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‘Yes, and …’

In tech and life, enthusiastic improvisation carries him forward

Running a startup is a lot like performing improv.

“Jump in and contribute, figure it out on your feet and contribute, push through the terror and contribute,” laughs entrepreneur Matt Van Itallie ’98. “You have to meet every challenge with humor, confidence, and curiosity—and say, ‘Yes, and ...’”

A proud Vertigo-go guy, Van Itallie credits his time with the Swarthmore troupe with helping him in his current role as CEO of the Maryland-based Sema. Aimed at solving the world’s multibillion-dollar problem with software maintenance, Sema rose from the ashes of Van Itallie’s first startup.

“It was very Swarthmorean in all the right ways: We built a tool that could read and understand all journal articles,” he says of his initial venture. “My goal was to make sense of all the science on earth.”

Though that business model ultimately failed, it gave Van Itallie the bravado and the bones from which to build Sema, which is creating software that helps fix existing software. They are building automated deep-learning systems that write new code to correct the planet’s never-ending outdated or broken supply.

“Imagine what technologists could accomplish when they are freed from fixing old problems,” he says. “Sema will make it possible for them to double the time, energy, and human creativity they spend on creating new code.”

Several of the world’s top software maintenance and machine-learning experts believe in Sema so much they’ve signed on as founding contributing scientists, joining a formidable group that includes Sema’s very first (junior) board member—Van Itallie’s 6-year-old daughter.

“Every day, we’d have conversations about how my business is going,” he says. “She asked questions and ‘got it’ quickly—and keeps me on my toes about achieving our company goals.”

Yes, running a startup is a lot like performing improv, but it’s a lot like college, too.

“I’ll never forget Swarthmore’s extraordinary professors helping me understand that the present is only one way that the world can look,” he says. “A startup is all about seeing a different way for the world to look and actually believing that you can change it.”