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Getting Down to Business at Yale

Along with almost 75 of her fellow students, Sara Kang is working the Tap Room at the Yale Club in New York City, networking as she hunts for entrepreneurial inspiration. "I'm trying to come up with a business plan," she says by way of explaining her trek to Manhattan and the 300-plus alums and business leaders on hand to advise and counsel entrants in the school's April competition, which invites students to come up with startup ideas.

While the 19-year-old economics major admits she and her friends will probably postpone entering Y50K -- the two-year-old, student-run competition -- while they continue to search for an idea that might just produce the perfect business plan, her enthusiasm speaks volumes about the entrepreneurial spirit that continues to blossom on the campus, even in the wake of the dot-com downtown.

THE IN CROWD. Although the Graduate School of Management is the university's only true business program, a club called Yale Entrepreneurial Society (YES) is attracting a devoted following. "There was definitely the perception that Yale didn't do entrepreneurship," explains founder Sean Glass, who has since left the school to concentrate on Higher One, the customized financial-services company catering to the higher-education market that he started last year.

With 500 student members, 300 alumni, and "assorted professors and random other" members -- non-Yalies are welcome as affiliate members -- YES is easily the school's most popular club. The group, which is funded by corporate donations, boasts more members than the Yale Political Union, the rugby club, or the Yale Film Society. "If YES didn't exist, it would be much more difficult for aspiring student entrepreneurs to succeed," says David Pozen, a junior and the current YES president. "A good amount of students just want to learn what a business plan is or what a venture capitalist is," he adds.

In April, for the second year, YES will disperse $100,000 worth of corporate-sponsored funds and services, such as free legal advice, to the student teams that have produced the Y50K competition's best business plans, as judged by a panel of venture capitalists. When the winners are announced on Apr. 14, a total of $30,000 will go to three for-profit business plans, with an additional $20,000 earmarked for the top three nonprofit business plans. To enter, teams need just one direct connection to Yale, be it a current student, administrator, or professor.

As of this year's Feb. 13 deadline for "executive summary" entries, YES had received business plans from 92 teams. Last year, 41 competed.

BEYOND BIZ MAJORS. The Yale network has helped attract guest speakers such as Michael Milken and Donna Dubinsky, founder of Palm and Handspring. In New York, Dev Bhatia, founder and CEO of Internet marketing firm Hotsocket, joined Henry Blodget, senior Internet and e-commerce analyst at Merrill Lynch, to discuss "Building after the Bubble." YES also offers workshops and networking events to students and alums looking for information about starting their own companies.

The mere fact that YES exists also indicates a trend that more traditional liberal arts institutions are noting: Students don't have to be business majors to take an active interest in entrepreneurship. "Most of the top 10 universities don't have business majors [for undergraduates]," explains Ronald Braeutigam, professor of economics at Northwestern University. "They recommend that you get an undergraduate degree in a fundamental discipline [such as economics], go off to work for a couple of years, and then come back to get an MBA."

Braeutigam leads his school's Business Institutions Program, which now graduates between 50 and 60 business minors every year, vs. around 10 in the early 1990s. "The demand was overwhelming," he says. The school may soon be hiring extra faculty, Braeutigam adds, and is adding new courses -- the mandatory final-year class for seniors, for example, that will be offered this March on startup ventures. As Braeutigam notes, when it comes to learning about business, "There's a lot of [undergraduate] interest here and around the country."

OBVIOUS ENTHUSIASM. Take Simmons College, a women's school in Massachusetts, where "parents are pushing students harder these days to [get exposure to other subjects] aside from English," says Susan D. Sampson, chairperson of the undergraduate management program. Or Georgia State University's business school, which says it's creating more programs in conjunction with the arts and sciences departments. The results, like the enthusiasm among students, is obvious: Last year, 544 liberal-arts students took B-school courses, vs. 393 in 1996.

YES also has prompted something of a review within Yale's B-school, which will launch an undergraduate course, Entrepreneurial Finance, in the fall of 2001. "We'll see what the reaction is," says Ivo Welch, the finance-and-economics professor who will teach the pilot course. The B-school also has established a $1.5 million venture-capital fund to support companies affiliated with Yale and/or New Haven, Conn., where the college is located.

While Yale is a good 80 miles from what's left of New York City's Silicon Alley -- not to mention an entire country removed from Silicon Valley -- graduates and Yale dropouts are having an impact on New Haven's business infrastructure. Last year alone, 10 student-connected companies opened their doors in town. "New Haven is trying to promote itself as a haven of change that's linked to the intellectual capital at Yale," Pozen says. Among the new companies in New Haven was the Y50K winner from 2000, Yellow Pen, a Web-based knowledge-management company. The company's co-founder, 27-year-old Steve Robinson, met his partners at a YES event.

"ALL ROSES." Despite the economic downturn, students act as if anything is possible. School of Management entrepreneurship Professor David M. Cromwell is active in YES and says he gets about five e-mails a week from students asking about business ideas -- people he wouldn't have heard from just five years ago. Factor in the students who stop him on campus to ask questions, and he has no doubt that a trend is afoot. Says Cromwell: "The overall change and the excitement of possibilities of college grads starting their business is multiples higher."

Is Yale changing? "Last year, school officials were scared that [YES] was in conflict with the school's general mission," says Pozen. "It's been all roses since then." He points out that Yale's undergraduate admissions brochure even mentions the organization.

Yale is still Yale. But it's clear that undergraduates are thinking beyond their liberal-arts majors -- and that could be good news for more than just the undergrads in New Haven. By Mica Schneider in New York

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