PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — For many young people, the way forward after college leads from the classroom to the corporate office, often with a stop at law or business school. But Andrew Yang knew that life after college didn’t have to follow a well-worn path; it was just a matter of making sure recent graduates knew about other options available to them. Seeking to do just that, Yang founded Venture for America, a fellowship program that pairs recent graduates with startups and early stage companies, in the summer of 2011.
Based on the Teach for America model, Venture for America fellows complete two-year apprenticeships with companies in economically challenged cities. Working in a small company, fellows can help to grow the business while also gaining valuable real-world skills and experience. Yang also hopes that the model will have an economic impact on the cities where the partnering companies are located. “Early stage companies are where job growth and innovation are going to come from.”
Yang says it may take a few years for the effects to be obvious. “This year we’ll send five students to a city, but next year it might be 10 and then 10 again the next year. By then, the first group of students will be starting companies, and they will hire some from the next group. It’s a long-term plan to help these economies; there aren’t any quick fixes,” Yang says.
Before heading off to their respective cities, Venture for America fellows take part in a five-week training camp that prepares them for their new jobs.
Since mid-June, the first class of 40 fellows has been on the Brown campus, taking part in the program’s inaugural training camp. Each day they gather on the third floor of Pembroke Hall for a day filled with lectures and lessons by an impressive roster of industry experts — McKinsey and Ideo are two of the companies taking part — followed by skill development, with small groups completing tasks such as creating a business model or programming a computer.
In September, they’ll head off to five cities around the country — New Orleans, Las Vegas, Cincinatti, Detroit, and Providence — to begin their apprenticeships. Four fellows talked about what they’re learning from the program and where they’re headed in the fall:
Tim Dingman graduated from Brown in the spring of 2011 and was entering the fifth-year master’s in engineering program when he began to think about what he’d do when he got out of school. As an organizer of the A Better World By Design conference for two years, he had realized that a lifetime in the research lab wasn’t for him: “I always felt there was a large disconnect between what was happening in the lab and what was happening in the real world where you can make the biggest immediate impact.” So when he found out about Venture for America, he knew immediately that the program would give him that dual outlet that he needed. In the fall, he’s headed to Detroit to work for Accio Energy, an early stage company that works on harvesting wind energy by giving an electrical charge to water droplets.
Dingman says that the training camp is giving him a wide range of skills to take with him to his new job, most notably the ability to be more open to feedback. “It seems intimidating to give someone very specific and personal feedback, but I’ve realized that in fact, it’s something to be encouraged and embraced to have a fully function team.”
Scott Lowe had two specific criteria in his search for a job after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 2012: “I wanted something intellectually stimulating but also high impact.” A program at his alma mater that had him working on commercializing technologies developed by University of Oklahoma faculty helped him realize that he also had an interest in entrepreneurship. So when a friend told him about Venture for America, it sounded like the perfect fit. The aspiring CEO says the training camp is providing valuable lessons he’ll be able to put toward his future goals. “I’m viewing this as CEO training. A CEO doesn’t have to know a lot about any one thing but needs to know a little bit about every aspect of the company, from finance to sending e-mails effectively. I think they’re doing a great job of CEO training.”
Headed to Detroit in the fall to work as a software analyst at Digerati, Lowe hopes to wear many hats during his apprenticeship. And while the transition from his small Oklahoma town to a very large city will no doubt take some getting used to, Lowe says he’s excited for the potential Detroit has to offer. “One of the fellows, Derek Turner, has a great quote: ‘There are empty skyscrapers (in Detroit). Where else would you want to start a business?’ I think that really speaks to why I’m excited.”
Melanie Freidrichs won’t have far to go when she begins her apprenticeship this fall. The 2012 Brown graduate will be heading down the hill to Providence-based Andera, an early stage company that creates software for small banking companies. It’s an ideal assignment for Freidrichs, who hopes to remain in the industry for the long term. “It’s an area that has been on the forefront of technology in many ways, but I do think there is a long way to go in terms of mobile banking and mobile payments and seeing what can be done to play with the traditional banking model to make that information easier to understand and more accessible for everyone.”
Freidrichs says she’s thankful for all of the technical skills she’s acquiring in the training camp, such as programming and Java, which will serve her well at her new job. She says she also appreciates the balance of startup and corporate perspectives that has been offered, despite Venture for America’s primarily small-business focus. “I don’t feel that the best entrepreneurs are the one’s that get caught up in being super startupy. I’m trying to look at what influences I can take from big business versus the startup world to be the best entrepreneur.”
When Michael Mayer was preparing to graduate from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2012, he turned to family and friends for guidance. Many of them had had success in banking, so Mayer chose a similar path, starting out as an intern for Credit Suisse the summer before his senior year. But when the company offered him a job, he turned it down. “I had an incredible summer, but the day-to-day in banking was not something I could get behind and get passionate about,” Mayer says. He confesses that he was initially nervous about his decision, but when he stumbled upon Venture for America, he knew he’d made the right choice. “It was kind of love at first sight,” Mayer says.
One aspect of the program that attracted him has the community outreach component. “You’re going to these places that need help, and not only are you helping to grow a business and enhance the local economy, but you’re also there to mentor kids at high schools or start some kind of social program to help people connect, so there’s a whole different aspect that you don’t get working at a startup elsewhere.” Mayer will be able to put that philanthropic spirit to good use in New Orleans, where he’ll be working for market research technology firm Federated Sample. Where he goes after his apprenticeship, he’s unsure, but he’s certain that he’ll value and use the network of fellows he’s met at the training camp for many years. “When I have a business idea, the first people I’m going to call are the fellows. While we’re here, we’re throwing out ideas left and right, giving constructive criticism and helping each other out, so we’re all going to be close and comfortable talking about our new ideas later on. I’m so excited to see what the future holds.”