Discover our cities.
The original home of Black Wall Street has seen a coalition of leaders in government, business, philanthropy, and education come together to jump start its startup ecosystem. Though the history of Black entrepreneurship in Tulsa is one of triumph and tragedy, the city is embracing collaborative solutions to develop resources for Black founders and using unique programs to attract new diverse talent to the community. For the better part of the 20th century, Tulsa was known as the “Oil Capital of the World,” but today its economy is fueled by telecommunications, aviation, technology, and finance.
- Became a VFA city in 2021
Uncovering My Path to Entrepreneurship
My name is Rana Mohamed and I’m a 2019 Fellow. I’m originally from New Jersey and I went to school at Penn State to study international politics. Then, I headed north to spend my Fellowship in Detroit at an internet of things company called Amatis Controls!
I grew up believing that if I wanted to make lasting change around gender equality and educational access, I had to work for the government. So, I set myself on a 10-year plan: study international politics in undergrad, get a master’s in human development, and apply to be a foreign service officer. However, I quickly learned how slow-paced government work can be and knew there had to be another path.
I applied to VFA with the mindset that it would be a two-year stint where I could gain work experience while figuring out my next steps. I wanted to fully step out of my comfort zone: move to a city I was unfamiliar with, work in an industry I knew little about, and take on a role that would challenge me. When I matched with Amatis Controls, I knew very little about the history of Detroit, had no idea what internet of things meant, and knew that I was with the team that would challenge and support me through my Fellowship. It was exactly where I needed to be at the time.
At first, I was expecting VFA to be just a professional network to help me expand my knowledge. However, I couldn’t be further from the truth. Within the Fellow network, I’ve found long-lasting friendships and gained the courage to see myself as an entrepreneur.
The first year of the Fellowship, I saw the Instagram-filtered Founder experiences, which made entrepreneurship daunting because the pathway to success was unknown. While I admired the accomplishments of many Alumni, I didn’t know how they started and if this would be something I too could achieve. This all changed in the second year of the Fellowship. I watched my peers start their own companies, gaining insight to the real steps it takes to build a successful business. In observing the highs and lows that my friends went through, entrepreneurship went from something that felt mysterious and unobtainable to something that I knew would be challenging, but accessible.
In these eye-opening two years I’ve learned a few lessons that have shaped my mindset. The first is to say yes to every opportunity, even the scary ones, because sometimes it can lead you to find a new passion. This was crucial in helping me become a product manager while having little to no experience with coding, product roadmaps or engineering lingo. The second is to ask for what you need, because the worst answer you can get is no. My first manager stressed the importance of advocating for what I needed to be successful when I felt stagnated.
I could not be more grateful for my time in VFA because something that was only supposed to be a stint, has become the foundations of my chosen career. Yes, there were plenty of challenges I navigated in the tech world, as a young non-technical woman of color, but it has fueled me to want to be part of the solution to create a better future for all women in tech. Also, I am eternally grateful to VFA for introducing me to some of the most genuine, passionate, and incredible Fellows and staff members that I could have only dreamed of knowing.
Riding Through the Hills and Valleys of Entrepreneurship
Throughout college, I’d somehow been inoculated with the idea that work and identity were one and the same. Having a job in which I could make an impact (then loosely defined) would indicate a life-well lived and, more importantly, be a core part of who I am. But starting my career at a residential property management startup in Detroit changed my relationship with work for the better. Through my Venture For America Fellowship, I emerged with a grounded clarity about work and how I want to be useful in the world.
I wanted to step away from my nonprofit experiences and dive into a for-profit startup. Though we could debate the merits of using the tools of business to solve the problems that it creates, I thought a for-profit perspective would give me the tools to create a social enterprise. I saw too many nonprofits hamstrung by and subject to the whimsy of their donors.
I didn’t know it when I moved to Detroit in that hopeful summer of 2016, but my job at Castle would end up being the best worst first job I could have asked for. First, because my job as an account manager launched my full-time professional life. Worst, because I was a 23-year-old responsible for rent collection, maintenance, and leasing at 100 rental homes at a company that eventually went under. These worst bits ended up as the best thing that happened during my Fellowship.
I wanted to see the highs and the lows during my two years, and that’s exactly what I got. Castle had just finished their time at Y Combinator out in Silicon Valley and were positioning themselves for super growth like a novice chess player who just learned some new tricks. Along with startup-world credentials, we had real estate investors knocking at our doors for a reliable property management service in Detroit. This was during a time when local, out-of-state, and global investors eyed Detroit as a place whose low home prices would soon sky rocket. It was a time and place of hope in Detroit, and Castle wanted to be its foundation.
Riding high on idealism and the promise of rocket ship growth, I was excited to get a front row seat at Castle. This was almost quite literal: Our three founders would make their feedback sessions public to the entire company. This transparency made it easy to track the company’s slow decline and for me to understand how a company that rides high can be brought to its heels.
The biggest lesson I learned was to listen to customers and do everything possible to create an excellent experience. I think part of the reason why Castle fell is because we were trying to do too many things for too many people without making sure that our paying customers felt like our service was worth it. When a hot water tank is stolen from a vacant home for a third time, it’s too late to retain that customer. Customer happiness can be a catalyst for growth or a limiting reactant.
Another important lesson was how important it is to create a team culture that feels heard and taken care of. Luckily, Castle had some pretty strong core values plastered everywhere (“all you can choose is your reaction” and “brevity and levity,” to name a few). But where we fell short was listening to the people on the ground – our customers, our contractors in the Philippines, and the account managers working with our clients — about the problems and how we ought to fix them. When the time came to raise our Series A, the problems were too entrenched and we had run out of money to make seismic shifts.
Beyond the professional learnings, my time at Castle openly displayed the precarious cliff on which many Detroiters live. A tenant who had a broken car had to choose between paying her rent to us, repairing the car so that she could work, and having heat through a tough winter. Another came in screaming because her landlord was holding up repairs to a leak that was causing damage to personal property. We had prospective customers use illegal and racist language to describe the tenants they didn’t want in their properties. There was no safety net for many of our tenants; either they paid rent into “hot investment properties in a rebounding Detroit,” or they would get evicted in two months.
I got more than I bargained for when I said I wanted a crash course on startups. I did not expect the intense professional, entrepreneurial, and personal stretching that came with my experience as a Fellow. Though I entertained quitting and returning to a life of relative ease at some corporate job back home in Seattle or with college friends in New York, my time in Detroit was transformative in all of its peaks and valleys. Even from the lowest valley, I felt empowered and more prepared to start something on my own.
Challenging Comfort Zones to Make An Impact
I’m Talpha Harris, a 2019 Fellow from Wilmington, N.C. I’ve spent my Fellowship in Pittsburgh as the entrepreneurship hub manager at a community development financial institution called Bridgeway Capital.
I’m a southern girl who loves the southern beaches, warmth and soul food! Never had I ever thought that I would move up north to Pennsylvania, not to mention heading towards the west. My first challenge was getting my mind set to make the move. I had dreams of staying in North Carolina and then venturing out later in my career – besides, Charlotte is a Venture for America city and it looked good to me. As I struggled to make the decision, my husband reminded me that if there was any time that I should push my boundaries and discover new places, it’s no time like the present. Though the ‘Venture’ in VFA may be in regard to startups, it’s not called ‘Venture’ For America for nothing. It’s also about pushing boundaries and comfort zones, to challenge oneself to create and meet new goals.
So, by the grace of God, my husband and I decided to make the move and set on a new journey. And I set a goal to become integrated into the community and make a difference within my first year of the Fellowship. The only problem was, I didn’t know where to start. I tried finding diverse environments that I could tap into but nothing worked. Though I hung out with other Pittsburgh Fellows, I didn’t feel as though I was moving the needle on the specific goal, as we’d all just arrived at the same time. Then, as the saying goes, ‘COVID hit’, and becoming integrated into a community that was physically on lockdown seemed to become impossible.
Though, as COVID endured, my day-to-day work accelerated. I met with business owners, provided development resources, helped them pivot business models to continue to survive and even assisted with financial solutions to keep people on payroll and doors open. My desire to problem solve also encouraged me to solve another need: as COVID spurred job loss, it also created first-time entrepreneurs. To help these entrepreneurs start on the right path, I launched a startup called Sustainible, a tool that assesses business models and provides customized recommendations on how to build the business, sustainably – which I was able to launch with the City of Pittsburgh. In just doing my job and following my passion to solve problems, I was able to contribute to the community. And it wasn’t until I got word that I had been nominated for and won Pittsburgh’s 30 Under 30 award, that I realized this goal was met.
All in all, I realize that I didn’t meet my goal by working alone. I’d first overcome my hesitancy, followed the path God put me on, and was blessed to work alongside great teams. And though Pittsburgh’s winters are still a bit too cold for me to even consider stepping outside (anything below 60 degrees really), I’ve found that the city shows its warmth in another way. The people I have met and work with are kind, thoughtful and show up to help one another when in need. I’m thankful that I choose Pittsburgh as my Fellowship city and am excited to see what comes next.
Get What You Need: A Fellow Reflection from the D
“Leah, we didn’t even know we were living our best lives,” says Jackie, my grandmother, lifelong Detroiter, and housemate since I moved to the city for VFA in 2019.
I agree with her, mostly. I think back to February 8th, 2020 when my closest Fellow friends and I were in Philly to celebrate the annual Formal event, reuniting with hundreds of members of our Class and Alumni from all over the country. As I ran around the party, laughing, dancing and catching up with familiar faces, I forgot almost entirely to document the experience. The next morning, I was already looking forward to doing it again the following year, left in awe that the night had come and gone so soon.
In late February 2020, I sat down at a coffee shop with my former boss to discuss the next step in my role at my wonderful VFA company, Rocket Fiber. Rather than talk about responsibilities and KPIs, he revealed to me that the future of my job would no longer be in the hands of the team that I grew to know and love in my first six months in Detroit. We would be acquired by a larger competitor by the end of spring, the experience I dreamed of and uprooted my life for no longer a possibility. Heartbroken, I reflected with friends how I wished I had more time.
In early March I got a phone call from my Mom that made me book a flight for the next day to return home. A week later we went on a roadtrip to say a final goodbye to one of our family’s dearest friends. It was a sunny, clear and beautiful day to honor the life of Pablo Garcia. Meeting his family for the first time, we hugged and held hands and shared a meal. For most of the world, the warnings were becoming more stern that something was coming, but for me it felt like it was already here. My boss called the following week to encourage me to shelter in place, away from my life in Detroit, rather than take my return flight on March 15th.
And so – you know how this story goes. Lying awake at night in my childhood twin bed, I first believed that all I needed was to return to my normal life – the constant busyness, social spontaneity, productivity in the office, networking evenings, resets on the weekends. I called my friends and coworkers in Detroit to reminisce on all the fun times and imagine a near future where we could pick up exactly where we left off. As the days became weeks, weeks became months, my optimism faded from surely this will soon be over to things will never be the same.
Summer came with more tragedy and confusion. Rocket Fiber became Everstream in a fully virtual world. While I was away, some of my friends left Detroit for good.
And there was more. Tiny walks with my three year-old cousin, Keenan, where we waved hello and goodbye to the sun. Finishing a live series finale of a show I started watching with my Mom eight years before. Pride in the essential works of my brother and best friend. Seeing teenage activists stand on street corners with signs and community members honk in support as they passed by. Saving enough from staying in to buy my first car. Attempting to surprise my Mom for her 70th birthday in her backyard, only to realize she’d already prepared the feast. Somewhere in a new normal of apprehension and monotony, I found hope in the small novelties that life brings each day.
I returned to Detroit in July. The change felt seismic, surreal. I remembered that feeling of wanting things to go back, and I remembered the struggle of holding on to seemingly sure things that were actually temporary. Neither of these extremes fit anymore. I love socializing with friends in parks and taking their dogs out for walks. I like the quiet too. My heart still swells at the sight of downtown when I turn off the Lodge Freeway. And I’m falling in love with Livernois Avenue. My new company may not be what I originally signed up for, yet it’s an amazing opportunity. There was no Philly Formal in 2021, still the memories are enough for me.
It’s been more than a year now, in this new world. As of today I am abundantly grateful. Is my experience in Detroit all that I wanted? Nah. But it is everything I need.
Our best life is now.
Laying the Groundwork for a Fortified Future
My name is Jason Chato and I’m a Cameroonian American 2018 Fellow born and raised in Los Angeles. I spent my Fellowship in Philadelphia initially at Guru and now STRATIS IoT.
After bouncing around the East Coast completing my undergraduate business degree and initially beginning my work career, I finally got the chance to start work in the entrepreneurial space via my Venture For America Fellowship. However, what I didn’t expect, especially during that first year in Philadelphia, was how much energy would be dedicated to subsisting and surviving financially. Between moving myself from Baltimore to Philadelphia – even after selling many of my possessions to pay for my portion of the move-in costs for the Philly house I moved to – and getting a bed, desk, and chair for my room almost broke me while definitely leaving my wallet empty. Coupled with starting work at Guru, where despite being a great company where I learned plenty about all things sales, it simply took longer than expected to get positive momentum and ultimately I was let go.
So here I am, new city and new crib, but no job and no money! Quite the picture, I know. Most people likely would have called it quits in a moment like that, but fortunately for me this wasn’t my first rodeo dealing with uncertain times since graduating high school. Between leaving LA to become a West Point Cadet, to leaving there for junior college in the DMV, to completing my undergraduate degree at Towson University and subsequently having and losing three jobs my first year out of school, I can assure you that my crisis control skillset is as sharp as it’s ever been. So, with job loss number four in 18 months, rather than completely losing my mind, I gave myself 36 hours to let my emotions out, then after about 18 of those hours got both bored and irritated and proceeded to begin my job hunt.
However, bills did stack up in the meantime, so I did as many millennials do and got into the gig economy. Over the course of the next eight weeks between jobs I walked and pet-sat every animal I could – since I love animals – via Wag, Rover, and the VFA network while also doing all types of tasks on TaskRabbit. If I’m proud of anything from that year I’m proud of how I did everything within my power to earn my keep and pay every bill on time despite my many constraints. Obligations must be met with deliverable solutions, not excuses! Thanks to my fellow 2018ers Brian Vaughn and Yuzuka Akasaka, as well as then Director of Philadelphia Ali Garber, and certainly previous Director of Philadelphia Keenan Corrigan, I was hired at STRATIS IoT where I spent the remainder of my Fellowship and still currently reside professionally. I now am trusted with the responsibility of stabilizing the STRATIS brand within new verticals, and given how I’ve handled life’s uncertainties in new spaces, it’s safe to say I’m up for the task.
If I learned anything about myself at all, I learned not only that I have the resilience to withstand serious life-related duress, but also that I can and will manage various crises through determining my timeframe then prioritizing tangible steps to complete. In my life prior to college, I pushed way too hard to win back my losses all at once to make myself feel better, however those efforts were often foolhardy at best. As I got older and more directly responsible for my outcomes, I realized that when faced with a serious setback, the best move you can make is to first assess the timeframe you have to rectify your situation as best you can, then figure out your first handful of tangible and measurable steps necessary to get yourself to your preferred destination. Looking back, I wished I had planned out my transitional finances more closely and, quite honestly, conservatively.
Having figures in the ballpark of your final costs will give you wiggle-room to ask for help when and where needed whether from friends and family or even financial institutions if need be. Also, SAVE your coins in college and when you first work!! Having a month or two of expenses saved is not enough! Aim for three to six months’ worth when secure in a job, but certainly aim for three months of typical monthly expenses for when it’s needed. Despite all the struggle, I’m grateful for my resolve to seek better days. When building a business, especially in an unexplored space or with an innovative approach, you’ll need to have resolve to seek solutions when others only see problems or simply the “unknown.” I’m also eternally grateful for the VFA community and the empathy and support I received from Fellows and staff alike. The help I received to bounce back ensured that my efforts to stay afloat paid off, so as much as I had to bet on myself and put in the work to hold on, having people in my corner looking out for me when opportunities did arise is what has me now placed at STRATIS IoT ready to innovate our product delivery into new verticals. There’s only so much you can do on your own, but when you have great people around you, there’s only but so much you really have to do.
Starting My Career with the Support of a Community
My name is David Rosenthal and I’m a 2020 Fellow and proud graduate of the University of Florida with degrees in psychology and finance. I work in Kansas City as an analyst for a growing venture capital firm called Novel Growth Partners.
I’m originally from Orlando, Fla. and I went to school only about two hours away in the college town of Gainesville, Fla. I spent the summer of 2020 in my college apartment, participating in virtual Training Camp and applying to multiple jobs per day, through Match. I joined VFA because I wanted to work in VC, but I’ve already gotten so much more than I bargained for, including moving to a completely unexpected city, making many great new connections, and publishing my own children’s book!
Let’s start with my city: Kansas City. My goal was to work in a VC or in startup operations and I employed a city-agnostic approach to Match; apply to the companies and industries you like and worry about the location later. I figured I would end up in Philadelphia or maybe Miami. But then, I found a boutique VC in the suburbs of Kansas City called Novel Growth Partners and knew it was an ideal landing spot for my goals and background. I never expected to be in Kansas City, but have fallen in love with the food scene here (especially the barbecue)! My roommate is a 2019 Fellow and even inspired me to smoke a brisket. The Fellow community has been so welcoming and made my transition to a brand new region of the U.S. much easier.
I could go on for days about how great the Kansas City Fellows have been. So inviting and giving of their time. Whether it’s Sunday brunch or a startup ideation session, every Fellow in town has been very responsive and helpful. I am lucky to work alongside 2020 Fellow, Ila Chaubey. Our team has provided great guidance and feedback and we are now both managing vital functions of firm in our first six months. The match has been particularly great for me, because our team has significant experience in the education technology industry, which is where I one day hope to start my own company.
Speaking of education, did I mention I published my own children’s book? The book is called Me in My Mask, and if it were not for Training Camp, I would have never turned my idea into a reality. I wanted to create a resource for children to make the pandemic feel a bit more normal, and I was inspired by the great children’s books I learned from in my formative years. Instead of sitting idly by, Training Camp inspired me to put my ideas into action, and a few months later, my book was published. Even better, it’s used by parents and teachers across the country!
Venture For America has allowed me to grow so much as a young professional and given me the confidence to see myself a future startup leader. Every Fellow’s experience is unique, but the adventure of starting an exciting job and moving to a new city feels so much less daunting when a community of Fellows is there to offer support and work through the same opportunities and challenges alongside you.
Growth Over Complacency: Navigating Transitions in Lockdown
My name is Sara Chen and I’m a 2020 Detroit Fellow currently working at Astrohaus, a consumer tech startup. I’ve spent the last few years of my life in Connecticut, New York, and Beijing, but Virginia is home in my heart.
As an avid traveler and experience seeker, the idea of moving to a new city was the most exciting part of VFA for me. Even the looming pandemic did little to dampen my excitement– as I began planning my move in September with dwindling infection rates, I was optimistic that quarantine was finally coming to an end. I was excited to expand my tattoo business and begin setting up appointments and meeting new creatives in my city, and could not wait to get involved in the local art and music scene.
Then, two weeks before my official move, infection numbers began spiking. Within a week of landing in my new city, daily infection numbers hit an all-time high, and the state issued the second round of stay-at-home orders, shutting down public establishments and gatherings for the foreseeable future. With my plans put on hold, I was suddenly trapped in my shiny new apartment with no friends and nowhere to go. At the same time, my new company was going through a major product launch. Tensions were soaring, everyone was working overtime, and I was struggling to keep my head above water. In the span of a few weeks, I had gone from having a healthy routine with a close circle of quarantine friends to scarfing down late-night takeout in a room with no furniture while trying to placate a flood of angry customers. I grew increasingly exhausted at work, and frustrated at my lack of engagement outside of work. For the last three years of my life, I had always relied on tattooing as a bridge for creative expression, meaningful conversations and meeting like-minded people. With no easy way to form community connections and my primary means of creative expression put on hold, I was struggling to adapt to a new environment for the first time in my life. I knew that something needed to change.
Luckily, the Fellow network in my city provided the structure I needed to make those adjustments. After reaching out to a few Fellows, I quickly learned that despite the restrictions imposed by our environment, Fellows of all years in my city were more than happy to share experience, advice, and a (socially distanced) cup of coffee. We met for walks around the city, trips to the local market, and hunts for the best pizza in Detroit. Though a far cry from the overoptimistic image I had painted in my head, I was finally getting a glimpse of what my city had to offer.
As I reflected on our collective state of isolation, I realized that I had become complacent in enduring quarantine as a temporary state of being. I had come to accept the stagnancy of life in pandemic as a given, but it didn’t have to be that way. Perhaps quarantine could be reframed as an opportunity to truly explore my interests and what my city had to offer nearby.
I decided to make an active effort to pursue avenues of creative expression and personal enrichment within the strange and unique environment quarantine provided. Based on the advice of other Fellows, I set work-life boundaries with a hard cutoff time each day for work related activities. In my free time, I went down a rabbit hole of online classes, from market research to contemporary photography. I tried out a new Fellow recommended cafe or eatery each week. I picked up leatherworking, signed up for online culinary workshops, joined a virtual art club, and learned how to roller skate. For the first time in a long time, I was enjoying new things solely for the sake of enjoying them. There’s something incredibly liberating in pursuing new hobbies with no ulterior motives – not for the clout, not for the career advancement opportunities, but simply for the joy and challenge of learning something new.
It’s been six months since I’ve moved to Detroit, and things are looking up. I’ve since picked up a variety of new projects at my job, found my go-to brunch place, and begun planning out my next business venture. Though my transition was in no way seamless, my experience taught me three things:
- Embrace change. Discomfort is temporary, growth is permanent.
- Set boundaries between work and personal time, especially while working remotely.
- Never stop learning. There’s always something new to explore.
I’m beyond grateful for the support network VFA has offered during my transition, and still constantly excited by all my city has to offer. While I continue to look forward to the day public gatherings are no longer forbidden, I’m happy to say I no longer feel like my life was put on hold by the pandemic – I have learned to thrive in my new city despite it, and I’m proud to call Detroit my new home.
Trusting Yourself and Trading Suits for Shorts
¡Hola! My name is Danny Miró-Chinea, I’m a Bowdoin College graduate who grew up between Puerto Rico and Florida. I didn’t think I’d return to Florida, but VFA, my Latin-roots, and startup match brought me back; this time, to Miami. I’ve always been someone that loves planning what’s next, but moving back to Florida and working at an early-stage startup was never in my “plan.” While I’ve always been passionate about entrepreneurship, growing up Latino my definition of success looked a little different. A clearly defined career trajectory, stability, and a ‘respectable title’ were my ultimate goals. So, I decided to work towards becoming an attorney.
Everything I did throughout college, from volunteering to classes, and internships revolved around the legal field. After graduating in 2019, I moved to Washington, D.C., started working at a prestigious corporate law firm, and planned on attending law school within a few years. My plan was set and I was on the right track. Or, so I thought.
Months into my job, I realized that while I could see myself as an attorney, maybe it wasn’t the right ‘path’ for me. Was there even a ‘right’ path? (Spoiler: There’s not…And, that’s okay!) I went from having a detailed life plan to not knowing what my next step was. Frankly, I hit a wall. But the one thing I knew was that I had always wanted to explore my entrepreneurial spark. I was always the person pitching opportunities to friends, talking about ideating solutions to problems, and daydreaming about one day starting my own business. After a lot of reflection, I decided to trust myself and take the leap.
In the midst of the pandemic, I left my job, joined VFA, moved from Washington, D.C. back to Florida, and accepted a position at MyBundle.TV, a Miami-based startup. So, I traded suits for shorts and started working. Going from a corporate job at a firm with more than 3,500 employees to becoming the fourth full-time hire at an early-stage company was a complete shift. Additionally, going from a very specific role, as a legal practice assistant, to that of a generalist, doing a little bit of everything–was daunting. However, I was ready for the challenge.
Equipped with tenacity, I started helping in every way I could, taught myself new skills, built out strategies and processes and led my own projects. (If you’re curious about what we do: MyBundle.TV is revolutionizing how we consume content by helping consumers focus on the entertainment they love while saving money and time in the process.) While it hasn’t always been easy, in a few short months, we’ve grown our team, gained thousands of users, expanded our presence, and brought on more than 25 partners. The best part of it all? Joining VFA and working at MyBundle.TV has solidified the fact that one day, I’d like to start my own business and that I made the right choice.
Our team is currently working remotely, so I haven’t yet moved to Miami, but that’s the next step in this unexpected journey I’m very excited about. Beyond my draw to VFA to learn and experience entrepreneurship firsthand, I’m a firm believer in our mission to create economic opportunity and build community throughout American cities. Having met other Fellows, feeling embraced by the culture, and observing the recent Miami tech boom – I know it’s going to be an incredible experience. I can’t wait to officially make the move and become an active force for positive change in the city.
The past year brought a lot of uncertainty and a lot of change. If you’re questioning your ‘plan’ and deciding whether to try something new (maybe VFA?) take my short advice and trust yourself. Now is the time. You’ll be glad you did.
Envisioning My Future Thanks to the VFAm
My name is Caitlin Jones and I’m a 2019 Fellow originally from North Tonawanda – a small city outside of Buffalo, NY. I spent my Fellowship in St. Louis at a nonprofit entrepreneur support organization called MOSourceLink.
As a second-year MSW student at Columbia University, I remember vividly looking for jobs at 2 a.m. during a random Google search, with a general idea of what I was looking for – I wanted to help people and have an impact on my community. I studied macro social work so I knew the typical clinical job was not the path for me, but I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do or where to even begin. I came across Venture For America not knowing anything about it and decided to apply for it because why not. The mission seemed like a great fit, I had taken some entrepreneurship courses, and I enjoy travelling and experiencing new places.
Weeks later, I found out I moved on to the next round of the application process, then got a call for a video interview, and was then asked to come to Selection Day (which is still, to this day, one of the most challenging, yet most rewarding interview experiences of my life). I was shocked that I made it that far through the process. When I got a call from the Talent Team that I was offered the Fellowship I felt like I was living in a real-life dream. This selective program wants me? The social worker? I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited to start this journey. Training Camp in Detroit was one of the best experiences of my life. The people in this Fellowship are so welcoming and inspiring, but I will admit I faced some serious Imposter Syndrome. I don’t have a business, I’ve worked at one startup, and I never heard of VFA until I found it one random evening.
But now, it’s hard for me to even have a conversation with someone and not mention some aspect of VFA. The Match process pushes you and challenges you to think outside of the box, to explore jobs you may not have thought of for yourself. The idea of moving to a new city where I didn’t know anyone was frightening, but there is no courage without risk after all. During Training Camp you are encouraged to have an accountabilibuddy (shoutout to Allie Wooden, Kansas City ’19) who is someone you can go to when you face challenges at work, can share your goals and dreams with, and most importantly is someone who is outside of your VFA placement city. The first few months of living in my new city were rough, I honestly didn’t know if I made the right decision. I wondered why I chose this path and if it was the right fit for me. After the adjustment period, I became more comfortable but this was not something I did on my own. To the St. Louis Alumni, my fellow 19ers, and Kate Loar – the most amazing Community Director – thank you for welcoming me with open arms, for supporting me, and most importantly for telling me that I belong here.
Being the first employee on my team in St. Louis was also a bit of a wake up call – not only was I in a new city, but I was representing a brand that was just as new to me as it was to the people I was serving. If I ever thought I was out of my comfort zone before VFA, current me is looking back and laughing so hard because this experience was like nothing I have ever done, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. Two VFA Credos that have stood out to me since day one are “There is no courage without risk” and “I will create opportunity for myself and others.” I took a risk on myself by joining VFA and not taking the “traditional postgrad route,” but it inspired me to have the courage to lead in my role, to be more involved in my Fellowship community, and to tackle challenges and obstacles head on. VFA has pushed me out of my comfort zone in the absolute best way possible.
When I applied to VFA, I never knew the impact this community would have on me – these people are invested in your success and without a doubt are the most interesting group of humans I think I will ever meet. Someone is always up to something, building something new, taking their company to the next level, joining accelerators across the country, and so much more. I can now look to the future and have a strong sense of what I want to do – whether that is being a startup leader or starting something of my own. I know I have the community to back me up and will help me continue to push forward.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be in this Fellowship and be a part of this community. From the weekly challenges at Training Camp, to ideation sessions and dinners with the St. Louis cohort, to reuniting at Redux, being able to plan the VFA WMN Summit as a Rise lead, to hosting events with ecosystem leaders as the STL Entrepreneurship Lead. I have grown so much over these two years as a Fellow. I’m beyond grateful for this community, this family – the VFAm. The only thing I regret is I wish I knew about VFA sooner! If you’re thinking about applying, just do it! I didn’t even know anything about it, didn’t know if my background and experiences were the right fit, and I can honestly say this has been one of the best decisions of my life both professionally and personally. Thanks to the VFAm, I have been able to envision my future and can feel all the pieces coming together.
Finding Enough and the Value of “Doing”
My name is Alora Martin and I am a 2020 Fellow living and working in Charlotte. While I am originally from the great state of New Mexico, I moved to the east coast for college in 2014 and I’ve been here ever since!
My story is a little bit different from most Fellows. I found VFA when I was a few years out of college and looking to make a big change. Right after graduating, I started working at one of the world’s largest investment corporations in a very specialized and regimented role. I had high hopes of learning “business” and making a big splash in a big pond but soon found that would be nearly impossible to achieve. At first, I suspected that I was the problem. I, a round peg, needed to shape myself into a square hole.
As we all know, life doesn’t quite work that way and, luckily, I came to understand and embrace that I needed a role that better fit who I am and what I value. When I began my journey with VFA, I brought that ambition and hunger for learning with me and focused on job opportunities that would offer me the chance to make a big impact, no matter the size of the pond. I found that very opportunity as an executive business analyst at an IT firm called IRIS Solutions. Now, when you go from a highly specialized, segmented role to a widely encompassing role at a small company, there is a lot to be learned. After being told that I was good for one job and one job only in my corporate role, I really struggled to feel confident in my new role.
Was I enough? Every single day brought new complications, new daunting tasks, new learning gaps. But with the infinite support and guidance provided by my coworkers and fellow Fellows, those complications became manageable challenges, the tasks became strategic moves, and the learning gaps became learning opportunities.
Speaking profoundly, I have learned that the question I should have been asking myself is not ‘am I enough?’ but ‘do I have enough?’. Do I have enough resources? Do I have enough time? Do I have team members who will help me? Do I have opportunities that motivate and excite me? Do I have enough of the company’s best interest in mind? Do I have enough of MY best interest in mind? These questions are much more productive and action driven. Without the VFA Fellowship, the Fellow community, and my company’s collaboratively minded leadership team, I surely wouldn’t have had enough.
I’ve learned that the most valuable part of working at a startup after having worked at a corporation isn’t the flexible work policy, or the fully stocked snack kitchen, or even the casual dress code, it’s much simpler than that – it’s the doing. Now I know that might sound a little strange but hear me out. When I was struggling to come up with ideas for our marketing calendar, my coworker didn’t just provide encouragement, she sat down with me and helped me brainstorm. When our digital marketing efforts weren’t panning out and we needed to shift strategies, we didn’t just talk about how we could change, we made the changes right then and there. When I asked our CEO how he managed the relationship with one of our business partners, he didn’t just give me a quick overview, he made a place for me at the next partner meeting.
As soon as something needs to be adjusted or an opportunity presents itself the company moves and it moves together. I have no doubt that this lesson, and the many others I have learned, will stay with me and serve me well as I go on to pursue my own entrepreneurial endeavors. I am so grateful that VFA bridges the gap between knowledge-hungry, ambitious folks looking to make an impact and the mission-driven, community-focused companies willing to take a chance on them. Sometimes, just being open to the experience is enough to get where you need to go.
Shifting Mindset While Shifting Landscapes
My name is Nassir Criss and I’m a 2020 Fellow based in Kansas City. I’m spending my Fellowship at a global venture capital and growth equity firm called Five Elms Capital.
I spent most of my life on the East Coast bouncing between places like New York City and Richmond, Va. I thought the grit, hustle, and energy of those life experiences would prepare me to take on anything. I quickly found out that the Midwest, and Kansas City is like no other place in the country. For starters, it was the first time I’d be extremely far from my family and friends. Add on to that, I’ve never been to the Midwest outside of a Chicago trip. I didn’t know anything about the city other than the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs were Super Bowl Champions. I was eager to get to my city, make new friends, and have an impact. But the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on everything and I was worried I’d show up to a ghost town completely made immobile by the extended impacts of quarantine.
I accepted an offer with my company and had a start date – this gave me a few weeks to figure out where I’d live, how I’d get to and from work, and to say my goodbyes to my loved ones. I’ve always been a person of faith, so I did what I always do in moments like this, and I prayed fervently. After spending quite some time reflecting and mentally road mapping my new journey, I knew that I’d have to believe and take the leap of faith. I reasoned to myself that no matter what I’d find a way to learn something and allow the experience to make me better – no matter the outcome. So I packed up my car and off I went on a cross-country road trip, accelerating towards the next chapter in my life.
I arrived in Kansas City and from the moment I touched down I was embraced and welcomed. My firm sent us all directories on what to do, where to eat, and the best neighborhoods to live in. My apartment staff opened their arms wide and made sure I had everything I needed moving in, responding to my endless emails and questions about how to operate equipment and navigate the hallways of my building. The existing VFA cohort did everything to make sure we all knew how supportive the community was and often times would host socially distant dinners for us all to connect and get to know one another. Before I knew it, I had friends connecting me with other friends, new mentors, and felt like I was one to two degrees away from anyone I wanted to connect with in the city.
While the work was challenging at first, I quickly settled into a groove there as well and started catching stride. I learned that manifestation and intentionality are real. I set out with positive intentions even amongst the vast uncertainty and was met with a bountiful harvest of opportunity. In reflection, I’m proud of myself for taking the risk and I’ve learned to lean into that initial fear now that comes with making big decisions and taking giant leaps of faith. It’s often in those moments we understand our true character and strength – when we’re tested and being called into our full potential. This city, like many VFA cities has given me everything I’ve put in. I’ve made valuable friendships, professional connections, and progress on my lifelong goals. This is all during a COVID year. As I am quickly approaching the second year of my Fellowship, I’m looking forward to continually getting ingrained into the local startup community here. I’m excited to continuing assisting local Black-owned businesses in their processes of expansion and growth. I’m thinking more and more about legacy and whether I stay in Kansas City or I leave beyond the Fellowship, I’m confident what I do here will have a lasting effect on this great community.