 cases, it did not diminish the significance of the moment for the team that’s been building the program over the past five years.

Tsai CITY’s progress, marked by this milestone, embodies the growing importance of supporting entrepreneurship and innovation on campus. It’s an ethos championed throughout the Yale community, from the current students drawing on Tsai CITY’s resources, to university leaders — who recently hired a new senior associate provost focused on expanding entrepreneurship and innovation efforts — to alumni, like entrepreneur and Tsai CITY mentor Michael Lewittes ’89 who says initiatives like Tsai CITY are setting Yale apart.

A gift from the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation supported the launch of Tsai CITY and the construction of the new building. “There are two factors absolutely essential to innovation: diversity of experience and diversity of discipline,” said Joseph C. Tsai ’86 B.A., ’90 J.D. during the online celebration. “Tsai CITY’s mission reflects these priorities.”

Fostering innovative thinking

Students can take part in several types of programming at Tsai CITY. Events like innovator meetups and pitch slams bring together people with different ideas and experience levels or simply those seeking to build community. Workshops, like the innovator’s toolkit series, help students develop skills like brand strategy and legal protection. And semester-long intensives feature several educational sessions centered on a topic, such as product-development or global innovation. Each of these programs allows students to talk and collaborate, to develop and nurture ideas, and to learn from people with experience.

To help students navigate its offerings, the Tsai CITY team has designed five pathways geared toward different interests. The Explorer pathway, for example, is intended for students who are curious about new ways to solve problems but may not be currently developing a specific idea. The pathway — which points them toward the Student Exploration Fund, mentor office hours, and Tsai CITY’s community events — allows these students to engage in the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem and see how it might be useful in their academic pursuits and possibly their future careers.

Another pathway guides aspiring intrapreneurs, those interested in applying new ideas within an already established business or organization.

For students who have begun developing their own venture, Tsai CITY’s pathways direct them to three programs: Launch Pad, Accelerator, and the summer fellowship.

Launch Pad is intended for students at the earlier stages of development. It offers workshops, a portfolio manager to help develop and test the idea, and one-on-one sessions with experts.

The De Oliveiras completed both the Launch Pad program, which helped them shape what would become Balma Health, and the summer fellowship. The feedback they received helped them nail down their idea, identify a need in the marketplace, and determine how to enter the market with a compelling product. And it helped them realize how much potential their idea had.

Tsai CITY really helps you see that,” said Sophia De Oliveira.

Sam Kitara ’20 M.B.A., who co-founded the Yale Africa Startup Review, joined Tsai CITY as a portfolio manager during his second year at the Yale School of Management. In that role, he helped teams in the early stages of development, like those participating in Launch Pad, to structure their projects and connect them to the different resources Yale has to offer.

He describes it as an inspiring experience, and one with deep community connections. And that sense of community made the impact of his work as a portfolio manager flow both ways. “I definitely felt like I learned a lot more from the entrepreneurs I worked with than I gave to them,” he said.

Kitara now helps build that community, training new Tsai CITY portfolio managers and helping them think through how they can be useful to the students they work with.

For projects that are more developed, Tsai CITY offers the Accelerator. Along with access to workshops and experts, students in the Accelerator also receive a $2,000 grant and mentorship from an adviser. And while students who have gone through Tsai CITY’s programming say funding certainly helps, it’s this access to mentors that is most important to shaping and growing their ideas.

Rachel Laryea at Kelewele in Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market Hall
Rachel Laryea at Kelewele in Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market Hall (Photo by Caitlin Ochs)

Capital is great but thought leadership always matters way more when you’re in the throes of starting a business and trying to see it through to something significant,” said Rachel Laryea, a doctoral student in the Anthropology and African American Studies joint degree program who launched a food service company, called Kelewele, in 2018.

For Laryea, the venture was a lifetime in the making. The initial idea goes back to her love of Kelewele’s namesake — a popular plantain-based street food in Ghana, where her family is from. Once she began her socio-cultural anthropology studies at Yale, she started to think more about food as a way to contemplate culture.

She first encountered Tsai CITY at a mentor’s office hours, during which she learned about all of the different resources available. “And I just didn’t really believe it,” said Laryea. She later applied to the Accelerator program, and it was the expertise of her Accelerator mentors that helped her grow Kelewele to what it is today. “It has made all the difference,” she said.

Ben Christensen ’20 M.E.M. and Marisa Repka ’20 M.E.M., co-founders of Cambium Carbon, also completed the Accelerator program, and then the summer fellowship, while they were graduate students at the Yale School of the Environment (YSE). Their project aims to combat climate change and revitalize communities by reimagining the urban tree lifecycle. For instance, they’re helping to develop systems for processing fallen trees into higher-quality wood products that can subsidize future tree-planting efforts.

Early on, Christensen says, mentorship was critical. “Because you have no idea really what your actual idea is,” he said. “I don’t think we would be where we are today with our big ambitions without Tsai CITY.”

Cambium Carbon’s co-founding team, Theo Hooker, Marisa Repka, and Ben Christensen
Cambium Carbon’s co-founding team, Theo Hooker, Marisa Repka, and Ben Christensen.

For the Cambium Carbon team, the summer fellowship also was highly beneficial, Repka said. “It gave us the opportunity to dive in full time.” For the two YSE graduates, Cambium Carbon is now their full-time job, but they know Tsai CITY is still there to support them as they continue to build the company.

I never have any doubt that if there’s a question that comes up, Tsai CITY could match us to experts in that space to help us troubleshoot that problem,” Repka said.

Camele-Ann White ’03 first joined Tsai CITY as a mentor in 2018 and over the past few years has helped students with legal and business questions across several Tsai CITY programs. Working with students, she says, has become meaningful to her; in fact, sometimes it’s hard to not get excited about the work they’re doing.

It’s really just the infectious nature of entrepreneurship and feeling excited and invigorated by these students and the projects that they’re working on and the solutions they’re creating,” she said. “And as a woman, I love meeting all of these vibrant, brilliant young women who are forging their paths and bringing incredible products and ideas into the world.”

Laryea, the founder of Kelewele, participated in Tsai CITY’s 2021 summer fellowship after completing the Accelerator program. During the summer, she continued to build her venture with the help of mentors, training, and a $15,000 grant. Since launching the business, she and her team have done several pop-ups in New York City, established partnerships with a number of restaurants, begun a nationwide shipping option, and opened a shop in Brooklyn.

About the Tsai CITY team, Laryea said, “I sometimes wonder if they know how much of a difference they’re making.”

More to come

Tsai CITY is approaching its fifth year, a milestone the team hopes to celebrate this summer. So far, Tsai CITY and the community it has built have supported around 1,200 students per year and catalyzed over 400 projects, and Leinweber says they’re just getting started. Right now, the team is gearing up for this year’s Startup Yale, an annual event where students pitch ideas for a chance to win one of Yale’s biggest entrepreneurship awards.

Promoting student entrepreneurship and innovation is a university priority, and Josh Geballe, the new senior associate provost for entrepreneurship and innovation, aims to expand Yale’s ecosystem of entrepreneurship and innovative thinking. That will include working closely with Tsai CITY.

Yale has built tremendous momentum in integrating entrepreneurship and innovation into its resource offerings,” said Leinweber. “The recent appointment of Josh Geballe is further evidence of the university’s commitment to creating lasting impact by supporting student and faculty innovation.”

The community that Tsai CITY has created over the past few years is one of its greatest contributions, said White. For new entrepreneurs, starting a company “can be a very lonely road,” she said. Having access to that community while students are just beginning their journey makes such a difference. “I think it’s priceless,” she said. “It’s such a gift.”

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