Venture for America, New York, NY Venture for America.org
About Venture for America
At Venture for America (VFA), Andrew Yang is redirecting enterprising college graduates into early-stage businesses in underserved American cities. The program is revitalizing American cities and communities through entrepreneurship and allowing top graduates to earn hands-on business experience and grow a culture of achievement. It provides an alternative to the predictable post-graduate march into low-growth sectors like financial services, consulting, or the law in cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, or Washington, DC. VFA has placed hundreds of graduates in two-year fellowships with exciting start-ups in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. VFA’s goal is to create 100,000 new jobs by 2025. Andrew Yang is a 2013 recipient of an Elfenworks In Harmony with Hope award.
About Founder Andrew Yang
For many decades our nation’s most talented college graduates have been funneled on a narrow but well-trod path to success through financial services, consulting, and the law in a select few cities like New York, Boston, San Francisco, or Washington, DC. Meanwhile, large sections of the country are experiencing a stagnating brain drain while fancy salaries and big cities lure the cream of the crop of young graduates into careers that are no longer growing or benefitting our economy the way they did 20-30 years ago.
Andrew Yang understood the dilemma all too well. A graduate of a top university and law school, he went on to a predictable law career in New York City. Just a few years later, convinced there was a better opportunity for him, he left and founded a start-up. For the next 10 years, he was involved in early-stage growth companies and enjoying his own startling growth in the process. One day, musing with a like-minded friend, they gave voice to the idea to redirect enterprising college graduates into early-stage businesses in underserved American cities. After all, since 1980 nearly all job creation in this country has stemmed from companies less than five years old.[i] They reasoned that this concept would revitalize American cities and communities through entrepreneurship and allow top graduates to earn hands-on business experience and grow a culture of achievement. The idea took hold and in 2011, Yang started the nonprofit Venture for America (VFA). To jumpstart fundraising, he didn’t take a salary.
Venture for America began recruiting at top college campuses in late 2011. They had more than 500 applicants for 40 openings the first year. For the group of Fellows starting August 2014, they had more than 1,000 applicants for 105 spots. VFA commits to each Fellow that they will have work for two years at an emerging start-up or early-stage company in a lower-cost city like Detroit, Providence, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Baltimore, Las Vegas, or Pittsburgh. The graduates, in turn, agree to accept a below-market salary (currently in the mid-$30,000s—significantly below what they could be making in consulting or banking) in exchange for the opportunity to learn entrepreneurship in a stimulating, passionate environment. As Daniel Bloom, 2012 VFA Fellow explained, “VFA is for those who want to come in, work hard, move fast, break things, and learn from their mistakes.”
At its core, VFA is about creating jobs. They aim to generate 100,000 new US jobs by 2025. The goal is to have the majority of VFA Fellows remain in their assigned communities once their fellowships are over. According to Dan Bloom, that’s happening. “Every Fellow has fallen in love with their respective cities,” he said.
The job creation is also already under way, as is the formation of a new crop of bright new young people who will make entrepreneurship a way of life. While a Fellow, Bloom worked to open up a sandwich shop. He determined a need for a low-cost, quick place to grab lunch in his neighborhood in Cincinnati. He reasoned that, if successful, he would be creating a sustainable model that would employ 15-20 people. That was on top of his full-time job as a VFA Fellow at BlackBook. He was also busy growing a plan to open up a real estate companion to VFA, to help with the housing needs for future classes of Fellows.
Michael Mayer, a former Fellow with Federated Sample in New Orleans, started a nonprofit in conjunction with several of the Detroit Fellows while they were all still Fellows. Called Startup Effect, it’s an entrepreneurship enrichment program for middle school students, which operates in Detroit and New Orleans. Its mission is to expose kids in low-income areas to the concept of entrepreneurship. It’s VFA for the tween, and they have plans to grow Startup Effect alongside VFA. The first-year Fellows were just halfway through their fellowships when they began creating new jobs in their respective low-growth cities.
The road to becoming a VFA Fellow is necessarily difficult. VFA is looking for young people who demonstrate significant intellect and independent thinking, resourcefulness, initiative, strong ability to communicate, and who are values-driven. The application asks for seven essays, three optional letters of recommendation, and a work product sample. A phone interview with a member of the VFA board follows. Then, there’s a video interview in which applicants are given 30 seconds to offer a solution for a difficult problem. Those who make it through these selection gates apply to one of three group-interview rounds held in bi-monthly intervals in the spring in New York. Individual interviews are augmented with group sessions where teams of applicants sit in front of a panel of judges and, for a full day, are given challenges to solve together.
The select few who make it into the fellowship program spend five weeks at Brown University the summer following graduation. They spend the training camp forging bonds with each other and receiving intensive training. Eddie Shiomi, former vice president of programs, remarks, “Five weeks isn’t enough time to do deep-tissue learning. We’re trying to get them to learn what healthy patterns of behavior in a business environment might be, how to increase their informal authority.” Shiomi describes the camp as a series of “hack-a-thon” projects and situational case studies. New Orleans Fellow Mike Mayer calls it an “MBA in entrepreneurship crammed into five weeks.”
By the time they make it to training camp, most Fellows know where they will be heading in August. Their preferences for companies and cities will have been matched with the stated preferences of the early-stage companies who take on the Fellows. Phone interviews with the company are followed by on-site interviews that also serve the purpose of introducing the prospective Fellow to his or her new city. When an offer is accepted, the Fellow commits to spending two years helping grow the company.
Reid Tatoris, co-founder of I Am Human in Detroit, is a passionate believer in Yang and VFA. Originally from Detroit, he spent four years in management consulting in San Francisco before returning to Michigan for grad school. He landed back in Detroit in part because he was tired of hearing it bashed so much. He wanted to grow a business there. Without a lot of funding at his start-up, he found it difficult to recruit top graduates from outside of Michigan and compete with the big businesses that have a large presence on college campuses. When he heard about VFA from one of his venture funders, he was excited. “I love that VFA brings people here. This is the first time in my life that I’ve seen people coming to Detroit because they’ve heard interesting things [VFA has received a decent amount of press on its efforts in Detroit]. It’s really huge. We’ve gotten more value out of the program than we anticipated,” he concludes. He’s referring not only to the remarkable contributions that his company’s Fellow has made, but also to the fact that Yang and his staff consistently offer him support, from making suggestions to connecting him with people in their network who can help him.
In addition to the formidable work experience, Fellows become part of a tight-knit network of like-minded, value-driven, energetic young people. They connect in monthly Google meet-ups and communicate further through a listserv, Facebook group, a 40-person text list, and shared Twitter links. One Fellow serves as city liaison in each location, planning get-togethers and group activities that further engage them with their new hometowns. Many of the Fellows live together in group housing.
They also receive ongoing training and mentorship from Yang and his staff at VFA. Yang feeds off of spending time with the Fellows. “He drops everything to help a Fellow,” comments Mike Tarullo, vice president of corporate development for the organization. Tarullo adds, “Andrew’s probably the finest leader I’ve personally encountered.”
Cameron Breitner, senior managing director at Centre Partners, is chair of the VFA board. He echoes Tarullo’s statement, “I’ve never seen anyone who is as remarkable. He has undertaken something extraordinarily ambitious and he meets every goal they set for themselves and they do it effortlessly…I dropped subtle hints that I wanted to be a part of his organization in some way. I have a passionate belief that we are funneling too many of our young people into careers that aren’t contributing to the growth of the economy and that aren’t fulfilling for them. Within about four seconds of talking to Andrew, I realized his vision resonated entirely with my perspective. Outside of my family and my job, this is what matters to me most.”
The organization is still new. The company’s growth plan is ambitious. The most recent class of Fellows exceeded 100 young graduates. Their budget–$3.2 million for 2014–is growing in lock-step with the Fellow class size. Major funders are eagerly jumping on board. In 2013, UBS committed $1.2 million over three years, to fund the annual summer training camp. That same year, Zappos’ Tony Hsieh committed $1 million for the Fellows program in Las Vegas and Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans announced a $1.5 million commitment to fund Fellows in Detroit and Cleveland for five years.
By bringing top talent to early-stage companies working in America’s smaller cities, Yang and Venture for America are creating a culture of entrepreneurship in these underserved areas. By ensuring that the Fellows fully connect with their new hometowns, they are fostering a young, enterprising, and engaged youth culture in these cities that will further encourage job and economic growth. Board Chair Cameron Breitner attributes their success to Yang’s leadership and his tremendous team of seven staff members, “I’ve been remarkably impressed—astounded—by the way Andrew has made incredible goals, while maintaining quality control.” The organization’s ambitious goal of 100,000 new jobs by 2025 seems to be on track.
[i] Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, “Where Will the Jobs Come From?” Kauffman Foundation Research Series: Firm Formation and Economic Growth, November 2009, Kansas City, MO.