Innovation Fund: Building a Better Model for Microlending

The Innovation Fund gives aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch their business ideas and projects. 8 new projects have kicked off on RocketHub! Between now and August 4th, the team that raises the most money will receive additional funding to launch their venture.

2013 Fellow Jacob Eichengreen recounts how his experience working in emergency relief for the Haitian Earthquake led him to rethink the microfinance lending model.  His latest venture, Bloom Micro Financial, plans to improve the process of microlending.

7XmWBCfEQh4X7Gq2NN0WXXRX8IRGGThFLU4rZogOEsoMy freshman year at Wesleyan was the same year as the Haitian Earthquake. I was able to spend 2 weeks of my spring break splitting my time between meetings with the UN, USAID, Red Cross, and other large international relief player and working in the displaced persons camps in Port-au-Prince.

I was astounded by the disconnect between what was being done in those meetings and the actual needs on the ground in the camps.  While hundreds of thousands of people waited hopefully for help in the camps, I listened to representatives of some of the most reputable aid organizations in the world squabble over “territory” – completely disregarding the fact that “territory” was referring to the people suffering from disaster just outside the air-conditioned trailer.

I was astounded and also fascinated. I wanted to find the source of development dysfunction.

The following summer, I had an opportunity to study post-conflict development in Uganda and Rwanda. What I witnessed on that trip deepened my passion to understand how development assistance is often so misguided. I designed an independent research project and secured grant funding to return to Uganda the following summer to spend 4 months digging even deeper into the problem.

What emerged ultimately became better model for microfinance lending; a model that I documented in my honors thesis and am now using as the foundation for Bloom Micro Financial.

Bloom is now competing in VFA’s Innovation Fund to raise money to get off the ground.

Where current microlending practices build redundant businesses that cultivate internecine competition in local communities and add little real value, Bloom builds vertically integrated local economies that push competition back into the national and international marketplace, promoting national economic health. A far more detailed explanation of Bloom’s strategy is available on its RocketHub profile, but in essence the project consists of two main pieces:

Bloom Micro Financial

  • An on-the-ground lending institution that works with local entrepreneurs and businesses to identify new opportunities that complement existing businesses and build more impactful local economic engines.
  • A peer-to-peer platform to turn microlending into an investment opportunity and connect local entrepreneurs looking to fill those opportunities with lower-cost capital from around the globe.

Working in tandem, these pieces will open doors for millions looking to escape poverty without jeopardizing what has already been built.

Most of the people I met in Haiti constantly asked me when I was coming back. They had met and worked with so many international volunteers who came to the country, started projects, and then left without ever finishing them that a return visit was a more important indicator of commitment to help than the first visit, no matter how good my intentions were.

I’m not on my way back to Haiti – yet. But knowing the reasons behind their questioning pushed me to promise myself that I would continue coming back to my work in development. Even though I’m currently working domestically, VFA continues to be a priceless contribution to my international development work, giving me the skills and experience I need to build Bloom from the ground up. And, now, through the Innovation Fund, VFA could be providing me with the resources to fulfill that promise and keep working.

Innovation Fund: A Startup is Really Just a Rube Goldberg Machine

The Innovation Fund gives aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch their business ideas and projects. 8 new projects have kicked off on RocketHub! Between now and August 4th, the team that raises the most money will receive additional funding to launch their venture.

2012 Fellow Jake L’Ecuyer discusses how his latest project with 2013 Fellow Eleanor Meegoda, Motor City Machine Works, taught him that startups are like Rube Goldberg machines.

Jake L'Ecuyer

We’re building a giant Rube Goldberg Machine in Detroit. Or rather, we’re gathering dozens of Detroiters from across the city and suburbs to build the largest continuous chain of Rube Goldberg Machines in Detroit.

For the uninitiated, a Rube Goldberg machine is a highly complex set of physical interactions that complete a simple task, often in comical or amusing ways.

Building a Rube Goldberg machine is an incredibly complex, frustrating, and failure-rich affair.
In the process of building our machines, we’ve realized that our experiences and lessons translate pretty directly into the character traits needed to succeed at a startup.

In fact, it sounds pretty close to building a startup. Here are a couple of our takeaways that apply to both.
Motor City Machine Warks

Accept, and be comfortable with failure

Building a Rube Goldberg machine can be quite frustrating. It’s not uncommon for dominoes to fall over as you set them up for the fifth time in a row, half the machine to set itself off as a golf ball slips, or for a critical component to flat out not work when you try and run it.

At a startup failure is common as well. Often times the elaborate machine you built simply doesn’t solve the problem; and you have to go back to the drawing board. Both with Rube Goldberg machines and startups, the builder must be able to not only accept failure, but embrace it and move forward.

Celebrate the little successes

Small victories are key when building a complicated project. Each time a piece of your machine works, get excited! You’re one step closer to the goal! Building something as complicated as a Rube Goldberg machine takes significant patience and involves repetitive failure. Once something finally works, be sure to take the time to pat yourself and your team on the back. You earned it.

Think ahead

Every section of a Rube Goldberg machine must conserve energy and carry it through to the next step as efficiently as possible. More importantly than the energy being carried through, however, is knowing where that energy is going.

A common mistake both entrepreneurs and venture capitalists write about is the tendency to plow forward with their heads down, remaining so focused on a problem or project that they forget to step back and see the issue as a whole.

What’s the point in completing a beautiful machine if it doesn’t solve the problem you need it to?

Be patient and do not expect instant success

To expect success the first time you run a Rube Goldberg machine is to invite disappointment. The same goes for startups.

Often, the initial version of a product will fail spectacularly. Not only must a builder be comfortable with that failure, but they must expect it and be prepared to iterate and adapt quickly. It’s these changes that make a Rube Goldberg machines and startups, alike, beautiful.

The end product often looks far different than what you initially imagined after many iterations.

Balance the deliberateness of an engineer with the creativity of an artist

Putting together a Rube Goldberg machine does require some mechanical aptitude, but it thrives on the creativity of an artist more so than anything else, primarily because it’s unlikely anyone has tried to solve your problem in this way before.

This same outlook applies to startups. While new products and software often call for very skilled engineers, the creativity to be able to do more with less while solving a problem in an entirely new way is what’s most critical.

Once you’re done all you want to do is build another…

Forget the frustration, countless hours of work, and unending number of failures. Once your machine is complete, all you really want to do is launch another.

After the long fight once the job is done, you’ll find that you’ve fallen in love with the process itself, and that all you really want to do is go at it again.


Why I Went VFA: Dylan Gordon

When it comes to the stories of how our Fellows chose VFA, no two are the same. Each morning at Fellow Training Camp, we ask one Fellow to choose one of Venture for America’s “credos” that really speaks to them, and tell the story of why.

2014 VFA Fellow Dylan Gordon tells his story below.

There is no courage without risk

Dylan Gordon (1)

When Ms. Lucy handed me a standardized test in the first grade, I sprinted out of the classroom.  That blue booklet, loaded with tricky, unnecessary questions, terrified me.  What if I answered a question incorrectly?  Would I be perceived as unintelligent?  I begged to call my mom; I was simply too overwhelmed to carry on. It was around this time that I started seeing Dr. Strongin, a psychologist whose practice was located in my town.  I hated our weekly sessions.  Having to explain my fear of failure to another individual was an arduous and frustrating task.  Listening to his generic, scripted responses was even worse.  But I will never forget the last session I had with Dr. Strongin.  I walked into his office, seated myself on the couch facing the clock, and waited for the typical “tell me about your week” icebreaker.  That introduction never came, but what did come was a statement that has never left me.  He said, “Dylan, Alex Rodriguez is the best player in baseball.  But you know what?  His batting average is only .333.  How can you expect yourself to be perfect if Alex Rodriguez gets on base just one-third of the time?”

Nothing about this assertion was new to me.  I knew Alex Rodriguez’s batting average like the back of my hand.  Yet, I had never thought about baseball, or anything for that matter, in this light.  I left the session with an interesting, new perspective, and most importantly, a framework to which I could revert.  But that session did not completely heal me.  I still feared failure more than anything, and I needed a way to resolve said fear.  So over the next few years, I did what any other kid would do: I started to plan my entire life out.  I figured that if I could execute the plan perfectly, I would never have to stare failure in the eye.  I worked on the plan for years and witnessed its evolution from broad statements to polished details.  By the end of my freshmen year of high school, the plan was complete.

The crazy thing was, I executed the plan to perfection.  I was accepted into my first choice for college, majored in my desired disciplines, earned my real estate license while teaching tennis, and interned in the professional sports industry for two years.  Having valued personal execution as the most meaningful aspect of my life, I was cruising.  But I was only cruising on the surface; internally, I bottled my emotions, dreams, and desires in favor of flawless execution.  This was my accepted mentality for as long as I could remember.  But on the final day of my internship last year, I came to a startling realization that would forever change the course of my life: I needed to put myself before the plan.

And so I did.  I started engaging in daily self-reflection sessions, which assumed the same format each time.  Suffice it to say, I learned more about myself during these sessions than in any other time in my life.  More importantly, I finally discovered my true passions and dreams: I wanted to build something from the ground up and create value in doing so.  Yet, I would be lying if I told you that I was not scared about aborting my plan.  I was petrified, nervous, and unsettled.  In fact, I continued applying for jobs in the sports industry (part of the plan) to mitigate any risk of failure.  Furthermore, I was dealing with skepticism from the people that knew me best.  My friends did not understand why I was pursing another life route, and it took my parents quite some time to get behind my decision.

But this was about me, not a plan.  It took me long enough to realize that, and I refused to revert back to my old ways.  So when I look at the credo, I am immediately drawn to, “There is no courage without risk.”  I just went for it.  And even though this was the biggest gamble of my life, I am now okay with not knowing what the future holds.  Why?  It goes back to something I learned from Dr. Strongin, something that I dismissed at the time but now value greatly.  That is, there are two options in life.  You can either rise to the challenge or simply watch others accomplish what you didn’t have the guts to try.  Thank you.

Innovation Fund: The Venture For America Effect

The Innovation Fund gives aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch their business ideas and projects. 8 new projects have kicked off on RocketHub! Between now and August 4th, the team that raises the most money will receive additional funding to launch their venture.

2013 Fellow Giuseppe Crosti describes how VFA prepared him to launch his Innovation Fund project, Cactus.

Giuseppe CrostiRecently I launched a campaign, Cactus, on the crowd-funding platform Rocket Hub. Cactus is a power strip that can be controlled through a web app to save money and electricity. I am working with three cofounders: a developer, a product designer, and a hardware engineer.

Cactus to me is an incredible opportunity, one that I could not have foreseen when I was graduating from Duke a year ago. I am working with an insanely talented team: Paul Rolfe, our lead developer, has done developer work for various startups and built Capitol Buddy, for which he has paying users. Ethan Carlson is a mechanical engineer from Yale with hardware experience at an energy startup. Jon Hills, our product designer, went to Brown and RISD (at the same time) and sells his furniture for hundreds of dollars on his website whilst building medical devices for a startup in Providence.

One year ago I was graduating from college with a degree in Biology. Now I am working with some of the smartest people I know to build a product that can disrupt a market. This is the Venture For America effect.

Venture for America did two big things to get me to where I am today:

  1. It preselected smart people that are interested in building things. People who want to use the large bucket of what they know to explore what they do not know. People who are willing to fail even though they are smart enough to predict the high likelihood of failure.
  2. It told me that many things that I considered impossible are possible, by getting the people who made it to come and speak to us. People like David Gilboa, who got it in his mind that he could disrupt the glasses market. Who would have known?? And now, according to Fast Company, Warby Parker is the world’s most innovative company in retail.

CactusThanks to the VFA effect we have a team with the power to execute on a beautiful, functional product that doesn’t really exist yet. In our research we have found faulty, expensive, or user-unfriendly competitors, and a Kickstarter campaign where the CEO has not been able to deliver. That’s why you don’t see one of these in every American household.

Because it really makes sense to have a Cactus. It’s good for the environment, and it can save households a lot of money. 10% of household energy use goes into keeping devices on standby when they could be turned off. That’s over $100 down the drain per household annually, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

So help us out! Check out our page, where you can get a prototype of Cactus for as low as $30. And look out for the VFA effect – I have a feeling it will revitalize some American cities soon.

Fellow Reflection: What I Learned from Chris Ryan

Throughout our Fellow Training Camp, VFA brings together world-class speakers, trainers, and experts to prepare our Fellows for everything that’s thrown at them.  Manhattan GMAT instructor Chris Ryan came by to give our Fellows a 2-day crash course on B-School topics.

2014 Fellow Emily Jorgens will be joining New Orleans startup iSeatz as a Data Scientist in August.  Check out her takeaways below…

Always Start with the Back of the Envelope (or Napkin)

by Emily Jorgens

Jorgens_Emily (1)

I told Eric on the first day of training camp that I was eager to learn more about how data can be leveraged. He told me Chis Ryan was coming the next week and to get excited!

The “MBA in a Day” and intro to modeling in Excel modules that Chris Ryan taught exceeded my expectations.

Not only did he provide a succinct overview of business fundamentals, like Porter’s Five Forces, but he also offered personal tips, like to always color-code Excel models and not to hide formulas in the cells.

I was most excited by Chris’s advice on how to analyze big data without getting lost in the minutia. His recommendation for approaching a complex problem is to “start with the back of an envelope”. In other words, consider the larger picture and develop a hypothesis, then think about how the available data can be leveraged to test your hypothesis.

At the first break I eagerly approached Chris with questions about my future position as a Data Scientist. I appreciated that he offered useful advice, which was specifically tailored to my situation. First, he suggested I read The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t by Nate Silver for more information on how we can distinguish a true signal from a universe of noisy data.

Chris also suggested that I have a dashboard of statistics that I run periodically. In addition to these habitual tests, he advised that I create a more adaptable framework in which I test new ideas, tailored to pertinent business decisions.

Having also signed up to spend lunch with Chris Ryan and a few other Fellows, I happily got to pick his brain further. He and I continued our conversation, delving into ways that I could organize the data I will be working with. Following his own “back of the envelope” advice, he even sketched out a model on the napkin at the restaurant. I also enjoyed hearing more about his career path. It was inspiring to hear about how he was drawn to teaching because he finds it fulfilling.

I really appreciate Chris’s sincere passion for teaching. I am looking forward to keeping in touch with him!

Fellow Reflection: What I Learned from Barbara Tannenbaum

Throughout our Fellow Training Camp, VFA brings together world-class speakers, trainers, and experts to prepare our Fellows for everything that’s thrown at them. Renowned Brown University professor Barbara Tannenbaum dropped by to teach the Fellows all there is to know about public speaking and persuasive communication.

Wondering what they learned? Check out 2014 Fellow Molly Adair’s takeaways below…

Lessons Learned from a Morning with Barbara Tannenbaum

by Molly Adair 

Molly Adair

“Turn to someone near you and introduce yourself,” was Barbara Tannenbaum’s first ask of us on this particular Tuesday morning. We all did, with firm handshakes and laughs as we re-introduced ourselves to neighbors.

“Now raise your hand if you’re 100% sure you know the eye color of the person you just spoke with.”

A measly three people were so bold as to raise their hands. This was the first of many lessons that Barbara would teach us over the next two hours.

From technical lessons, like how to whiteout your Powerpoint screen while presenting or the proper structure of a convincing argument (assert, support, support again, restate), to more abstract concepts like being assertive versus being aggressive, Barbara’s advice was applicable, helpful, and the perfect level of humorous. Though I learned far more, I took away three valuable lessons:

“All speaking is public speaking.”

Whether it’s a formal presentation to a room full of 100+ fellows or discussing a marketing strategy with a group of four, we are all constantly communicating with those around us. As Barbara pointed out, poor speech habits don’t just appear when you’re on stage. The more “um’s” and “uhh’s” you use every day, the worse they’ll be during a formal business pitch. By practicing good habits on a daily basis you can train yourself to be a better speaker.

“Think like your audience.”

The best way to connect with your audience is to understand who they are and where they’re coming from. This does not mean changing your viewpoint to align with their values, but phrasing things in a way that that person can best relate to. Gaining the trust of your audience allows you to connect so they will be more open to hearing you.

“Take up space.”

Public speaking isn’t just about verbal communication. The way you position yourself, the direction you turn your body, and how you show physical agreement are all forms of communication. When you feel confident going into a speech or presentation your body language will reflect this attitude. But for the vast majority of people who get nervous before a speech, there’s a way to trick yourself into confidence. Barbara called this the “imposter syndrome.” Right before a presentation, she encourages you to think “I’m so excited” instead of “I’m so nervous.” Simultaneously plant your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your chest held high and open. Spread your arms wide. Take up space. By making yourself open up and physically expand, you can increase confidence and harness your nerves to create a sense of excitement.

Not long after Barbara’s presentation, I gave my Pecha Kucha presentation to a smaller group of fellows. I started to get butterflies, so right before presenting I practiced taking up space. Right as Barbara had said I would, I felt more confident and excited going into the presentation. Sure, I messed up and started reading from the wrong notecard halfway through, but I had the confidence to correct my mistake and move on. (Thanks for that Barbara!)

Innovation Fund: How the Small Compete with the Big

The Innovation Fund gives aspiring entrepreneurs the opportunity to launch their business ideas and projects. 8 new projects have kicked off on RocketHub! Between now and August 4th, the team that raises the most money will receive additional funding to launch their venture.

2013 Fellow Taylor Sundali discusses how his Innovation Fund project, Compass, helps small businesses take advantage of technology to stay competitive.

“Would you be able to have my website open by September?”

“Won’t it cost a lot of money?”

Taylor Sundali

I listen to the questions over my phone hardly able to contain myself. I am excited. I’m excited, not because I could take advantage of an untrained small business owner. I could, you know. I could overcharge Pam, owner and operator of Hosiery with Style in Detroit. I could take my sweet time building a low-quality website that would barely benefit her operation. Though, the act of exploiting someone simply because they lack information takes low integrity. I don’t have low integrity.

I’m excited, rather, because I can help Pam. I’m excited because Mike Wilner, my business partner, and I have been incubating an idea for several months now, and it’s finally proving to be valuable. At the moment, I am doing everything I can to avoid bursting with excitement. Fortunately, I’m good at skipping while I talk on the phone.

My conversation with Pam, and dozens of others like it, highlighted a problem that hinders small businesses around the globe. Small business owners lack the time and energy required to keep pace with technological advances, and, because of this, they struggle to compete with companies that stay ahead of the curve.

Business owners focus most of their energy on growing their operation. Whether it’s making the hottest new sandwich in town, growing a membership subscription base to their gym or creating the sexxiest blue jeans, small businesses owners are engaged in the hustle-bustle of daily operations.

From personal experience watching my dad — owner of a residential construction company for the past 30 years — every scrap of energy he had was devoted to sustaining operations. Do you think he was researching pre-fabricated homes in his spare time? What about emerging markets for residential homeowners? Or how about building a website to help showcase his work? Doing so would have been at the cost of his short-term bottom line.

Large companies and organizations, however, devote resources to staying ahead of the curve. Fully-staffed R&D departments devote their existence towards finding useful information and technologies that will help “the mother ship”. In aggregate, the United States spent $405 Billion in 2011 on R&D (2.7% of GDP).  I can guarantee that R&D departments were scouring sources for any useful nugget of technology or market research that would benefit their company. I cannot say the same for small businesses.

How, then, can any local cafe compete with a Starbucks? How can Pam sustain her hosiery operation if Victoria’s Secret moves into town? There are too many moving parts to say for sure, but I think I have an idea that will help level the playing field. An idea that will help high-quality small businesses survive and compete with the big dogs. An idea that, on this particular day has me skipping with excitement while speaking with Pam.

A quality R&D department is clearly too expensive for any single small business to sustain, but if many small businesses contributed to a single R&D operation it becomes affordable. This same idea applies for many aspects of a large operation. In fact, if you’re interested in seeing how small businesses could compete with regards resources and  economies of scale, you should check out my friend’s business called Assemble.


Mike and I have an idea that will close the information-gap between small businesses and large corporations: Compass. Compass provides small businesses with technology advice and services from a community of tech experts. As of now, our community consists of the high-caliber, value-adding Fellows in Venture for America. We’re like a R&D department and a technology-based operations department all rolled into one, and we’re here to benefit American small businesses.

How can the small compete with the big? If enough small guys contribute to the same operation, they’ll reap similar benefits of “the big”. Contribute now to get a slice of the pie. If you’re not a small business, but you want to fund us based on moral alignment, contribute. We’ll make sure your money is put to good use.


Why I Went VFA: Swad Komanduri

When it comes to the stories of how our Fellows chose VFA, no two are the same. Each morning at Fellow Training Camp, we ask one Fellow to choose one of Venture for America’s “credos” that really speaks to them, and tell the story of why.

Swad Komanduri, a Cal Tech engineer and 2014 VFA Fellow, tells his story below.

My career is a choice that indicates my values


From a young age, I was told, in true millennial fashion, that I am unique. In fact, this notion was instilled in me from the day I was named. My name, Swadhruth, in Sanskrit, breaks down into two parts: sva, meaning “self,” and dhrutha, meaning “reliant.” So my name literally translates to self-reliant or independent. The uniqueness and meaning of my name really instilled in me a belief that I could significantly better the world around me, a notion that was reinforced not only by my parents, who gave me the self-confidence to believe that I can do anything I set my mind to, but also by my schools, which consistently labeled me as “gifted and talented.” Through this reinforcement, my belief blossomed into an ideal, a core tenet of my being, that I could do something to benefit society. This ideal was reinforced when I got into one of the most highly selective educational institutions in the world. I was confident that I would learn how to use my knowledge to improve the day-to-day lives of everyday people. As I got closer to graduation, I started to ask my older friends, who were working at the most prestigious companies (Facebook, Google, Consulting) what sort of work they were doing once they graduated. The answers I got were shocking.

One of my friends told me that his role was to make sure that when you clicked something in your email, it actually does what it’s supposed to do. Another told me that his job was to make sure that the notifications on your mobile app updated at the right time. And a third told me that his job was essentially a glorified way of moving data from one storage source to another. This was horrifying. I had been a full time student for almost 18 years at this point. 18 years of hard work and learning everything that was thrown at me culminates in this?! My education and training from arguably the best institution in the world leads to this?! It was extremely frustrating and disheartening to learn that this is where the path led. That the most prestigious and impactful use of my skills was to move data from one place to another was something I refused to accept. This was not the impact that I sought.

So I asked myself what the impact I sought truly was. Because of my background as a third-world emigrant growing up with first-world privilege, I knew that I wanted to uplift the lives of underprivileged communities. So that’s what I did. I met with the dean of my school and several of my professors and told them that this is the work I wanted to do and if they knew of any opportunities for me. Through their referrals, I was connected with the founder of a pre-launch startup focused on improving housing conditions in slums and rural parts of India through an innovative use of recycled waste. So after graduation, I packed my bags and joined him on what ended up being the greatest learning experience of my life. I learned firsthand that in order to actually solve a problem at scale and deliver the impact that I sought, I needed to create scalable sustainable value adding institutions, and that I had a lot to learn before I could be successful at doing so. It is this realization that led me to join Venture for America to learn the skills I need to maybe someday be worthy of my name.

VFA Update: Training Camp, Birthdays, and Summer as a Fellow

Check out our latest newsletter for an update from Providence, RI, where our Fellows are well into their startup Training!


Dear VFA Friends and Supporters:

Summertime and the living’s easy… unless you’re a VFA Fellow, that is. While most of us are gearing up for the most patriotic day of the year (and our favorite holiday at VFA!), our Fellows have landed in Providence, RI and launched into 5 weeks of rigorous startup training.

Luckily, we’ve found 100+ Fellows for the Class of 2014 who are not only ready to take on the challenge, but excited to spend their summer learning everything they need to hit the ground running at their startups in August.

Training Camp… It’s all we can think about. It’s all we can talk about. And as our friend, we didn’t want you to feel left out. Read on for updates, and you’ll feel like you’ve been right there with us.

Check out what’s happening with #VFAbootcamp Live!

Meet Mike Patterson. He’s one passionate Fellow. 

Mike Patterson is many things: a newly minted UPenn alum, a crazy-skilled programmer, and now… a VFA Fellow. We’re so excited to have Mike as part of the Class of 2014, and last week he wrote a blog post about his journey with VFA so far, why he’s excited about Training Camp, and why “failure isn’t an option”. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.Check out Mike’s post here, and learn more about the rest of our Fellows here.

Training Camp Top 5: What’s been happening in Providence?
So what’s been covered so far at #VFAbootcamp? How about UI/UX design, basic programming, sales, public speaking, Excel, staying healthy in the work place… and those are just the trainers. We’ve been lucky enough to supplement all of the above with visits from real entrepreneurs and angel investors to give Fellows the inside scoop on the world they’re heading into. 

It’s hard to pick just 5, but here are some highlights from what our Fellows have been up to for the past two weeks…


1. Redesigned the VFA Website. Training Camp kicked off with a bang as each Fellow group did a startup-weekend style redesign of the VFA Website. After learning all about UI/UX design from Graphics Institute of America Co-founder Jennifer Smith and getting a crash course in basic programming from The Flatiron School, the Fellows spent the next 30 hours reimagining our current site. What they were able to accomplish in that amount of time was incredible… so incredible, that we may even have to take some of their ideas for our own website revamp.2. Spent an afternoon with David Rose and Gary Chou. What’s the best way to see yourself through the eyes of an investor? Hearing from the experts themselves, of course. We were lucky to have David Rose, serial angel investor and founder of the New York Angels come by to talk about what he– and other angel investors– are looking for in the companies they help get off the ground. Then we wrapped up the week with Gary Chou, who’s held product roles at startups and big companies alike, and most recently managed an impressive portfolio of companies at Union Square Ventures. He also happens to be a VFA early-adopter, Fellow mentor, and generally awesome person.

3. Heard some awesome stories about what brought our Fellows to VFA. 

One of our favorite VFA Training Camp traditions is hearing from our Fellows each morning about why they chose VFA, and which of our five “Credos” speak to them the most. Whether it’s “My career is a choice that indicates my values” or “There is no courage without risk”, we never get sick of hearing about the journey that led them to VFA. One Fellow, Swad Komanduri, brought down the house with his story about how he became a Cal Tech engineer to get a job that mattered, but slowly realized that he needed to follow the path less traveled (VFA!) to actually make that happen.

4. Got a visit from a Rhode Island Senator. 

That’s right! At the end of week 1, we were lucky enough to start the day with a visit from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has dedicated himself to helping small businesses grow in Rhode Island and couldn’t wait to meet our newest class of Fellows. We’re so glad we have the chance to spend 5 weeks in Rhode Island, and that our Fellows have been able to have an impact on Providence over the past two years. Can’t wait to see what they do in year 3!

5. Reunited with the 2012 and 2013 Fellows

For a few days this week, 2012 and 2013 Fellows from all over the country came to Providence for a big #VFAFamily reunion.  The 2014ers got a chance to connect with older Fellows over lunch and at the 2012 Class Graduation/Alumni Launch.  Emotions were running high at the 2012 Graduation, as VFA got its first ever class of alumni – it was inspiring to hear stories from the 2012ers and learn about the big things they’re going on to do!

David Rose (left) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (right) had plenty to say to our Fellows when they dropped by in Week 1.
The 2012 and 2013 Fellows connected with 2014ers about their cities over a picnic lunch.
Fellows and VFA team at Providence’s G Pub for a mixer with our board members!

Want to join our awesome team? We’re hiring!


We’re energetic. We work really hard... and we also have more fun than anyone we know. Check out our current job openings for your chance to join our killer team!

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Fellow-led Detroit startup Banza gets a shoutoutIf you follow VFA, you’ve probably heard about Banza– a chickpea pasta company founded by 2012 Fellow Brian Rudolph. We love following his progress and success– and really loved the recent article published about Brian’s journey as a founder so far. 

Want to get involved in VFA?

You can…

- Become a Mentor

- Make a Donation

- Spread the Word

… and more!

For more on how you can help, e-mail us at

Smart People Should Build Things by Andrew Yang




Wish us a Happy Birthday and get some sweet VFA Swag! 
Our birthday is just a month away, and we want you to help us celebrate! In a few short years, we’ve trained and placed more than 200 Fellows in 12 budding entrepreneurial hubs across the country. And now, we’re ready for the next challenge. So what’s on our birthday wish list, you ask? For the first time, we’re making our awesome VFA swag available to the public– and we want you to rock it!Here’s the deal… Click here to make a donation and receive a hoodie, t-shirt, tank, onesie or one of our other cool items. Your birthday gift can help support our work in cities across the U.S. 
Show your support and get your swag today
Thanks for supporting VFA! We look forward to keeping you up to date on our progress.

All the Best,

The VFA Team and the Class of 2014



LeBron James and VFA

On Friday, LeBron James decided to head home to Cleveland.

If you’re a sports fan across the United States, your reaction was probably something like “Wow.  He left Miami.  Good for him and good for Ohio.”  But this is so much bigger than most people realize.

LeBron’s return is going to be a massive economic boost for the state of Ohio.  Revenue from increased ticket sales and spending in downtown Cleveland over the course of an NBA regular season plus playoff games is estimated at $198 million per year.  That’s a lot of money spent in local restaurants, bars, parking garages, hotels, etc. and hundreds of jobs.  You can bet national tv film crews will be spending an awful lot of time in Cleveland.

Then there’s LeBron James himself.  He’s the equivalent of a billion dollar company setting down in Ohio.  His endorsement income alone last season was $53 million, plus his salary will be $20 million in this first year, not including investments.  A lot of that money is going to be pumped directly into the state, even through taxes (yes, he chose to leave Florida which has no state income tax for Ohio which does).

More than any numbers though is this – perhaps the leading athlete and one of the top cultural figures of our time chose to return home to Ohio instead of living in Miami or Los Angeles or New York.

There’s a natural thought that if someone is really rich or famous, they’re somehow immune to things that affect normal people.  Like say, the weather.  LeBron knows exactly what it’s like for the team plane to land in Cleveland in January at 1 am after a road game, step onto an icy tarmac and make his way home through the snow.  He knows there’s no South Beach or waves where he’s going.  He’s trading nightlife for family life, comfort for impact, status for community, joining something for building something.

This isn’t the norm.  I have a couple of friends who were from Cleveland who went to Yale and Penn.  One of them worked in private equity in California and now lives in London.  The other tried unsuccessfully to work for a hedge fund in New York.  Neither of them is a world-famous athlete, obviously.  But this is a region that has far too often seen its young, talented people leave for what seemed like greener pastures.  Imagine living someplace where the goal of your top people seems to be to leave each year, like the point is to escape.

LeBron’s return makes everything better.  He changes the narrative.  And he understands all of this:

”I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get.”

And an echo from a restaurant owner in Cleveland:

“The guy said he didn’t realize what he left. It’s no different than my long-lost brother saying, ‘I miss home and want to come back.’ We talk about the talent drain in Northeast Ohio and now we see the most talented basketball player in the world coming back – it sends a message that, yes, you can come back home.”

Whoever out there thought that people in Cleveland might have mixed feelings about his return doesn’t understand the context.  LeBron’s story says that it’s okay to go someplace else to learn, grow, and achieve.  But it’s also okay to represent something, to fight for your community, and take a bit less money to take a harder road.  It’s okay to raise your kids in Northeast Ohio when you have your pick of anyplace in the world.  It’s a message people have been waiting to hear.

Congratulations to LeBron, Cleveland, the Cavaliers, the people of Northeast Ohio and the whole Midwest.  Excited for our 14 VFA Fellows (including Chris Cusack, everyone’s new best friend) in Cleveland to experience the years ahead!