Why I Went VFA: Spencer Wolfe

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 Spencer Wolfe tells the story of how he learned to be inspired instead of intimidated by his peers.

I will create opportunities for myself and others


I spent a great deal of time thinking about Alexander the Great on my 16th birthday. When Alexander was 16, he had led several successful campaigns and founded a city in his own name. When I turned 16, I got my driver’s permit and delivered food for a Chinese restaurant (I named my car Bucephalus after Alexander’s horse). When Alexander was 20, he was king of Greece. When I turned 20, I was voted student of the month and had my first real girlfriend. I developed a bad habit of understanding my accomplishments only with respect to Alexander the Great’s—admittedly a tough act to follow; hence his title.

At Columbia University I continued my love for Alexander by studying Greek history. I also continued the bad habit of judging myself relative to others. However, now my peers were at a caliber I had never before experienced. I met engineers better read on Greek philosophy than I, a girl who spoke five languages and played the piano like she was born during the crescendo of a Chopin concert (she was pre-med, naturally), and my roommate who, between building websites in his free time, would read whatever piece of literature I was reading in a third the time. He enjoyed spoiling the endings—I had no idea that Anna Karenina killed herself until he told me over a Thursday evening beer. I was intimidated. The façade of Butler Library, etched with the names of my idols—Herodotus, Homer, Sophocles—became not a beacon of learning but a reminder of what I would never achieve. Navigating such a potent sea of talent became oppressive. Overshadowed by my peers, I retreated inward. I found a small group of friends, got a work study job—paid on Friday and broke by Monday—having done nothing of consequence in the interim. The overachieving, ambitious high schooler I once was became lost among the Warren Buffets, Enrico Fermis, Asimovs and Kerouacs of Columbia University.

It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized something very fundamental—I had a choice. To be inspired and to be intimidated are two sides of the same coin, and I had the agency to govern my reactions to these impressive people. It became clear that feelings of inadequacy are not so far removed from feelings of awe. I could choose between intimidation and inspiration. At this, I promptly walked into my roommate’s room, the one who spoiled the ending of Anna Karenina, and asked him to explain what an IP address is. The following conversation (also over a Thursday evening beer or five—perhaps you’re noticing a trend) was one of the richest I have ever had. For every question I had about my computer, he responded with a question about naval tactics in the Peloponnesian War. I was happy to oblige. I spent my last semester choosing to be inspired by my fellow Columbians, suddenly surrounded by countless opportunities to learn and think differently. I became more confident, outgoing, friendly, and reaped the requisite benefits from my peers. I learned as much from my classmates in these last several months as I had in four years of an Ivy League education. My final takeaway: for every person I was intimidated by, there were an equal number intimidated by me.

This is the lesson I brought to my credo talk at the beginning of the VFA training camp. In a group of 106 overwhelmingly brilliant and talented twenty-somethings, it would be easy to lose track of one’s own strengths. Thus I called on the VFA class of 2014 to be inspired by one another. However, I took it one step further. With only five weeks together, it is imperative to actively seek out one another’s strengths and stories. Each fellow is a mini-opportunity for the whole class to learn and grow. With this in mind, I asked to get breakfast, lunch, or dinner with each fellow over the course of training camp. “I want to take each of you on a date,” I joked. The response was overwhelming. After creating a quick Google spreadsheet, I had nearly every slot filled for the entire summer. While not all of these lunch dates have been honored (the product challenge derailed my ambitious schedule, though I got to know my core group all the better), the conversations with fellow fellows have been some of the highlights of my summer. Over dining hall chicken fingers, Hetali and I debated feminism, as cordially as imaginable. Alexa, T, and I had a conversation so powerful about love, long distance, and the future, that I missed a group meeting by well over an hour. I plan to wake up at 4:30am next week to have breakfast with those fellows observing Ramadan. In the spirit of fellows teaching fellows, I am happy to say I have learned more than I thought possible from my peers. I hope I have given back even a fraction of that.

The second to last credo reads, “I will create opportunities for myself and others.” It’s easy to write this off as either a derivative of volunteering in our cities or looking to found a company that will eventually employ a hundred people. I argue there is a more quotidian reading—one that encourages us to interact with and learn from each other on a daily basis. Inspire and choose to be inspired. You’ll be amazed how much you learn.

I turn 23 next year. At 23, Alexander the Great was undefeated and well on pace to conquering the known world. Impressive. But if I have learned my lesson, I won’t stack my own achievements against his. I’ll recognize the opportunity, choose to be inspired, and learn.

Fellow Reflection: The Profit Challenge

Congrats to Team Notorious VFA on winning the Profit Challenge!   2014 Fellows Ranjani Sridhara, Avery Hairston, Brian Schwartz, Katherine Robinson, and Spencer Wolfe created “The Great World Novel”, a crowdsourced and crowdfunded narrative. They raised over $800 in profit and $1200 in revenue from crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.

Team member Ranjani Sridhara recounts the challenges faced and lessons learned by her team during the Profit Challenge, and how they ultimately succeeded.

Ranjani Sridhara

Be comfortable being uncomfortable. This quickly emerged as one of the biggest lessons we were going to learn at Training Camp. On Day 4 of our challenge, with our campaign already in full swing, Team Notorious VFA went into crisis mode. It was in the heart of the profit challenge – a project in which we were tasked with making as much profit as possible in 10 days using crowdfunding.

Since my background is in biomedical engineering, it’s safe to say this was the first time I’ve really had to sell something concrete to my friends and family. With no idea how to crowdfund anything and with the strange recent success of the Potato Salad guy, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself in to. I was completely out of my comfort zone, to say the least.

Our group quickly decided that we wanted to keep as much profit as possible while creating something of our own. After an incredibly productive ideation process, The Great World Novel was born. Our goal was to transform the concept of the telephone game into narrative form and play it across the entire internet. Anyone could be a part of the novel, by contributing a sentence, paragraph, page, or illustration. In addition, enthusiasts could pay more to name the book, design the cover art, or write the first or last page. We would then compile the content by facilitating the “telephone” process through all of our authors and turn it into an e-book that would be sent to those who contributed more than $15.

We got off to a slow but steady start, making a few hundred dollars from close friends and family in the first few days. By day four, however, we were at an impasse. After running our idea by a member of the VFA team and posting the idea on Reddit hoping for traction, we began to see an unfortunate pattern.

“It’s a cool idea…but it sounds a little scammy. What’s the incentive for me?”

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“Scammy” was definitely not the reaction our team had been looking for. We reconvened later that evening into a heated debate over
whether or not our idea was even viable. Some group members thought the curation process was our value-add, while others wanted to scrap the project altogether and start over. Finally, we settled on a happy medium. In order to move forward with our campaign, we needed to give more in exchange for the content our writers were providing. We decided to print a physical copy of the book and send it to anyone who contributed more than $15 as well as donate a portion of our proceeds to Reading is Fundamental (RIF), a charity that provides literacy resources for children.

Feeling much better about ourselves and the legitimacy of our campaign, things finally started looking up for The Notorious VFA. We hired a PR firm that had reached out to us, got contributions from a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, learned a prominent New York artist had donated to design the cover, and ended up with a website after a freelance designer took an interest in our project. By the end of the first week, we were more than halfway to our goal and getting much more positive feedback.

By getting comfortable with the uncomfortable situation we encountered, we were able to tip our campaign. The Notorious VFA has raised over $1200 in revenue, $800 in profit, and has more than 50 authors contributing to our novel. After receiving more positive feedback, we even decided to extend our campaign by another month to try and reach 100 authors. Our goal is to publish the book by January 1st, 2015 and start distributing The Great World Novel to those who were involved.

I learned more in these ten days than I ever could have expected. It is clear that one of the main  goals of Training Camp is to explore life outside your comfort zone. Learning skills in the classroom was valuable in its own way, but being put right into an uncomfortable situation opened my eyes to skills I never thought I had. I am constantly impressed by the things my fellow Fellows accomplish from week to week and I can’t wait to continue learning with them.


Innovation Fund: Giving Small Businesses a Bigger Chance

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 Kate Catlin discusses how she’s harnessing the Internet to create small-business-friendly economies of scale.

How Internet Companies Could Potentially be Good for Your Favorite Local Boutique
Instead of Just Ruining Neighborhoods, Society and Everything

Kate Catlin As individuals, we no longer ever have to “go it alone”.

I’ve consulted Google for advice on everything from toothaches to breaking up with boyfriends. I knew all the best local running routes within a month of living in Detroit thanks to MapMyRun. I brake before upcoming highway speed patrols with tip-offs from Waze. Yelp tells me what to order at a seemingly-sketchy sushi joint and Groupon gets me 50% off the bill.

As often as we lament the effect the Internet has had on our social skills, we reap the benefits. We’re hyper-linked (pun intended) to each other in ways that offer wisdom and purchasing power greater than we ever could have had alone. That $8 Groupon discount I got on sushi? That, folks, is the power of connectivity.

Unfortunately, this is not always good for local small businesses. Increasing globalization means large chains can push down prices to absurd levels. Then Google Shopping allows me to compare prices at several different chains and buy the cheapest option of the already cheap options, pushing the margin down even more.

We’re coming closer and closer to the economics concept called “perfect competition” (which should only be hypothetical) in which prices get driven down so low that no businesses make any money on anything, they just break even. How could the “little guy” ever possibly compete?

Get ready for the silver lining: Small businesses no longer have to “go it alone” either.

The same forces of connectivity that are driving prices down could help small businesses achieve “economies of scale” and better compete. In one sentence, economies of scale could be described as making all your production cheaper by doing it in massive numbers. While no small business owner can achieve this on their own, they can if they work together. There are 170,000 small businesses where I live in Michigan alone. Together, they’re bigger than the big box retailers.

Traditionally, these partnerships came through local business associations. This has had mixed results – you can pay your membership dues, but it’s still up to you to attend the networking events and handshake your way to victory. That takes time. The Internet can offer a more efficient way. A few websites have sprung up to facilitate specific interactions like bulk ordering, delivery truck sharing or tool rental. They’re already saving those small businesses involved thousands, and this is only the start.

AssembleI’m starting my own project called Assemble, which aims for horizontal solutions rather than vertical ones. Small businesses will be able to connect over all the above options and more: finding buddies for cross-promotional marketing and a call-in to talk to when they’re unsure. You can see more and buy goods from a supportive Detroit local business here. While in the beginning we’ll start with a low-tech Craigslist-style website, the end goal is that small businesses have all the power of a big business through a plethora of magical SMB union possibilities automated by software.

Tech companies and internet retailers have been accused of destroying the neighborhood (see here and here). It’s true that increased competition puts pressure on today’s local spots. Yet tech has the potential to create opportunity for all, from the kid who teaches himself to code and creates a career to the small business who uses connections to get ahead. The tools bubbling up to support the little guys will inevitably benefit more than they cost, and it’s exciting to see it all come to fruition.

Innovation Fund: Discovering Baltimore’s Culinary Delights

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 Clara Gustafson describes how Clipper City Market, an interactive food market, will pull together all of Baltimore’s culinary offerings into one place for people to eat, shop, and learn.

Clara GustafsonI would be lying if I told you that food was my life. I often forget to eat when I am at work or in the middle of a big project. However, I do love taking time to cook a good meal and get together with friends to eat! My favorite thing about food, though, is when situations such as walking to an Oriole’s game hungry on a Sunday necessitate a stop at a random street corner which in turn results in the discovery of a new place (Water for Chocolate) with the best pulled pork breakfast burrito you will ever have in your life.

 Peter DiPrinzio, Adam Rhoades-Brown, Moss Amer and I are working on a project, Clipper City Market that will create an accessible and innovative way for all of Baltimore to experience food. It will be an interactive food market full of Baltimore vendors and chefs showcasing their finest. Not only that, it will also have a state-of-the-art demo/workshop stage to rival the Food Network’s. Personally, I would love to learn how to soft boil an egg – that sounds delightfully fancy. What would you want to learn from the demos and workshops? Pickling, de-boning a chicken or curing meats would all be interesting – the beauty of the workshops is that we get to learn tricks from chefs who do these things all day long.

Now when it comes to people who have more experience in cooking than I do, I can say with absolute certainty that our team’s visionary – Peter – knows his way around a kitchen. He has been cooking dinners for 15+ of our friends since we arrived in Baltimore. We have made so many new friends eating his delicious food in our kitchen. Along with our healthy dose of hunger, Adam, Moss and I also bring an enthusiasm for real estate, design and marketing, respectively, to the table.

Clipper City MarketClipper City Market has interested a dozen chefs and vendors in either the market aspect, the demo stage opportunity or both. We are excited to create a platform for up-and-coming food entrepreneurs to experiment and seasoned veterans to tryout new recipes. Help us make it a reality by checking out our page on Rockethub campaign!

Baltimore has many different flavors of chefs and restaurants throughout its different neighborhoods and I know I have barely scratched the surface of options and opportunities when it comes to innovative food. Clipper City Market will not only help me to discover new and exciting chefs and vendors, but hopefully it will do so for the rest of the city too.

Be a part of the Clipper City Market story today!

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!)