Matt Gira is the Director of Student Programming at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY). Before working at Yale, Matt started Fathom Drones, an underwater drone exploration company backed by Techstars. I talked with Matt regarding how they think about student programming and running the Summer Fellowship.
- Tsai CITY designs programming to help students of all backgrounds and interests think innovatively. Rather than grade themselves on the number of venture-backed companies or VC dollars raised, they look at whether they are creating an inclusive space for all students at Yale interested in pursuing various types of businesses, whether a startup, small business, or non-profit.
- Tsai CITY provides grant funding in various forms: $500 - $2,000 to support students through its rolling fund for student exploration, student milestones, and to fill gaps in the ecosystem; $2,000 for its Accelerator program; $15,000 for its Summer Fellowship program; $10,000 - $25,000 for the Startup Yale pitch competition.
- The Summer Fellowship has produced several notable companies recently, including Banofi Leather, Chekhov’s Gum, and Studio Heartbreak. Matt and the Tsai CITY team are working to build out more relationships with sales partners and Yale alumni to help teams get traction quicker.
Kieran: Thanks, Matt, for joining me today. To kick us off, do you want to introduce yourself?
Matt: I’m Matt Gira. I’m the Director of Student Programming at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY).
Kieran: You joined Tsai CITY as an Innovation Fellow in September 2020. What’s the story behind that? What got you excited to work with Yale?
Matt: I joined Tsai CITY in 2020, at the pandemic’s peak. Before that, in 2015, I interned at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute (YEI), which turned into Tsai CITY. I was at the very bottom. I made sure all the lunches, food, and people were in the right places. However, that internship at their summer fellowship program helped me see what it was like to go through a big-time entrepreneurship program. I went to a tiny little school in Holland, Michigan, called Hope College. We didn’t have a similar program. After college, I worked on my startup. I went through Techstars, pitched to Draymond John, and did the whole VC model for a bit. We ended up shutting that company down. In 2020, I was considering several opportunities, and this Innovation Fellow opportunity at Yale popped up. It interested me because I wanted to get out of Michigan and be a part of a larger ecosystem. The Innovation Fellow role involved experimenting with new programming and helping with the venture development programs at Tsai CITY. So, I moved here, and that’s how I started.
Kieran: Tsai CITY is Yale’s entrepreneurship and innovation hub. The Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation and other Yale alums primarily fund it. Is there any other background information that’s important to know?
Matt: We are the student-focused center at Yale. We’re entirely open to entrepreneurship and innovation. Innovation is a little gray area, but you can think about it in our five pathways: entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, creatives, civic innovation, and explorer. We support a wide gamut of types of innovation.
– let’s start with questions around how you think about programming –
Kieran: What do you consider when designing and launching a new program?
Matt: One is student interest. Will this help them move forward, think innovatively, and learn something? We’re all co-curricular. It’s entirely optional for students to participate in our programming. At the same time, over 10% of students on campus engage with us somehow – whether they attend events or join our programs. So, when we’re designing programs, we are thinking about all these different things and see what would interest them. Sometimes, we have to pick our spots because there’s a wide variety. But, we really think about what are some of these critical gaps. So, for example, last year, we saw a gap with joiners, those who don’t have an idea but want to join a startup or be a part of the ecosystem, in terms of how they were applying to our student employment jobs and things like that. We designed and are implementing some new programming around that. So, we’ll use data and information from different parts of our center to identify these gaps. In terms of executing the new programming, we’ll test by first doing a workshop and seeing how that goes. If it goes well, we’ll do an intensive, which is a 4-6 week cohort-based program. Then, we can scale it up from there based on feedback. The other cool piece about Tsai CITY is our big focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Not only do we think about how to involve people of different races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds, but we also try to ensure every school and major at Yale is represented. We’ll see everything from first years in Yale College to a 5th year Ph.D. student engage in our programming. So, we design our programs with that in mind. I think by looking at student interest, DEI, and where the gaps are, we can continue to button up our programming.
Kieran: How does the Tsai Center measure the success of its programs?
Matt: There’s no singular metric that we’re trying to hit. DEI, of course, is something that we measure. Are we being inclusive? It’s a bit of a qualitative and quantitative feedback. I should note that if you want to see all of these metrics, we publish them in our annual report every year on the Tsai CITY website. Our 2023-2023 annual report was just released two weeks ago. So, check that out. You can see if we’re reaching all of the Yale schools and covering the different pathways. We don’t have to grade ourselves on whether these companies raise a billion dollars. If that happens, then great, but it’s not necessarily a success metric for us. For us, the general question is whether we helped students learn how to think innovatively.
Kieran: Do you raise new money each year for the grants awarded to students through the programs, or is everything stemming from original donations when Tsai CITY opened up?
Matt: It’s a recurring budget line item. There are three buckets of grant funding here at Tsai CITY. We don’t make any investments in companies. We have a rolling fund dedicated to student exploration, milestones, and ecosystem funds. We give up to anywhere from $500 - $2,000. The students applying to the student exploration fund have an idea and want to run an experiment to see what’s there. The milestone fund is for students to prove out their ideas further. The $2,000 may help them get over a hurdle. The student ecosystem fund supports students who want to run an event or create a new club with $500 to fill a gap in the ecosystem that they’ve identified. That is bucket one of funding at Tsai CITY, our rolling fund, and is open when classes are in session. We review these applications weekly. The second type of funding is for our cohort-based programs, mostly our venture development programs, including Launch Pad, the Accelerator, and the Summer Fellowship programs. Launch Pad doesn’t come with any funding attached. If you go through our Accelerator program during one of the semesters, you will receive $2,000 in funding once you complete it. It’s part of the programming. The Summer Fellowship is our most significant check. It comes with $15,000 in funding. Typically, these teams have 2-3 co-founders on them. So, I like to think about it as their summer internship to help get their venture to the point where they can go full-time or raise money or whatever success looks like for them. They get this check, money for swag, and all this mentorship. Like the Accelerator, money comes automatically for being part of the program and being an active participant. That would be our cohort-based programs. The third one is Startup Yale, our biggest pitch competition across Yale. Last year, we awarded over $175,000 in grants. I think we had nine prizes around things like healthcare, financial inclusion, or teams filling a gap in the ecosystem. We get an incredible variety of companies that pitch at Startup Yale. Those checks are $10,000 - $25,000, which are big chunks of change since they are grants and no strings are attached.
Kieran: How do you balance the different needs of students working on small businesses, startups, and non-profits within the same offerings?
Matt: The diversity at Tsai CITY is incredible. We get to see various venture types, from non-profits to startups, from people of unique backgrounds and expertise. However, it does create complexity within programs. We’re in a much better place than we were two years ago. It comes down to mentorship, programming, and filling needs as we go. In the early days, many ventures in Launch Pad and the Accelerator faced similar challenges. For example, you must still find an advisory board, get customers, and build products or services. I think where we see it differentiate is when we get to the Summer Fellowship or Startup Yale. These teams have completed the basics and need more expertise in specific domains to close more significant partnerships, etc. I think we can support them with that. We have a mentor network to pull from. We also connect them to people in different ecosystems. One of the cool things about being in New Haven is we’re 90 minutes from New York City and Boston. We have these two major tech ecosystems that are a short distance away. We can pull in speakers. So, we’ll help them with a lot of the foundational stuff and can bring in specific speakers and mentors to customize it for teams based on their needs.
Kieran: What are the biggest challenges you see students considering entrepreneurship at Yale face today, and how do you help them overcome them?
Matt: Funding is everyone’s major issue all the time. But, I think the thing that we’re seeing over and over again is the tech piece of it and developing those skills. The thing that I’ve been pushing for is to have an MVP that you’re willing to be embarrassed by. I think it’s hard to say I want to launch this MVP that’s not shiny or pretty. There’s a hesitancy around that, and encouraging students to do that is challenging. There are resources to do that, and there are different tools that are coming out all of the time. It’s been fantastic to see students learn some of these no-code tools and build prototypes with that and get funding and all of those opportunities. Another thing that we’re seeing as a problem is if a student doesn’t have any connections in the industry. If you’ve worked at a B2B company in an industry, you’ll develop connections that can help you when you’re building a startup. As a student, you don’t have that network. I think that’s something that we’re trying to think more about. How can we open these doors for students and help them get early traction? I think other accelerators have ways of doing that more effectively, and we’re trying to figure out what that looks like for us. I think the Yale ecosystem differs from other ecosystems in Boston and New York. We’re not MIT or Harvard. At Yale, we have our unique set of skills and ecosystem.
Kieran: What percentage of student founders that participate in programs with grants continue on their businesses after graduation?
Matt: I would say it’s about 50-50. I think it looks different for everyone. Some students will go get a job and still work on their business on the side. We’ve had some notable successes from the Summer Fellowship over the last few years. Banofi Leather just won the Hult Prize in Paris. Chekhov’s Gum just presented at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Studio Heartbreak just did a $400,000 Kickstarter campaign, and they are still in classes, which is crazy. So, we get to see some cool variety. The ultimate goal is can they do this venture after school in some capacity, or at least it fulfills what they wanted to get out of it. They all come in with different goals.
– now, let’s transition to questions to help students considering the Summer Fellowship –
Kieran: Can you give an overview of the admission process?
Matt: I start designing our Summer Fellowship Thanksgiving week. We typically kick off applications in January. It coincides with our Accelerator process. So, for teams that have gone through Accelerator or Launch Pad, it’s the same common application with a similar review process. You apply, we do interviews and then make a decision. We also give feedback to some students that they just need to complete a few things, and we’ll let them in. We’re always trying to open it up. By late March or early April, we have the Summer Fellowship participants confirmed. We usually start the Tuesday before Memorial Day, but this year, we’ll probably start a bit sooner. The first three weeks of the program are in person at Tsai CITY. We do an offsite retreat, and we’ll take them to the Yale Innovation Summit, where faculty and a lot of different innovations are on display. It’s a lot of workshops and programming during the first three weeks. I like to think about it as throwing the kitchen sink of resources at them. It’s a little bit overwhelming, but that’s on purpose, as I tell them. The goal of the first three weeks is to give them everything -- mentorship, people to meet, different strategies, set goals, and all these workshops. Students have a hallway of knowledge and resources they can go after. The rest of the summer is giving them time to knock on all of these doors, see what’s there, and use the resources. By the end of the summer, they can say we have a plan, we built some cool stuff, we did some cool stuff, and now we can take our venture to the next level. After the three weeks in person, the next five weeks are virtual. There is no programming during the five weeks remote. It’s just a weekly check-in. It’s time for them to work on stuff because they don’t get that time during the academic year. The last two weeks of the program are to come back in person. We do some more workshops based on their needs. We then typically do an NYU-Yale Pitchoff. Last year, we also took them to Boston for a big event. We try to get them in front of as many people as possible because they may have some traction from what they worked on this summer. We want to show them off so they can celebrate what they’ve accomplished, and it can also be a nice launchpad as they move on.
Kieran: What advice would you give students applying to the Summer Fellowship to help them stand out?
Matt: It’s an open rubric on our application. Really work through it. There are four different categories within our rubric - low barrier, high barrier, creative, and non-profit. Whatever criteria you fit within, pick that and score yourself with it. For example, if you’re a high barrier, do you have an advisory board? If you do have one, check. That’s two points. Regarding the number of points you need for the Summer Fellowship, aim for 10-11. We haven’t done this rubric for the Summer Fellowship yet, but that would be my guess for how many points you need. Aim for as many points as you can. We gamified the venture development piece because if you can hit the points on this rubric, then your venture will be developing.
Kieran: It sounds like a pretty objective process. If you have 30 companies with 12 points, how do you decide from there?
Matt: We’re trying to make it more objective so students know why they did or didn’t get in. We have some flexibility, too. We plan for 12-15 teams. By the time we go through the whole process, we get down to that. I think the cool part about Tsai CITY is we have flexibility with these things. We’ll find a way to support teams if they need these resources, even if they are too early for the program. We’ve done rolling mentorship. Our staff does office hours. We’ll connect them to help even if they are not in the program. We’ll refine as we go, and ultimately, it’s get the points. It’s not easy to do. It looks easy on a rubric, but getting active and paying users is much more complex than you may think.
Kieran: Who are some of the mentors involved with the program? How do you ensure they can provide quality feedback to the student founders?
Matt: Victor Padilla-Taylor, Director of Networks at Tsai CITY, does a really incredible job with mentorship and supporting students. He matches them and collects feedback. He does this mentorship training session. It’s one of the cooler sessions that I’ve seen, and I come away with something every time. It teaches students how to get something out of mentorship, and here’s what you should expect. He’ll train up mentors, too. There are feedback forms throughout the whole process. Sometimes, you get matched with a mentor, and it’s not the right fit. Victor has an excellent process to measure and track that. We can add mentorship and help figure out those dynamics as we go too. There’s a process for that with the rolling mentorship. The nice thing is that it’s one monthly meeting for three months. Even if it’s okay, it usually makes sense to keep going because maybe the second meeting is better than the first one. I think the processes that Victor has brought to coach everyone up and then really measure if it’s working are great. So, there’s rolling mentorship and thematic mentorship. Thematic mentorship is around specific needs like marketing help. That’s completely optional for students to sign up for. They can sign up for that through a Calendly link. Those meetings might grow into something more official, or it might not. So, there’s some mentorship that’s a little more consistent and has structure, and some aspects of it that are filling in gaps based on the needs of the students.
Kieran: How do you engage with and work with alums from the program?
Matt: The center is focused on current students. But we try our best to keep alumni engaged. One of the ways we’ve been doing that is we’ll reach out to them for Demo Day and have them do video intros for the teams pitching. They do a quick update on where they have been and almost welcome the teams from Summer Fellowship into this alumni group, which I think is cool. We’ll bring them in as speakers and mentors, and many of them help us review applications. Essentially, reviewers give feedback to teams, and is another fantastic way we try to keep them involved. As a center, we’re only six years old, so the alumni piece is pretty new, and I think we can keep growing that as a value to them to connect each other and bring them into the fold with programming to create a robust ecosystem even if they are not on campus.
Kieran: What are the biggest opportunities to improve the summer fellowship going forward?
Matt: I think going back to the previous point of how do we help them get more opportunities to get traction? That might be introducing them to more sales partners or from meetings with alums that could lead to sales opportunities. We need to continue to help them get traction faster and open up more doors. They still need to sell and be able to close those different partnerships and whatnot, but can we open up more opportunities for them? I think so.
Kieran: For people in the startup ecosystem, what’s the best way to get plugged in and help the student founders at Yale?
Matt: Go to our website. If you’re in the New Haven area, many of our events are open. Even if you’re not in the area, we also have virtual events you can participate in. They are student-focused events, but we’d love to have you there. If you’re looking to be a mentor, contact Victor Padilla-Taylor. His email is on the Tsai CITY website. We’re well-connected as a team, so if you contact anyone, we’ll find the right person on the team to help you get plugged in.