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Alumni profile: Jessica Lin, A.B. ’09
Lin uses her global skill set to open up a world of opportunities for entrepreneurs
Jessica Lin, A.B. ’09, thought she had her future career in global public health all mapped out. A government and African studies concentrator, she had developed an interest in African cultures and public health during her teenage years. Just a few months before her graduation from Harvard, she had been accepted into a master’s of public health program at Columbia University.
But an engineering course set Lin on a completely different path.
Everything changed during her final semester at Harvard, when she walked into the classroom for “Idea Translation” (ES 147), taught by David Edwards, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Idea Translation.
“That class was built around idea development and innovation. The experience was really transformative for me,” Lin said. “I had never considered entrepreneurship or tech or startups before. That was my first taste of that world, and I realized it was something that I wanted to be a part of.”
She quickly developed a passion for innovation, collaborating with several classmates on the launch of their own entrepreneurial project. Their creation, sOccket, was a soccer ball containing a battery that stores the kinetic energy that is generated when the ball is in motion. That energy can be used to power a small device, such as an LED light or a cell phone charger.
Inspired by her foray into entrepreneurship, Lin deferred the public health master’s program and joined Edwards’ team as a SEAS Idea Translation Fellow. In 2009, Lin, Edwards, and fellow Hugo Van Vuuren, A.B. ’07, M.Des. '12, launched The Laboratory at Harvard, an initiative that brought together the arts and sciences through exhibitions and events.
A year later, Lin relocated to Cape Town, where she led and developed a student fellowship program for idea translation. About a dozen Harvard students traveled to South Africa over the summer to collaborate with local engineers and designers on projects related to water transport, purification, and design.
“The program’s focus on interdisciplinary learning and collaboration is incredibly powerful, and it fosters the development of transformative skills that could benefit any entrepreneur,” she says.
Lin next took her entrepreneurial expertise to Cisco Systems, where she worked as a learning and development manager, with a focus on innovation, agile development, and culture. In 2013, she became director of community at Work-Bench, an enterprise growth accelerator in New York City.
Work-Bench serves as a bridge between startup companies and Fortune 500 firms. The organization strives to be an enterprise hub in New York City, now the world’s second largest startup ecosystem. Lin leads a community of more than 35 startups working out of the accelerator. She brings team members together for lunches, workshops, and events that enable entrepreneurs to learn from each other. The events also attract Fortune 500 executives interested in seeing how the technologies being developed could benefit their companies.
Several Work-Bench startups are led by Harvard alumni, including pymetrics, which provides web-based games that enable users to explore career interests (CEO Frida Polli, M.B.A. ’12); and Monaeo, which uses location data to help individuals make decisions about taxes, residency, and immigration (co-founder Anupam Singhal, M.B.A. ’08).
“I get a lot of joy out of seeing our entrepreneurs succeed and learn from each other,” she said. “Running a startup is hard enough as it is; these entrepreneurs are out there trying to close deals and survive another day. The more they can gain from the community and learn from other entrepreneurs, the faster their companies will grow.”
“When I was a student at Harvard, I never could have imagined being here today,” she said. “But the skills I learned at SEAS—with its focus on innovation, interdisciplinary learning, and collaboration—have helped me to succeed in this career path by enabling me to lead communities of learners, and now entrepreneurs. One of the best lessons I learned was how to work with very different groups of people, whether they were engineers, artists, or entrepreneurs. To be successful, you need to be able to get people excited and on board with the same mission.”