The Women of Yale
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because an Ivy League degree is only as good as what you make of it.
CEO and co-founder of OZY
By Carlos Watson
With the Silicon Valley, and even San Francisco, enjoying a start-up boom and roaring resurgence, Stanford is back in the spotlight. From Cisco and Google to Instagram and LinkedIn, the geek squad at the “Harvard of the West” is emerging as the New York Yankees of the business world.
But a different trend in entrepreneurship is developing about 3,000 miles away. What Stanford is to classic tech entrepreneurship, Yale is becoming to social entrepreneurship. George W’s alma mater has become the ultimate training ground for innovative social entrepreneurs. If you want to find someone who is likely to help change the world, you would do just as well to look to New Haven as Palo Alto or Silicon Valley. And you would do even better to pay attention to Yale’s women.
What Stanford is to classic tech entrepreneurship, Yale is becoming to social entrepreneurship.
Yale College did not go co-ed until 1969, with Skull & Bones and other bastions of male elitism at the school waiting until the 1990s to get with the program. But today, Yale has a top-ranked program in social entrepreneurship, and most of the school’s most notable alumni practitioners are women. Following in the footsteps of Yale Law School grad Marian Wright Edelman, who founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973, these social entrepreneurs are applying their talents to difficult situations from health care (Louise Langheier, Barbara Bush and Jennifer Staple-Clark) and education (Dacia Toll, Jessica Pliska, Iris Chen) to poverty (Kirsten Lodal) and international development (Linda Rottenberg).
“A friend once asked me if there was ‘something in the water at Yale’ that helped to produce female social entrepreneurs, the way Stanford breeds tech entrepreneurs,” recalls Jessica Pliska, a Yale political science grad who co-founded the Opportunity Network back in 2002 to help high-performing, low-income high school students achieve college and career success. But while Pliska says that Yale students are “perhaps … more socially conscious than at peer schools,” she thinks that the real secret of Yale’s success lies in a number of other factors.
One factor is the growing network of social venture funds that have emerged to fund a new generation of social entrepreneurs — a network that Yale alumni, particularly females ones, are closely involved in. “You have investors who are just as serious about return on investment when they consider where to lend support to solve world problems,” says Pliska, which is one reason social entrepreneurship has “become a lot sexier,” and for a recent graduate, “It can feel just as ambitious to become a social entrepreneur as it does going into investment banking.”
Louise Langheier, a history major who co-founded Peer Health Exchange Inc. in 2003 to assist underfunded health education programs in the nation’s public high schools, agrees. She believes that today’s graduates “are asking more of their jobs than ever before, particularly when they have the privilege of having options for those jobs, which many Ivy League grads are lucky enough to have.” And these young people are thus drawn to social entrepreneurship because “they not only want a job; they want a job that they perceive as meaningful.”
But perhaps the greatest driver of Yale’s bold social endeavors is New Haven itself, “a community with incredible people and innovation happening with few resources and significant need” according to Langheier. And the heart of this effort, and part of the secret to Yale women’s social success, she says, is Dwight Hall, Yale’s public service center.
Dwight Hall, Langheier observes, “doesn’t approach New Haven as a learning opportunity alone, but rather tries to assess the needs of the community with community partners and in turn direct student energies towards them.” And because Dwight Hall is a student-run organization, it empowers students, even requires them “to learn how to lead in practical ways, not just academic ways,” a practice that Langheier claims ultimately “translates into social entrepreneurship.” And it is here at Dwight Hall, she says, that so many of the female social entrepreneurs from Yale cut their teeth and never looked back.
Does all of this rampant social entrepreneurship sound like it is getting a bit crazy or out of hand? Linda Rottenberg, a Yale Law grad and founder of Endeavor, which invests and mentors entrepreneurs in emerging markets, dispenses this advice to aspiring social entrepreneurs: You have to remember that “crazy is a compliment” and “if you’re not called crazy you’re probably not thinking big enough.” So who are the latest female social entrepreneurs to spring from New Haven? According to Pliska and Langheier, there are several, perhaps most notably Kanya Balakrishna, a 2009 Yale graduate with a degree in anthropology who co-founded the Future Project in 2011. Profiled in Forbes, The Atlantic and elsewhere, the Future Project is a social entrepreneurial engine dedicated to … spreading social entrepreneurship. In this case by inspiring high school students across the U.S. to mobilize behind their passions to build their own “Future Projects.”
And no one can accuse any of these Yale women of not thinking big enough.