Yale's Tsai Center approves grant funding four times faster
Processing applications for Tsai City used to take staff members a full week of manual work. They built an app in Airtable that gives them that time back.
faster application approval
increase in fall events
A plant-based leather company and a mental health support system for teachers are just two of the more than 100 ventures launched at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale (Tsai CITY) this year. Since its founding in 2017, students have secured more than $1 million in grant funding from the center. These projects are guided by the Tsai CITY team. Matt Gira, the Director of Student Programming, says his favorite part of the job is “seeing students come into their own and figure out what they’re meant to be doing.”
Matt joined Tsai CITY two years ago and immediately realized the need to streamline the center’s application processes. Tsai CITY receives roughly 70 student applications every academic year for its venture development programs—a series of programs designed to advance student-founded for-profit and nonprofit organizations and special projects. When Matt joined, Tsai CITY didn’t have an application tracking mechanism; everything was done manually. That meant students would submit their application via Google Forms, and a staff member would have to download, review, assign, and send applications to reviewers. When the reviews were complete, a staff member would manually aggregate the rankings into a separate sheet and email each student to let them know if they were accepted or not. This entire process took more than a week, not including the time it took to actually review the applications.
So Matt set out to find a solution to manage intake and distribution, and found people buzzing about Airtable on Twitter. He was able to quickly spin up a system that tracks applications end to end. Now, instead of ad hoc emails and documents being manually downloaded, all applications run through Airtable forms. Every student answers the same set of questions, and once it’s submitted the student gets an automated email saying their application was received. Each application populates an Airtable base. From there, the staff at Tsai CITY uses linked records to sort and assign each application to an alumni reviewer. Those linked records add a rubric, demographic information about each applicant, and any information they need to evaluate the student’s venture proposals fairly. Then sending out the acceptance emails is simple. “It takes us 10 minutes to send 70 emails, and that would have taken at least two hours before,” Matt said. From a student’s perspective, it means less time waiting for answers and more time participating in the program.
“Airtable gave us at least an extra week of programming each semester.”
The connected app they built in Airtable also collects application feedback for each student regardless of whether or not they’re accepted. “What I really love that we can do in Airtable is guarantee that every student will get some value out of applying to the program. We couldn’t always guarantee that before because of capacity,” Matt said. This feedback is sent to students to help improve their application, and venture, for next time.
This process also ensures that students receive more meaningful reviews by matching the right reviewer with the right applicant. “Now we can ensure we have a diverse pool of reviewers and assign them by expertise. It doesn’t make sense to assign someone with a healthcare background a pitch for a consumer packaged goods company,” Matt said.
The same system is being applied to ongoing grant funding applications which used to sit unanswered for weeks due to bandwidth constraints. “We can make funding decisions in 30 minutes, which is crazy. Before Airtable, that would take at least two hours,” Matt said. Airtable also provides instant visibility into who receives funding through a live data dashboard in Airtable Interfaces to identify and, in real-time, correct any biases made through these funding streams.
Tsai CITY opened a new building this year. One of the Center’s goals was to activate the space and encourage students to use it for entrepreneurship and innovation-related events. Airtable works so well for funding and applications that Matt started using it for inventory tracking for student swag, hiring, events, and building management. The room reservations database runs on Airtable and tracks which students request which room and for what purpose. Students and staff are connected to the “programming base,” a directory that acts as a source of truth for events and programs happening at the Center. The operations team, communications team, and students all use base sync to connect their personal Airtable bases from the programming base. That way, the Tsai CITY team is up-to-date on what programming is happening and how programming is doing.
Matt says connecting the communications and operations teams in Airtable has enabled them to pull off last-minute events for students much more quickly because they’re spending less time on Slack, email, and meetings about which event is happening and who to contact. Now they can spend more time engaging with students.
“We've been able to increase our fall events by 23% in large part due to the streamlined processes we've developed with Airtable.”
Most importantly, this system teaches students how to build their own systems and processes. Edwell, a startup working on mental health for educators and students, uses Airtable as a CRM to analyze program impact and social media content.
Students who founded Atma Leather, which makes plant-based leather from crop waste like mango and banana peels, built a CRM in Airtable to manage their investor pipeline and track progress on a factory they’re building in India.
“It's been cool to see these students who knew nothing about how to manage the organization have processes in Airtable. Learning operations can be tricky, but we’ve been able to make it tangible with Airtable,” Matt said.