Chris Edell ‘08, the CEO and Co-Founder of Elevar, shares the impact how Yale SOM has impacted his life and how the mission-focused nature of the school has played a key role in the way that his company approaches business problems.
What have you been up to since Graduation (career, volunteer work, personally)?
It was a challenging time to graduate business school in the late 2000s. The Great Recession was beginning to unfold, creating a heightened sense of uncertainty about post-MBA career options. Traditional MBA careers such as investment banking and consulting were becoming more scarce and difficult to secure. Although these market shifts were very challenging at the time, these new realities became blessings in disguise, as they opened my own eyes to exciting, unconventional opportunities I otherwise would have missed.
After business school, I continued my education at Harvard Kennedy School, receiving a MPA in 2010. While at Harvard, I had the opportunity to work with an innovative non-profit organization in New Orleans focused on crowdsourcing university talent from across the country to address challenges with the post-Katrina disaster recovery effort. The initiative, called the Harvard Broadmoor Project, was led by Douglas Ahlers, who was previously a highly successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley during the 90s dot-com boom. Doug eventually became my mentor and inspired me to take the risk in pursuing the startup route.
After Harvard, I found myself exploring various startup opportunities in Silicon Valley. Leveraging my experience from New Orleans, a colleague and I fine-tuned an idea of getting large organizations to pitch their industry needs to a crowd-sourced group of startups. The startups would then compete to build the most innovative solution(s), in hopes of landing a paid pilot. This idea eventually became the crux of a company that I co-founded as CEO, called Elevar. Elevar would connect large enterprises with innovative startups to address collective societal problems in our most pressing industries.
Since Elevar’s incorporation, our team has grown rapidly, operating ‘innovation labs’ in numerous locations across the country, from Boston to Seattle. We’ve built strategic partnerships with a number of large organizations, including multiple Blue Cross Blue Shield health plans, several nationally recognized hospital systems, and several large financial institutions. The disruptive nature of the program has attracted significant interest from national and local media sources. It’s been a roller-coaster journey, but I wake up every day grateful for the incredible opportunities Elevar has provided me and my team.
What impact has Yale SOM and being a member of the SOM community had on your life and career?
Yale SOM has impacted my life and career in three ways.
First, the mission-focused nature of the school has played a key role in the way that Elevar approaches business problems. Many of the strategic decisions that Elevar makes are geared to a societal focus: How can our startups address needs that can positively impact the public? How do we do what is in the best interests of the end customer, not just ourselves? How do we create win-win opportunities where all stakeholders can benefit? This mission-focused approach has had a big impact on our company culture and DNA.
Second, many of my closest friends today are Yale SOM classmates. We attend each other’s weddings, schedule dinners in different cities, and conduct annual reunions to share our personal and professional successes (and setbacks). It’s been amazing to watch how uniquely each of our careers have unfolded, given how we all came from the same study groups.
Third and most importantly, Yale SOM is where I met my future wife - a Yale GSAS PhD graduate. Of the experiences I’ve had in my MBA program, meeting her has been the most life-changing and rewarding one of all.
The school’s mission is to educate leaders for business and society, looking at your current career and interests, what does this mean to you?
One of the big takeaways I've learned from Yale and from my career experience is that engaged employees are intrinsically motivated by something much greater than themselves. If this motivation is catalyzed, they are inspired to make the big sacrifices necessary to achieve that greater purpose. In the startup world, instilling this belief is critical since there are so many challenges and setbacks a small company must go through to survive and thrive.
For me, the motto of ‘educating leaders for business and society’ is about identifying and addressing a greater societal purpose, and aligning business objectives to that purpose. At Elevar, the concept of ‘leaders for business and society’ is critically important for us; our team truly believes we have ‘cracked the code’ in identifying solutions to major societal pain-points.
How/Why do you stay engaged with SOM as an alum?
I keep in frequent contact with a number of Yale SOM alums living in the Bay Area. It’s been an exciting time to be in Northern California, and by the number of SOMers flocking to Silicon Valley in recent years, I sense that excitement is shared amongst many. In response to this influx, Elevar has hosted a few business focused events in San Francisco, including the 2014 Yale SOM San Francisco Job Trek, where we had over 30 SOMers visit us and learn more about the SF Bay Area startup ecosystem. It’s always a ton of fun to meet fellow SOMers.
What excites you the most about the changes happening around SOM?
In addition to the new campus (which is truly stunning), what has been most exciting about Yale SOM is its renewed focus on cultivating entrepreneurs through the Program on Entrepreneurship, led by Kyle Jensen. When I was a student at SOM, I can recall only 2-3 folks in my class who were seriously considering entrepreneurship as a career path. Entrepreneurial options were relatively limited at that time - there were a few venture capital courses available, and most of the entrepreneurs I knew had to go through the undergraduate-focused programming options such as YEI.
Things have changed significantly since 2008. When Elevar hosted the Yale SOM San Francisco Job Trek in 2014, I was blown away by how many MBA/MAM students were interested in becoming entrepreneurs. I couldn’t have predicted such a high level of interest, reflecting back on at my time at SOM. Without a doubt, the school has committed more resources into entrepreneurship, which I think is fantastic. This is a unique evolution for the school, and I'm excited to see how this will evolve over time.