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Startup Yale: Where Are They Now?

winners holding a giant check

Since Startup Yale launched in 2015, the annual entrepreneurship event has provided funding to groundbreaking ventures across industries. Startup Yale returns April 4-5, 2024, with an expanded agenda designed to build community and inspire networking. In addition to the pitch competitions, it will feature speakers, workshops, postering sessions, and more.

As Yale’s innovation ecosystem continues to grow, we checked in with some past winners of women-led ventures of the Startup Yale competitions to explore how participating in the event influenced their entrepreneurial journeys.

The Key Bookstore, winner of the 2023 New Haven Civic Innovation Prize

group of people holding a giant check

Khamani Harrison, founder of The Key Bookstore, created the technology-enabled bookstore to keep people connected to reading culture. In 2019, she crowdfunded a new website with a curated selection of books. She recalls, “The website had good SEO, and in 2020, when people were looking for anti-racist knowledge, they easily found our Black-owned bookstore online.”

Startup Yale was Harrison’s introduction to Yale—and she says, “The confidence and the affirmation I got from the whole Yale ecosystem was amazing. They got me together, straightened me up, and took me to the next level.” After she and her team won the New Haven Civic Innovation Prize, Harrison also took first place in her next pitch competition. She says, “Preparation is the key to success.”

Harrison continues to fundraise as The Key Bookstore expands its programming. In 2023, they organized two literacy pilots in which kids track their reading progress using an app, and Harrison hopes to host a similar pilot in New Haven in the future. In the meantime, she is focused on building out the platform and planning events, both in the real world and online. She says, “I want to sit down with investors that are going to trust a Black, female, very small founder that is ready to grow in scale.”

Carys Cares, winners of the 2023 Thorne Prize for Social Innovation in Health or Education

Carys Mihardja (YC ’26) started Carys Cares to reconceptualize what it means to help people with Down syndrome. She is from Jakarta, Indonesia, where her social enterprise offers creative empowerment and career guidance to the Down syndrome community. Carys Cares donates all proceeds to POTADS, an Indonesian organization that supports people with Down syndrome and their families.

Mihardja heard about Startup Yale a few days before the application deadline. She had never participated in a pitch competition before and remembers feeling intimidated—but she saw the event as a way to gain traction and support for her efforts. Her message to future competitors: “Have the authenticity and the courage to go at it.”
Winning the Thorne Prize helped the organization gain support, and Carys Cares is now active internationally. They recently participated in New York Fashion Week for the second time, showcasing artists and models with Down syndrome. What’s next for Carys Cares? “We have big ambitions,” says Mihardja. They include expanding the career matching opportunities and connecting more people with Down syndrome to jobs.

Fines and Fees Freedom Fund, winner of the 2023 Manolo Sanchez Prize

two women pitching

Elena Sokoloski (LAW '25) has always been passionate about access to justice. In 2022, she participated in Yale Law School’s Strategic Advocacy Clinic, which encouraged students to find solutions to problems that matter to them. Through the clinic, she worked with other students to form the Fines and Fees Freedom Fund, affectionately known as “F4,” which provides legal assistance to people facing court fines and fees they can’t afford.

One of the students heard about Startup Yale as a potential funding opportunity. Winning the Manolo Sanchez Prize “gave us a lot of momentum,” Sokoloski says, adding, “We believed in our idea, but it was really amazing to have other people believe in our idea, too.” At Startup Yale, they were able to have conversations with people who are in positions to change the policy around how fines and fees work in specific jurisdictions.

The prize money accelerated the fund’s work. The legal aid partner at their Oklahoma clinic has been able to waive over $200,000 in fines and fees, helping more than 100 people—and the F4 team hopes that law students elsewhere can replicate their success. Sokoloski says, “We are excited about sharing this model with other people in other places.”

Edwell, winner of the 2022 Thorne Prize for Social Innovation in Health or Education

Edwell, formerly the Educator Wellness Project, provides personalized coaching and wellness resources to teachers. Nicola Fleischer (SOM ’22), the company's co-founder and executive director, has firsthand experience with the challenges educators face. Before enrolling at Yale School of Management, she worked as an elementary school teacher and an instructional coach for other teachers. She could see that educators needed social-emotional support.

Startup Yale was held online in 2022—and Fleischer is grateful for that, because she was battling COVID at the time, and it meant she could compete from home. Through the pitch competition, she met a woman who became a friend and mentor, helping to introduce her to future partners. Before Startup Yale, Fleischer was unsure whether to work full-time on Edwell after graduation. Winning the Thorne Prize made the decision easier. Today, she is confident that she made the right choice. Edwell has grown to serve roughly 750 educators and has consistently found that healthier, happier teachers create better classroom environments for students. 

Looking ahead, Fleischer is focused on finding sustainable funding streams and developing deep partnerships to ensure that social-emotional learning and coaching are accessible to every new educator at the start of their career. Her advice to future Startup Yale entrants: "Show the judges why you are the best person to launch your venture, and why right now is the time to do it." 

Frailty Myths, winner of the 2022 Yale Innovators Prize

two women posing in front of their logo on the wall

Erinn Carter and Georgia Faye Hirsty (SOM ’22) founded Frailty Myths in 2016 to help people untangle the myths they have about themselves and their power. Through hands-on community workshops and DEI consulting, the organization is building more inclusive workplaces and communities.

While Hirsty participated in the executive MBA program at Yale School of Management, she and Carter applied for Startup Yale. It was their first pitch competition, and Frailty Myths won the Yale Innovators Prize. Carter says, “It put a little pep in our step, and gave us confidence in what we were selling and how we were selling it.”

Part of what they learned from Startup Yale was how to ask for things, including large amounts of money. Carter explains, “Right now, because of what we learned during Startup Yale, we're in the midst of a capital campaign to purchase a 185-acre resort and retreat center about 90 minutes outside of San Francisco, that's turnkey, that would allow us to host in-person retreats and community workshops.” They need $1.5 million, and Carter is confident the money is out there.

Don't miss the chance to be part of something extraordinary! Discover more about Startup Yale 2024 and secure your spot today. This is your opportunity to join in a celebration of innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. See you there! 


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