P.C. - U

How Wesleyan’s Counter Culture Came To Rule New York’s Tech Scene

The crowd settled to a dull murmur as Wesleyan president Michael Roth stood in the center of the room. A former professor known for his jazz piano skills and formidably tight jeans, he was making his first foray to the tech event . “All across this country, the notion of a liberal arts education is under attack,” Mr. Roth declared. “But looking around this room tonight it’s clear to me that the skills we teach are becoming increasingly relevant in the digital age.”

Digital Wesleyan was not, of course, started as an networking effort on the part of the university. “This isn’t Harvard or Stanford—we’re actually really bad at organizing these kinds of alumni events,” Mr. Borthwick noted. “But the young Wesleyan people in tech, they’re popping up fucking everywhere.”

The events were in fact the initiative of a young graduate named Jake Levine. Betabeat found him huddled with Union Square’s Brad Burnham, debating the best way to keep the Internet free from corporate interference.

“It’s not always in the interest of the incumbent players to innovate,” Mr. Burnham explained. It’s a topic he knows firsthand, having begun his career at AT&T, a company notorious for eating its young when it comes to disruptive technologies. There Mr. Burnham, a decade older than his alumni peers, helped to build AT&T Ventures, a shop charged with the difficult task of finding promising new technologies within the strictures of a recalcitrant monopoly.

Mr. Levine had just finished reading Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks and began asking Mr. Burnham for more insight. “I never heard such a clear, concise explanations of how patent law encourages and stifles innovation,” he declared.

Mr. Burnham shook his head. “What I envy about someone like you or Benkler is the clarity of thinking. It’s like an early Maoist. You know where you want to go and don’t concern yourself with the obstacles along the way.”

The younger set at the event comprised mostly entrepreneurs, who are just as numerous, if not as powerful yet, as Wesleyan’s tech investors. Mr. Levine was working as an analyst at The Ladders when he began organizing Digital Wes. Early this year he was offered a spot as an entrepreneur-in-residence at betaworks, and four months later took a job as general manager at News.me, the social reader from betaworks backed by The New York Times.

“The people in this room where the ones who gave me my first advice,” said Dina Kaplan, co-founder of blip.tv. “At the time we started, none of us had run a business. We just had a vision for something we believed in.”

Jordan Goldman, whose acceptance to Wesleyan was chronicled in the New York Times best-seller The Gatekeepers, found funding for his first company by cold-calling the Wesleyan alumni network. “There is a very deep base here that young entrepreneurs can tap into,” confirmed Mr. Goldman, founder of Unigo, an online college guide that just raised $1.6 million from McGraw Hill. “These were the folks that go me started.”

Mr. Goldman was showing Christopher Lake, ’05, around the party, pointing out the various big names he should meet. Mr. Lake had just left an analyst position at McKinsey to try his hand at business development in the start-up world. “It’s a real eye-opener, especially compared to some of the Wes alumni at finance events I attended,” Mr. Lake said. “You’d meet a few investment bankers, a few hedge fund guys, none of whom you’d ever heard of, along with a gaggle of recent grads trying to break into the world. In that scene you get the feeling that Wesleyan will always be an also-ran. In tech, we’re distinct.”

In the elevator heading home, Betabeat met Kai Bond, from Hatch Labs, who had been chatting with several of the investors in attendance. Typically the process of finding funding for a start-up is a challenging one. Investors like to rake a new project over the coals before they commit capital. But for better or worse, the Wesleyan connection seems to have streamlined that process. “When you come to an event like this, it’s not, ‘Pitch me your idea,’” Mr. Bond noted. “It’s more like, ‘Come in for a meeting and let’s find an idea we can get behind.’”

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Comments

  1. Lauren57 says:

    Liked your article.  But you could have eliminated the gratuitous f word.

  2. Carmen says:

    Hi Ben Popper, I remember you as Class of 2004.  Good article and great to know that Wesleyan is popping up in the Tech Scene.  We in Hong Kong have a bunch of bankers and fund managers and we still think Wesleyan is the coolest place in the world ever.