I’ve been imagining Venture for America for years now. It wasn’t called Venture for America initially, it was a vague set of ideas, loosely strung together as ‘The Solution.’
The Problem is that we have a ton of talented, motivated young people emerging from schools each year that don’t have access to the sort of opportunities that they want. There is a structural defect in that the most visible and accessible pathways are presented by large, rich, professional services companies. But not everyone is designed to be a banker/lawyer/consultant, and it would be a truly dysfunctional economy if they were.
When visiting Brown University for an Entrepreneurship Panel in late 2008, I met Charlie Kroll. Charlie told the story of how he’d wanted to be a banker as an undergraduate, but instead entered a business plan competition and started a company in Providence as a college senior. He didn’t really know what he was doing at first, and Andera went through some rocky times in its early years. He stuck with it though. Fast forward to eight years later, and his company was thriving and employed 85 people. 85 jobs that would not have existed but for Charlie. I heard this story and said, “My God Charlie, if more of our top kids walked the path you’ve walked, our country would be a different, much better place.” Being a humble guy, Charlie demurred. I could have added that they would also likely have far more interesting, engaging, fulfilling careers.
So the seeds of Venture for America were planted as early as 2008. But one of the lessons that I’ve learned over the years is that ideas are like vessels that need to be filled with time and energy to become real. I was the CEO of a rapidly growing company at the time that required all my attention. It wasn’t until 2010 that my hands became free(r) and ‘Venture for America’ had a chance to become real.
Seeing Venture for America now take shape is heady stuff. The confidence, passion, and talent level of our first 28 Fellows are off the charts. It’s humbling; I was NOT as developmentally advanced at their stage. I tell myself that it’s because it was a different era (when I graduated from college, the Internet had just made the scene, and I was using Netscape to access sports scores), but it’s likely more than that.
I needed three years in law school and five months at a corporate law firm to send me out into the world highly motivated to do something else. I needed to climb the wall and get a good look. A number of our Fellows have had a brush with an investment bank, consulting firm, gov’t agency, or non-profit, and also find themselves charting a new and different course.
In my experience, most organizations are poorly designed for really smart, independent-minded, motivated people. This is true even, or especially, for those that employ large numbers of highly educated types (e.g., my old law firm). Yet in order to have an impact, you have to traffic successfully in an organization. No matter what position or role you take, you’ll have colleagues, customers, backers, supporters, board members, advisors, etc. and learning how to build and navigate those relationships takes time. Much of the struggle lies in finding what type of organization and role works for you.
During my wall-climbing days, I thought that there were two variables – talent and work ethic. But that misses the organizational piece, which is likely the most important.
Our first Fellows are extraordinarily smart and motivated. I have no doubt that a significant proportion of them will lead companies one day. But their most important quality is that they’re outstanding people who will find their appropriate role in an organization and find ways to contribute. They’ll find the boundary and stretch it, but do so in a way that will maintain the integrity of the organizations around them.
One of my good friends, Chris Ryan, was one of the first Teach for America Corps Members. He’s a Physics major from Harvard, so he’s clearly a smart guy. But as smart as he is, his character is on an even higher scale. I remember thinking that there must have been something special about the first TFA’ers.
There’s something distinct and special about the people Venture for America has attracted this first year. It’s the surest sign that we’re building something great.