Y Combinator Reaches Farther Beyond Silicon Valley

Photographer: Guy Calaf/Bloomberg

Actor Ashton Kutcher, right, speaks with Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, in New York. Close

Actor Ashton Kutcher, right, speaks with Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, in New York.

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Photographer: Guy Calaf/Bloomberg

Actor Ashton Kutcher, right, speaks with Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, in New York.

You'd have a tough time coming up with a more Silicon Valley institution than Y Combinator. The technology business incubator is based in Mountain View, California — about a 25-minute bike ride from Google's headquarters — where hundreds of entrepreneurs apply to get help developing their websites, apps and gadgets. The speakers list looks like a selection of Crunchies award nominees: Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg, Marc Benioff, Marissa Mayer.

Recently, the incubator has been breaking out of its bubble. The upcoming group of Y Combinator members, known as the winter 2014 class, is the most geographically dispersed, according to Paul Graham, the program's co-founder.

The 70 or so startups expected to be admitted will have entrepreneurs from 22 countries. They hail from places such as Croatia, Denmark, Israel, South Korea, Switzerland and Turkey. While Graham says this is "probably the most international batch so far," he can't be sure because Y Combinator hasn't analyzed citizenship data for previous classes.

"The thing we noticed this batch was that the startups are from farther afield," Graham wrote in an e-mail. "Although we've had lots of foreign founders in the past, most have been from countries like Canada, England and Australia. This is the first time we've had groups from Romania, Bulgaria or Egypt."

As Y Combinator's makeup becomes increasingly global, the incubator must learn to help entrepreneurs face new challenges beyond digesting term sheets and designing "flat" interfaces that Jony Ive could be proud of. Y Combinator held an event on June 24 where executives from Airbnb and Dropbox discussed tips for working within the constraints of U.S. immigration laws, says Pete Koomen, one of the speakers at the event who co-founded Optimizely, which makes Web design tools.

"Most of the founders present had struggled with complicated and seemingly arbitrary rules around visas and hiring," Koomen says. "In an industry where more than half of new companies are founded by immigrants, this is insane."

The last Y Combinator class had a startup from Brazil called Glio. Previous ones have had entrepreneurs from China, Germany and Finland. Alexis Ohanian, an ambassador for Y Combinator who had developed the social-media site Reddit within the incubator, says more people around the world are catching onto the benefits of Y Combinator. Thanks to alumni such as Airbnb and Dropbox that have become global phenomena, the application pool has broadened, he says.

Ohanian also credits Kathrina Manalac, the new director of outreach who joined in September from Samsung Electronics, as a driver of Y Combinator’s more diverse winter class. The next batch will bring entrepreneurs from as far away as South Africa, Sudan and Oman, an Arab country with a smaller population than Los Angeles. Graham says Y Combinator wasn’t specifically looking outside Silicon Valley.

"I don't think it's important to foster talent outside the U.S., particularly," Graham says. "I think it's important to foster talent. It just happened that a lot of the most promising applicants were from other countries."

This doesn't come as much of a shock to Graham, who himself emigrated to the U.S. Don't let the neutral accent fool you. He's a Brit.

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