Reading those “20 Successful People in their 20s” lists has always been rather unsettling for me. It’s crazy to think that someone only a couple years older than me could have accomplished so much, so when I read about these young entrepreneurs, I automatically label them as arrogant hotshots to make myself feel marginally better.
But when I met John Yarchoan ’13, the 24-year-old CEO of Sky Mutual, he seemed like nothing but a charming and friendly Frisbee bro. While answering my questions on a late-night bus to New York and trying to figure out how to use FaceTime, he remained humble and was all smiles — which allowed me to momentarily forget that he was recently placed on Inc. Magazine’s “50 Emerging Global Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2015.”
Eclectic Backgrounds Merging into One
Founding a company was not always the career path that Yarchoan, an economics and political science double major, had in mind. But his experiences at Amherst gradually shaped him into the entrepreneur that he is today. Yarchoan’s first foray into entrepreneurship was in 2012, when he co-founded the Amherst Muck-Rake, the satirical publication written by an anonymous group of students on campus.
In 2012, the campus was brewing with tension: Angie Epifano published her personal experience of a sexual assault at the college, and an off-campus fraternity printed misogynistic shirts for its annual event.
“It was a period when it felt like speech was being restricted,” Yarchoan said. “And we were all personally frustrated. We started the Muck-Rake with the idea that comedy and satire had a way of cutting into things that [other] dialogues were unable to do.”
Yarchoan also spent his time playing for Army of Darkness, the men’s ultimate Frisbee team. “John was tireless and had great work ethic as a player,” the team’s coach Bill Stewart said. “As a captain, he brought quiet focus and a good-natured lightness. And he consistently showed respect to his opponents and was respected by them.”
Over time, Yarchoan has realized how much overlap there is between running a team and managing a company. He loved growing the ultimate Frisbee program at Amherst with his co-captains and teammates, and he reminisced fondly about going to semifinals at the Division III national competition during his senior year.
Yarchoan served as a senator for three years in the Association of Amherst Students, also finding an overlap between the AAS and his current work. Being a senator during a rocky period at Amherst was difficult for Yarchoan, but, he said, “at the end of the day, the senate is empowered to take a huge fund to do something that would bring value to people on campus.”
When he presented his senior thesis about why Rwanda and Burundi each experienced different political transitions after the Rwandan genocide, Yarchoan was fearless in defending his argument in front of political science experts. “His defense was attended by then Provost Peter Uvin, one of the world’s leading expert on the subject,” said his thesis adviser Javier Corrales. “Other students would have been a bit intimidated, but John rose to the occasion. Despite the fact that some of John’s claims challenged some of Uvin’s arguments, in the end, John left everyone in the room, including Uvin, absolutely impressed.”
Given his successful Amherst career, it’s no surprise that Yarchoan quickly developed into the confident entrepreneur he is now. But he joked that there were couple mishaps along the way.
“I took Advanced Econometrics knowing it was going to be a nightmare,” Yarchoan recalled. “Successful people don’t like to fail, but I still went for it. But the class was so hard, and I was so tired from studying that I passed out before the exam.”
Associate Professor of Economics Jun Ishii confirmed this story. “John overslept for not one, but two of my exams,” Ishii recalled. “The first time it had happened, John came to me afterward all nerves. I was shocked when it happened again the following semester — we were both initially speechless. For a few semesters after, John was always a bit nervous around me — he denies it, but the body language was there.”
Nevertheless, Ishii said he was thrilled when Yarchoan decided to run a start-up company based on an idea he had as a student at Amherst. Ishii said he wasn’t surprised that Yarchoan opted to become an entrepreneur. “One of the most important traits of an entrepreneur is the ability to withstand and recover from setbacks, as entrepreneurial success is almost always preceded by a long string of setbacks,” Ishii said.
From an Idea to a Company
While at Amherst, Yarchoan considered going into consulting after graduating. But he realized he would not be happy working in very defined roles with predictable work. Instead, he honed in on his core interest: the environment. He believes that climate change is “one of the biggest problems our generation has to grapple with,” and he was consumed with the concept of how humans interact with and are impacted by the natural world.
He got his first taste of what his company, Sky Mutual, and its business plan would come to be during a course he took with Assistant Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Adam Sitze. As Yarchoan explored the relationship between neoliberalism and climate change, he began to wonder what it would be like to create a new marketplace that specifically dealt with climate change.
With scattered ideas about his passion, Yarchoan concluded that he needed some training before delving further into his interest. “One mistake is to assume that one day people wake up and say ‘I want to start a company,’” Yarchoan said. “For me personally, I’ve been the one to always work on projects and build teams for things I find interesting.”
During the his senior year at Amherst, Yarchoan decided to forego his acceptance to a financial firm and joined Venture for America, a fellowship program that trains recent graduates to become entrepreneurs by connecting them to high growth start-up companies. He described Venture for America as a critical stepping-stone into the start-up world, analogous to completing apprenticeship before becoming a museum curator or a chef. Through the program, he began working for Resource Environmental Solutions, a company that created an exchange of environmental “credits.” Instead of paying their ways through legal battles, interested companies could now purchase credits to get their projects approved, while environmental regulators could channel their resources into managing the net impact on wildlife.
During his second year at the company, Yarchoan was already planting seeds for what became Sky Mutual. He began piecing together different information and data to develop models for structuring policies for the company. When he decided he was ready to switch gears, the transition to Sky Mutual happened smoothly. “My boss knew I was keen on growing my own company, so when I went up to him and said that I wanted do something different, my boss was very supportive,” Yarchoan said.
Today, Sky Mutual is a weather insurance company that protects companies from financial losses caused by weather. “It’s less about the front-page weather events, but more about the back of the page like droughts — variations of the weather that cause major impacts on businesses in different sectors,” he said. For instance, his company analyzed historic snowfalls to determine how a ski resort could secure steady revenue despite adverse weather.
He is also expanding on the idea of creating a new marketplace that focuses on climate change. “What we’re doing right now is a little different than what I imagined we’d be doing a year ago,” Yarchoan said. “The basic idea is that since the weather affects so many industries and people, we can create a liquid marketplace, so that it wouldn’t be me just saying ‘Hey, you should protect against this risk,’ but it would be obvious for this kind of company to use this marketplace and trade risks in the same way that they use financial marketplaces to protect them against movements like interest rates and exchange rates.”
What he finds especially compelling about his idea is that the marketplace would not only transfer risks, but also would convey information in an unprecedented way. He said this marketplace could reveal raw, economic data about the reality of climate change and refute the ideas of climate change deniers.
An Emerging Entrepreneur
Being a CEO is a challenge that not every 20-something-year-old can digest easily — it’s overwhelming and very fast-paced and requires strong discipline. But what gets Yarchoan out of bed every morning is that he is ultimately doing something he’s always been passionate about. “For me, it’s an extension of the types of things I already think about and do,” Yarchoan said. “It doesn’t exhaust me in the way that I would feel if I were putting in the hours for someone else’s work.”
Yarchoan encourages Amherst students to break away from seeing only “safe” options. “Amherst students tend to be very successful people who are used to being successful,” Yarchoan said, “and naturally, we are averse to failure.” He recognizes that there are both micro and macro level failures in the world of entrepreneurship. Yarchoan isn’t necessarily more immune to potential downfalls than other students, but for him, it seems crazy that many Amherst graduates choose an obvious and perhaps “safer” career path to avoid failure.
“To me, the smartest people should be working on the hardest problems, not something that has already been solved,” he said. “They should be empowered to work on really innovative things, as innovation is the only way out of economic stagnation.”