The Brown Daily Herald- Alum offers grads new ventures in Providence

By Ashley Aydin, Staff Writer

Published on: Thursday, September 15, 2011

It’s usually a bad sign when a city finds itself in the company of Detroit and New Orleans — but not always. Providence joins its woebegone sisters in playing host to Venture for America, an entrepreneurship program founded by Andrew Yang ’96.

The program, launched in July, is a nonprofit that seeks to create jobs in economically struggling cities, provide entrepreneurship experience to college graduates and help graduates join start-ups in locations around the country.

“We want to provide a runway for people who have entrepreneurial aspirations and encourage them to fulfill those aspirations,” Yang said.

Venture for America places entrepreneurs in what the organization calls “lower-cost cities” — Detroit, New Orleans and Providence.

These cities represent the “new American frontier,” Yang said. “Each of these cities has a hub for thriving start-ups so that graduates can continue their growth and development,” he said.

Doug Ulman ’99, president and CEO of Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation and a Venture for America advisory board member, said he was moved by Yang’s business model. “He’s focusing on cities that can use the type of influx of youth and excitement,” he said. “I think there are a lot of cities in this country that are not considered hotbeds of entrepreneurial activity. So, there’s so much opportunity for seasoned entrepreneurs to have a huge impact there.”

Yang, who double concentrated in economics and political science, was inspired to start Venture for America when he met Charlie Kroll ’01, president and CEO of Andera, a financial services company.

“I thought if we were to have more talented graduates starting businesses like Charlie, it would great,” Yang said. “That’s what the country needs — more entrepreneurs.”

At Columbia Law School, he “saw a number of bright college grads that went down a particular path that didn’t really fulfill their needs as they hoped or anticipated.” But starting your own company is by no means easy. Yang’s first venture — which he started at 25 — failed. It was difficult starting a company while also focusing on management and professional development, he said.

“It’s hard to get into a start-up when you’re fresh out of school,” Ulman said. Giving young entrepreneurs a “two-year experience in the trenches” will inform their future business ventures.

Venture For America can “help build the bridge between enterprising college grads who want to learn how to be entrepreneurs and start-up businesses that need talent to continue to grow,” Yang said. 

Benefits of the program

Responsibilities of the fellowship include “developing materials, planning and executing placement initiatives, visiting and evaluating prospective start-up companies, interfacing with senior leadership at dozens of start-ups around the country and intensive relationship management,” according to the organization’s website. Venture for America is only hiring 50 fellows in its inaugural year.

“I think that the skills that they can obtain are practical ones,” said Tina Imm ’97, General Manager of Time Inc’s lifestyle group and a member of Venture for America’s entrepreneur board. “In start-ups, you get your hands dirty in a variety of things. You’re the intern getting coffee, and you’re also the CEO making decisions.”

Parker Brown ’12, a public policy concentrator, is interested in pursuing a fellowship after graduation. “You’re working for a start-up, and that can lead to anything,” he said.  

 Brown said Venture for America’s leadership also sparked his interest.

“I really admire the people who head the organization. They’ve done amazing things,” he said.

Brown, who is applying to the program, said he is most interested in using entrepreneurship as a vehicle for innovation.

“Finding more efficient and socially beneficial ways to do things and finding new ways to contribute to society — it’s very personal when you start your venture. I think you’re really invested in what you’re doing,” he said.

Tim Dingman, a fifth-year masters student in electrical engineering, said he first became interested in entrepreneurship while working on the planning committee for Better World by Design, a three-day design conference run by Brown and Rhode Island School of Design students.

“It taught me the performance of distributive innovation,” he said. “Venture for America’s purpose is to funnel people into that network of distributive innovators.”

The fellowship offers a number of benefits to its fellows. Salary includes $50,000 per year plus a bonus of up to $10,000 in the fellow’s first year, as well as medical benefits, a three-week paid vacation and the opportunity to build entrepreneurial experience. Once they have completed their fellowships, fellows can also enter a competition to win $100,000 in seed money for their own ventures.

Entrepreneurship at Brown

With courses like ENGN 0090: “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations” and an open curriculum, Brown’s academic offerings piqued the entrepreneurial interest of many of Venture for America’s board members.

“I think that Brown in many ways is a fantastic environment for training entrepreneurs,” Yang said. “I may not have gone down this particular path if not for my time at Brown.”

Ulman said Brown is not a university that people think of when start-ups come to mind, but students here are “so creative and innovative, and so many folks from Brown are interested in social change.”

Brown attracts a special type of person, Imm said. “There’s so much talent there,” she said. “You want to be successful and succeed, but not in a cookie-cutter way.” 

Equipped for the future

All of Venture for America’s fellows will be well-positioned to start their own ventures once they have completed the program, Yang said.  

Yang recommended that young entrepreneurs seek out mentors. “You can certainly learn by doing, but it is tremendously helpful to have someone who has gone through it before to tell you what to expect.”

Dingman stressed the importance of networks. “From what I’ve seen and read about and studied, building networks is the best way to build the thing you want,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you have the best credentials in the world. It’s easy for someone to say, ‘Oh, there’s someone else like him out there.’”

Having a strong vision is one of the most important aspects of being an entrepreneur, Imm said. “It’s about patience and persistence, and keeping at your vision,” she said. “You have to be like the energizer bunny and just keep going and going and going.”

VFA Note: Fellows salaries will range from $32,000-38,000 +benefits, instead of “$50,000 per year plus a bonus of up to $10,000 in the fellow’s first year, as well as medical benefits, a three-week paid vacation…” as stated. Also, all fellows participating in the fellowship have the opportunity to be awarded the 100k seed money and will be judged throughout the fellowship experience based on criteria given in advance.

Alums Who Do Cool Things (and a future career for you): Andrew Yang ‘96, President of Venture for America

From The Brown Daily Herald Blog, By: Jenny Bloom

Eager overachievers heading into inner-city classrooms – it’s been done.  Eager overachievers heading into some of America’s most struggling cities, including Detroit, New Orleans, and Providence, to create jobs – fresh meat.  Venture for America forges a liaison between college graduates, the start-up community, and distressed economies by placing young fellows in high-unemployment cities.  With the charge of creating organizations and expanding employment infrastructure, the organization hopes to create 100,000 domestic jobs by 2025.  The organization president, Andrew Yang ’96 (economics concentrator), took some time to speak with BlogDH.

What inspired you to start Venture for America?  How did you get the idea?  I’ve encountered hundreds of enterprising recent college graduates who wanted to get into start-ups but didn’t know where to start.  Yet, when I was running a company I was always looking to hire good young talent and had a hard time finding it.  I realized that there was a structural issue around start-up recruiting – if we made it easier to work for start-ups and provided a support system, many more graduates would take advantage of the opportunity.

How did you develop the model for VFA? Do you have any association with Wendy Kopp or Teach for America?  We’re certainly inspired by what Teach for America has accomplished.  Several of my recent colleagues were Teach for America corps members, and I saw what a profound impact TFA had on their careers.  One of our Board members is the former President of Teach for America, but we don’t have any official relationship beyond that.

Can you tell us more about the inaugural Training Institute in Summer 2012 at Brown?  It lasts for 5 weeks, and over 30 experienced venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have already agreed to speak at the Training Institute.  We’re focused on conveying concrete skills that will allow the Fellows to contribute at a start-up from Day 1.  It will be quite intense.

What support and training are given to VFA fellows prior to starting their jobs?  In addition to the Training Institute, VFA Fellows will be part of a strong community – each will be living in a city with 10 or more other Fellows.  Programming continues throughout the 2 years, as the Fellows will meet online every two weeks to discuss their experiences and various assigned readings.  Also, there will be an in-person monthly event in each city hosted by a different entrepreneur or company.

Do applicants need any prior experience?  Applicants need the talent, drive, and skills to be useful to an early stage company, but work experience isn’t required.

How did you go about executing this vision and recruiting financial support as well as assembling a board of directors?  I’m very fortunate in that, having been an entrepreneur for the last 11 years, I’d developed a network that helped get VFA off the ground.  Also, people find the mission of Venture for America compelling, as everyone wants to see our economy generate more jobs and help start-up companies succeed.

How did you pick your target cities?  We were drawn to cities that we believe represent the new American frontier, where there are entrepreneurs who are developing businesses that had an opportunity to grow.  I obviously had an attachment to Providence, given my time at Brown.

What advice do you have for student entrepreneurs interested in a start-up?  In my experience, the best way to put yourself in position to start a company is to support another more established entrepreneur first.  You’ll get a lot of exposure, gain some skills, and begin building a network that will help you if and when you decide to go out on your own.

What was your favorite class at Brown?  Engineering 09 with Professor Hazeltine was up there!  I also enjoyed Labor Economics and Ethics and Public Policy with Professor Cheit. I learned a lot in those classes.

Is there anything else you went to tell us, either about your experience at Brown or after graduation, or your company, Venture for America?   In my view, Brown is a natural training ground for entrepreneurship given its emphasis on intellectual freedom and creativity.  Several of my friends from Brown started companies at various points.  I hope that Venture for America provides a runway for at least a handful of Brown graduates to fulfill their start-up aspirations.

Andrew Yang will be on campus Tuesday, September 13 for two events.  He will be at a Brown Career Services Info Session from 12-1:30pm (@ Career Services on Angell St.) and speaking to The Entrepreneurship Program and Brown Investment Group from 5-6pm (location TBD).

Note from Venture for America: The Brown Entrepreneurship Program and Brown Investment Group event will be held in Wilson 101!

New Program Leads Grads to Start-Ups

 

Almost one in three students from the Class of 2011 working for pay this year will take jobs in the financial services or consulting sectors, according to Senior Surveys conducted by the Office of Career Services last spring.

It’s a statistic that embodies the extent to which Harvard students gravitate towards high-profile and high-paying jobs.

Now a group of entrepreneurs are looking to give students another option.

Drawing lessons from the successful Teach for America program that sends college graduates into classrooms across the country, the new program—Venture for America—will connect graduates with start-up companies.

The program, whose board includes a number of Harvard alumni and professors, will give 50 hopeful entrepreneurs two-year jobs at 50 separate start-ups beginning next summer.

The arrangement is “win-win-win,” said VFA’s founder Andrew Yang. College graduates will gain coveted entrepreneurial experience, while start-ups without the recruiting resources of larger companies will be able to entice the country’s best and brightest, he said. And by sending students to start-ups in three “low-cost” cities—Detroit, New Orleans, and Providence—program organizers also hope to foster community development.

“We think that there are hundreds of seniors who very badly want to learn how to start a business, but those ambitions are difficult to fulfill on your own,” Yang said.

The program is gaining momentum. Although its formal recruiting process has not begun, more than 400 students from schools across the country have submitted applications.

Yang hopes VFA will become a “runway” for students interested in entrepreneurship. Following a three-round application process that includes a written application, phone interview, and trip to New York, each selected “fellow” will receive five weeks of training at Brown University.

Participants will be matched with 1 of 50 partner start-ups and will receive normal employment benefits and an annual salary of approximately $35,000.

Gaibrielle A. Bryant ’12, a Detroit native who has already applied to VFA, said the program is more than an internship.

“This is a job that you have for two years,” she said.

And for one talented fellow per class, there is an extra reward at the end of the program: $100,000 in feed investment to start his or her own business.

Jinzhao Wang ’14, co-president of the Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum, said this incentive is an important aspect of what makes VFA innovative.

“VFA will give people the satisfactory feeling that they are doing something good—but they are making this opportunity just as economically satisfying as other opportunities,” she said.

HCEF is coordinating with VFA to organize a recruitment event on campus early in the fall.

Chris S. Paik ’09, a member of VFA’s Board, said he thinks VFA’s message is a particularly important one for the Harvard community, which is generally very “risk-averse.”

Calling the financial services “prestigious, well paying, safe,” and “logical,” he acknowledged that starting a business means accepting a high rate of failure—an idea that Harvard students may have trouble taking to heart, he said.

“If you get it right, you’re Mark Zuckerberg, and if you get it wrong, you live in your parents’ garage for the rest of your life,” he said.

But Paik hopes that VFA can gain the prestige of TFA—and start to eliminate the stigma of risk Harvard students associate with entrepreneurship.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

The New American Frontier

I occasionally get asked if I had any personal ties to Detroit before Venture for America. And the truth is that I didn’t beyond the fact that I think many people in the U.S. feel motivated and galvanized by the idea of a great American city beset with secular economic issues and looking to redefine itself. Now that I’ve spent some time there these past months, the sense of collective identity and struggle is palpable and compelling. Everyone there is pulling for everyone else to succeed.

There are various neighborhoods in Detroit where there’s a visible line between new business development on one hand and abandonment on the other. The entrepreneurs, developers, and residents in Detroit are literally engaged in a block-by-block fight to rebuild the city’s economy and reclaim vacant buildings.

Historically, the U.S. Frontier was defined by a few traits:

1. Unsettled, with abundant cheap land.
2. Attractive to hardy pioneers who would claim and build new settlements and institutions.
3. Represented the future.

In late August, prior to my last visit, a friend of mine bought a 1,500 square foot apartment in Detroit in a high-end co-op building for $20,000 (maintenance is $1k+/month). The same apartment in Manhattan might have cost 50 times more. On a similar note, I had lunch with a successful restaurant owner who told me that he had explored opening a restaurant in Chicago or Detroit, and had chosen Detroit because the rent and costs of building out the space in Detroit were 67% lower. It’s the modern-day equivalent of cheap land.

During my trip, I had drinks with an entrepreneur, Kevin Venner, who had just moved from Dallas to Detroit because he felt that’s where the exciting opportunities were going to be. The same night, a friend told me about another entrepreneur who had just moved to town from Canada to start a bicycle manufacturing company. The pioneers are starting to arrive.

Last, Detroit is an early example of a city facing the issues that globalization will bring to bear on the whole country. It’s not just manufacturing – IT, legal, design, and other service industries are increasingly subject to the same forces and pressures. Detroit represents the future of the U.S. economy. What happens in Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, and other U.S. cities will ultimately determine the country’s economic course overall. If they thrive, the whole country will.

In the 1840’s, the frontier was defined by a westward migration and Manifest Destiny. In 2011, the frontier is Corktown in Detroit, the French Quarter in New Orleans, downtown Providence, and other urban centers. Just as in the nineteenth century, opportunities abound for those who are willing to move, act, and stake their claim.