How Wesleyan’s Counter Culture Came To Rule New York’s Tech Scene

Cocktails on the deck at Digital Wesleyan

The offices of Zelnick Media were packed on a recent evening for #DigitalWes, an alumni gathering for the graduates of Wesleyan University who had made their way from jam bands and cultural theory to the warp-speed world of Silicon Alley. Guests nibbled shrimp and steak skewers while taking in a sumptuous view of midtown Manhattan from the roof deck. The hosts were Strauss Zelnick and his partner, Jim Friedlich, both class of ’79, whose Take Two Interactive has produced some of the best-selling and most controversial video games of the past decade.

“It’s the kind of school, if you told people you wanted to end up at Goldman Sachs, they would probably chase you out of the dorm,” said John Borthwick, class of ’87, a double major in developmental economics and art history and co-founder of the Chelsea-based betaworks. “Radical transparency, open access to information, disrupting traditional media, these were the secret handshakes at Wesleyan.”

The term Wesleyan Mafia has long been used to describe a cadre of graduates in Hollywood: successful directors, studio heads and writers. In music, too, graduates of the small liberal arts college in Middletown, Conn.—about two hours from New York—have had unusual critical success that stirred talk of a Connecticut Cosa Nostra. But it’s less surprising to hear that Michael Bay and MGMT attended Wesleyan, since the school is well known for its film and music departments. While computer science has never been among Wesleyan’s specialties, alumni seem to have found an especially prominent place of late among Silicon Alley’s elite. (Disclosure: the author graduated from Wesleyan, though he’s hardly among the elite just yet.)

At the party Mr. Borthwick clustered with Andy Weissman, his co-founder at betaworks, and Stuart Ellman, co-founder of RRE Ventures. RRE is one of the biggest investors in New York, with 29 portfolio companies in Silicon Alley backed by some of the $850 million they have under management. Mr. Weissman is a venture capitalist as well, having in fact recently left betaworks to join Union Square Ventures, New York’s most well-known venture fund and one of the top performing V.C. shops in the nation. The three firms have partnered on a number of high-profile seed stage investments in New York, and RRE is a backer of betaworks.

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It’s the countercultural lessons learned at Wesleyan that laid the foundation for the alumni’s success in Silicon Alley, they said. “The forefathers and mothers of the internet came out of the ’60s ethic of distributed information and power,” Mr. Borthwick said. “There is an organizing ethic, which is why I suspect you see fewer Wesleyan grads at companies like Facebook, which has a very centralized view of the world.” Sure, he built and invested in promising companies like chartbeat,, tumblr, kickstarter and GroupMe. But Mr. Borthwick began his career as a idealistic dot-com pioneer, keen to marry the worlds of art and the web, who produced avant garde websites like äda’web, total NY and Spanker.

Fred Wilson, New York’s most prominent investor, is an M.I.T. graduate, but his co-founder at Union Square Ventures is Brad Burnham, Wesleyan class of ’77. Mr. Wilson was in the next room over, chatting with Chris Dorr, class of ’74. “Filmmakers and software developers need to be sleeping together, and it is starting to happen,” Mr. Dorr declared. Outside on the roof deck, Mr. Wilson’s daughter, currently a sophomore at Wesleyan, talked about preparing for her semester abroad.

Betabeat bumped into Adam and Todd Stone, a pair of twin brothers whom we remembered as Stone and Stone, a comedy duo that mixed dirty jokes with Broadway show tunes. Their act had always been a sort of amplified, absurdist version of Borscht Belt humor performed by what seemed like the living essence of Scarsdale Jewry.

“We tried the whole Hollywood thing, but the people out there didn’t work for us,” Adam said.

“Now we’re thinking about trying our luck in the tech scene,” said brother Todd, who was finishing up a stint as an intern at Business Insider, where he had penned the massively successful slideshows: Ten Sexiest Programmers and Ten Sexiest VCs.

Would their new start-up have any connection to their act, The Observer asked? “We’re still working on that, but it will be something we’re passionate about,” Adam said.

“Either that or twin porn, which seems to be really big on the Internet,” Todd concluded.

How Wesleyan’s Counter Culture Came To Rule New York’s Tech Scene