Changing the world, one Yale entrepreneur at a time

Kevin Ryan ’85 delivered the keynote address at the Yale alumni association’s annual assembly on Nov. 13, 2014. The assembly focused on “The Entrepreneurial Spirit at Yale.” A trustee of Yale University, Ryan is a leading Internet entrepreneur, having founded and run New York–based businesses such as Business Insider, MongoDB, Zola and GILT. He helped build the online advertising firm DoubleClick from 1996 to 2005, leading it from being a 20-person start-up to a publicly traded global leader with over 1,500 employees. He is now chair of GILT, an e-commerce company launched in 2007 which today has millions of members and a wide variety of product lines.
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Yale has fashioned a vibrant brand of entrepreneurship all its own, and the world is taking notice, tech titan and Yale Corporation member Kevin P. Ryan ’85 told the annual assembly of Yale alumni.

It’s a combination of passion and problem-solving that builds on Yale’s core values in providing a well-rounded education, Ryan said. That’s why the ranks of Yale entrepreneurs include both students and alumni in mid-career, he told the audience, noting that when Yalies see a problem, they have the confidence and skill to find answers.

“Entrepreneurs are changing the world and Yale is a big part of it,” Ryan said.

Read more about the AYA Assembly LXXIV

He talked about his own success story as a prime example. Ryan is the founder of GILT, the highly successful online retailer that has more than 9 million members. He also founded the Internet advertising company DoubleClick, the open-source database MongoDB, and the Internet wedding registry company Zola.

Ryan also serves on the board of Human Rights Watch and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Kevin is recognized as one of the leading Internet entrepreneurs in the United States,” said Jimmy Lu ’77, immediate past president of AYA’s board of governors. Lu said Ryan is “a true example of the consummate entrepreneur.”

But along with the rewards of entrepreneurship, there also are great risks, noted Ryan. In 2007, when he wanted to start an online financial and technology news site, people told him it was a terrible idea — pointing out that he had no background in journalism and no intention of advertising the site.

Yet this quarter, Ryan said, his Business Insider site will see a profit margin of 20%. The same thing is happening in all sectors, with outsiders disrupting everything from the travel industry and taxi services, to book buying and the auto industry, he added.

“I am seeing today, still, opportunities every day,” Ryan said. “The cool thing is, you can still start so many great things.”

Ryan said he often tells people that if they encounter a task on the Internet that takes longer than three minutes, “You should be thinking there may be an opportunity to start a company here.”

Another important component of entrepreneurial success, he noted, is the art of persuasion. Entrepreneurs must be able to persuade talented people to work for them and persuade investors to risk their money, Ryan said, noting that some of his most useful experiences for the business world came from running student organizations in college.

Because those groups were purely voluntary, he said, “You had to make it fun, make it interesting. You had to be selling it all the time.”

As for today’s campus environment, Ryan said, he would like to see more computer science and data analytics offerings, but not at the expense of liberal arts. He noted that 70% of Internet companies in New York City are started by people with liberal arts backgrounds.

He also pointed to the fact that Yale was hosting an alumni conference devoted to entrepreneurs as a sign of the times.

“Twenty years ago, this event couldn’t have happened,” Ryan said. “Now, we are being led by our students.”

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