I was on a panel at SXSW earlier this week with Mark Davis (Kohort), Marc Nager (Startup Weekend), Nick Seguin (Kauffman Foundation), Jeff Slobotski (Silicon Prairie News), and Paige Craig (BetterWorks) moderated by Shane Reiser (also of Kohort).  The topic was How to Build Entrepreneurship Communities.  Brad Feld of Techstars was meant to join us, but stayed in Boulder to attend to his wife. 

It was an interesting panel, as each of us had a different perspective.  We each directly touched different aspects of what makes an entrepreneurship community vibrant and successful: leadership, successful and aspiring entrepreneurs, media and resources.  Over the past year or so I’ve become exposed to the start-up scenes in Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, Cincinnati, and Las Vegas, so I had some sense of how these cities’ entrepreneur networks developed. 

A few themes arose from our discussion: 

  • Leaders often emerge by accident.  In many instances, a member of the community saw a problem (i.e., entrepreneurship is too inaccessible, no one’s talking about what’s being done in a particular region) and set out to solve it.   By so doing, they found themselves in a leadership role and a central figure in their community, though that wasn’t the original goal. 
  • The right community leaders prioritize others.  In part because they hadn’t set out to be the focus of the community, the best leaders think about how to build something independent of their own position.  Mark Davis talked about the greatest victory being that someone would come to a Columbia Venture event and not know who he was.  Lining up a successor in an organization was regarded as a crucial part of building an enduring network. 
  • Communities require lasting commitment. Mark, Marc, and Nick all commented on how communities take time and resources to coalesce.  It’s not an overnight process, but instead a multi-year endeavor that requires persistence to see results.  One signal of long-term commitment is a dedicated innovation hub, accelerator and/or co-working space, which appears in most any thriving start-up scene (RI-CIE and Betaspring in Providence, Cincytech and the Brandery in Cincinnati, Launchpad Ignition and Ideavillage in New Orleans, DVP and Bizdom in Detroit, etc.). 

Overall, the panel was well-received.  I was approached afterwards by individuals looking to build up start-up communities in Las Vegas (a VFA city), Chicago, Houston, Honolulu, Ithaca, Asheville, and other environments.  The interest level is at an all-time high. 

One point of contention that came up was that our panel was male-dominated, which could be said about the start-up scene in general.  Shane took the heat for that, but it’s really not his fault that the numbers are the way they are.  Hopefully Venture for America will be able to ease the entry of some enterprising women into start-ups and growth companies nationwide. 

VFA visits Wharton


VFA founder Andrew Yang spoke with a collection of Wharton undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania on Thursday night, and Nikhil Menezes of student newspaper The Daily Pennsylvanian penned an article recapping the event.  Andrew positioned VFA as an alternative to finance and consulting for those who dream of starting companies – and described its relative merits in both cases.  The reporter described VFA as, “A refreshing change of pace from the investment banks and consulting firms that tend to seek Penn graduates.”  Check out the full text of the article here!

Guest Blogger- Taylor Fleming, Colgate University

Venture for America is excited to feature guest blogger Taylor Fleming. Taylor is a junior at Colgate University, majoring in English with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies:

As the semester rolls along, many Colgate seniors are beginning to wonder about their future plans. Andrew Yang, graduate of the Brown University class of 1996, found himself, only a few years back, in the same boat. After graduation he practiced law for a bit and even got a job as a CEO of Manhattan GMAT. Yet, during his time at Manhattan GMAT he found a common trend among the recent college graduates he encountered. Grads had major interest in the work force and specifically in entrepreneurship. Like young Colgate graduates and students, these grads all had what Yang characterized as “pent up energy” but no where to use it. At the same time, new and eager venture capitalist firms and entrepreneurship startups seemed to have trouble finding a way to connect to the desirable candidates for their open positions.

The need for a connection between the two appeared essential to Yang. This idea, complied with many months, a lot of hard work and what Yang refers to as “a long story,” created Venture for America. The organization, which will launch into action in June 2012, is the construction of a bridge between hiring startup companies and hard-working graduates. Modeled after Teach for America, Venture for America aims at placing eager college graduates in low-cost cities where they can work with and for startup companies. Venture for America hopes that the work at the companies will spark business, create more jobs and help improve the economies of these cities.

Those who are accepted into Venture for America will spend two years in the program. The experience will begins at Yang’s alma mater, Brown University. Fellows will spend five weeks on campus training for the next two years in the “Venture Fellow Summer Institute.” At the Institute, fellows will experience all the hands on technological training necessary for placement in the low-cost cities. They will also have the chance to study and discuss entrepreneurship with successful professionals and investors who have seen it all.

After the institute, Venture for America provides a two-year assignment in groups of ten to twelve at a startup company in a city, such as Providence, Detroit or New Orleans. Yang believes that the assignment ensures that the fellow works in that city “doing what that city needs.” The companies that they are assigned to are ones with great potential and varying interests. Among those involved, Detroit Venture Partners is the largest early-stage company. The company, founded by the majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, describes the group as “street fighters [who] are willing to get down and dirty with our entrepreneurs in order to drive results.” Other companies deal with sustainability and renewable energy sources. At every company, fellows will earn a full salary and health benefits. The Venture for American website, ventureforamerica.org, estimates the salary in the range of $32,000-$38,000.

While at work over the two years, fellows will meet twice a week to confer about their experiences and assignments. The first year concludes with an ‘Intermission,’ or debriefing convention between all the fellows. At the end of the two years, one student, who is selected as the best performing fellow of the class, will be awarded $100,000 to either finance the fellow’s current company or a new company, which the fellow will found or co-found.

For graduates of Colgate University, Venture for America is an amazing opportunity. Applicants do not need a certain major and might even benefit from their background in liberal arts. Venture for America is a young company, and they are looking for people who mesh well with their program. The recent Colgate grad, from the year 2012 or earlier, embodies the description that Yang, founder and now president of Venture for America, depicts for ideal candidates. “We need our best and brightest,” he said. And they are well on their way. The organization, which is in its first year, already has over 700 applicants, but they, “hope to get more.”

In fact, they are so hopeful that Venture for America personally contacted Colgate University to seek more applicants. Yang and his entire staff at Venture for America believes in placing, “people with ambition and ability into places where they can stimulate careers,” and ultimately, help, “the country begin to grow again economically.” And they reached out to Colgate University as a perfect place to obtain the people to fill these roles. If Colgate students have any questions, they are encouraged to visit the VFA website at ventureforamerica.org. Applications are due by two different deadlines, November 28th, 2011 or February 15th, 2012, both for the session beginning in June 2012. The application is available on their website at ventureforamerica.org/apply.

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.