So… Y does this work? Site Visit to Y Combinator

Abigail Grubbs/ May 22, 2024/ 2024

On our third day, we visited a startup accelerator and venture capital firm, Y Combinator – abbreviated as YC.

Logo of Y Combinator, San Francisco Campus

As the Bus pulled into SF’s Pier 70 shipyard at 1:46 PM, quaint warehouse-like buildings greeted us – we quickly learned these were Y Combinator’s new campus buildings that recently opened to provide collaborative work spaces for start-up founders.

Inside, we got a quick tour of the YC building spaces from Joan DeGennaro and Duke Alumni Josh France ‘20 including the commons space, creator studios, and desk areas accented by Y Combinator’s signature orange color. Aside from the building’s interior, I was fascinated to hear about the company’s mission, the reasoning behind YC creating this program and space for founders, and of Silicon Valley’s history – Joan focused on how YC was born from founders Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston initially wanting to seed fund small start-ups. Instead of investing significant funding to a select few of early-stage start-ups, the two wanted YC to provide small, yet still significant capital to many: this not only enabled recruiting a bigger talent pool, but also casted a wider community net, equipping founders with intensely motivated people to accelerate and create a better product/ service value for their business.

One of many Creator Studios at Y Combinator

I appreciated YC’s model and emphasis on their talent ‘recruitment’ in particular, since this meant YC could provide a shared space for founders to collaborate while also promoting a risk tolerant culture. It was something that Joan and Josh both discussed as one of YC’s values in cultivating a concentrated community, where founders and investors alike saw failures (to a certain extent) as positive, healthy opportunities for growth. Joan and Josh further gave a synopsis into YC’s selection process in curating what they called start-up ‘batches.’ These batches, selected on a biannual basis, are carefully selected and evaluated on the start-up founders’ real-world problem-solving capabilities but more so, their creative, earnest belief in their product/ service solutionizing an overlooked market’s issue/ need. A funny example Joan told our group was that of Airbnb’s founders Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk selling cereals during their founding years to keep Airbnb alive – which YC viewed positively enough to onboard them into their 2009 start-up batch.

Later on, we also heard from the co-founder of Clever Tyler Bosmeny who told us an inspiring story of beginning the start-up at Y Combinator in 2012 with Dan Caroll and Raf Garcia after graduating from Harvard. Tyler described the joy of working with his friends, but also his ambitious goal setting and growth obsession with Clever that aimed to streamline educational sign-ons in the K-12 school districts. Specifically, he spotlighted the importance of building his product by transparently communicating and building trust with core-users like school principals, teachers, and students. In doing so, Clever rapidly scaled from reaching 4 to 1,000 schools over a single summer: as Tyler mentioned, this was a successful, working concept of real-life ‘evangelists’ that we, DSV students, learned during class, where Clever users recognized the innovative solution and advocated Clever’s product to other interested schools: it served to be Clever’s pathway to become one of the most widely used K-12 Ed-Tech products to date.

Co-Founders of Clever, Inc. – left to right: Tyler Bosmeny, Dan Carroll, Rafael Garcia

For me, Tyler’s story and getting a glimpse into YC’s vision left a lasting impression–building and sustaining a successful entrepreneurial venture entails us to ask the right questions, identify market gaps/ opportunities, know your customers (and investors), and most vitally, believe in mission-aligned values with your team to solve a specific problem. Visiting Y Combinator taught me and my peers that as innovative entrepreneurs, our individual willingness to tolerate risks and to question the status-quo were paramount; yet, the irrepressible spirit to disrupt and optimistically recognize and actionize upon our audience’s need and pain points continue to pillar the Y’s of how clever tech corporations, high-impact organizations, and Silicon Valley became successful at large.

Duke in Silicon Valley students at Y Combinator 

James is a rising sophomore from Seoul and New Jersey pursuing a Neuroscience B.S. on a pre-med track with a prospective certificate in I&E. On campus, he serves as a cadet with Duke University EMS, a member with Duke Presidential Ambassadors, and a clinic-aid with Duke Remote Area Medical — part of a national chapter providing free medical, vision, and dental care to rural communities. He cares deeply about human health and is looking forward to gaining more in-depth Industry & Tech insights in healthcare and corporate fields through the Silicon Valley summer experience. During his free time, James loves swimming with the Duke Club Swim team and is an avid aviation enthusiast with Duke Aviators.


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