From 2013 intern to 2016 Fellow

Domenic Merolla ’16

As a freshman at Hobart College, Domenic applied to be a VFA summer intern because working at Training Camp—in his mind, getting paid to spend the summer hanging out with a bunch of cool recent grads—sounded fun. He had no idea his career path was about to change forever.

 

In 2013, VFA was barely two years old. That Training Camp was the second the team had ever put on, and it was a lean operation—Domenic was integral to making the camp function. He and the rest of the team got up early and worked well into the night—but the satisfaction of accomplishment and camaraderie was enough to keep him going. Before the summer was over, he had already signed up to intern again. In 2014 and 2015, Domenic took on a leadership role, keeping the other interns on track. Every year the team trusted him with a greater amount of responsibility. “VFA formed me as a young professional,” Domenic says. “My whole conception of self became social entrepreneurship related.”

"It's hard to avoid platitudes—this was the most fundamentally important career decision i’ve ever made. But there's even more to say."

Choosing VFA

Choosing VFA

When senior year rolled around, Domenic knew VFA was in his future. He had spent the last three years getting close to the VFA team, and applying to join HQ in New York was tempting. But by then, the team had tripled in size, and a lot of the earlier kinks had been smoothed out. “When I started interning at VFA, it was in its very early stage,” he says. “That’s what I cut my teeth in, and that’s the kind of environment I’m most excited by.”  While VFA is still young, Domenic knew he wanted to be at an earlier stage company—so he applied to be a Fellow.

Starting from scratch at Updraft Ventures

During the match process, Domenic found the scrappy environment he was looking for—he got a job at Updraft Ventures, a new company founded by 2012 Fellow Ethan Carlson. Domenic describes Updraft as a “quirky small businesses incubator”—they partner with aspiring entrepreneurs and help them open up profitable small businesses that can turn a profit within a year. For now, they’re focusing on escape rooms. (Ethan is the founder of Escape Rhode Island, so he knows what he’s doing.) At Updraft, Domenic shepherds their aspiring entrepreneurs through every step of the process—from helping them find the right space all the way up to bringing in the first escape room customers. He’s even given himself a crash course in electrical engineering using Ethan’s college textbooks (necessary for some of the more complex puzzles). It hasn’t been easy, but it’s precisely the early-stage, scrappy environment he hoped to find.

Facing new challenges together

Facing new challenges together

It was tough bonding with the other Fellows at Training Camp in Providence, then watching them disperse all over the country at the end of the five weeks. But Domenic’s put in the effort to maintain those relationships, and his Fellow friends do their part, too. “VFA Fellows put their money where their mouth is,” he says. “If they say let’s catch up soon, they actually follow through.”

In his VFA cohort, Domenic has 170 peers who understand the intensity of startup life. A Fellow friend recently gave him some advice that resonated: Give yourself credit for the things you’re doing well, even when you make mistakes—don’t choose to define yourself by what you’ve screwed up. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but a useful one when you’re building something from scratch. Entrepreneurship is a constant exercise in rebounding from mistakes, and it never hurts to have a hand up. Or 170 of them.

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