Venture For America Founder Andrew Yang On Fostering Community, Culture, And Entrepreneurship

Above The Law

By Renwei Chung

April 21, 2017


A Columbia Law and Davis Polk alum discusses life beyond Biglaw.

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang

“I got every ingredient, all I need is the courage / Like I already got the beat, all I need is the words / Got the urge, suddenly it’s a surge / Suddenly a new burst of energy has occurred.”—Eminem

This month, I had the opportunity to review Generation Startup, a documentary that celebrates risk-taking, urban revitalization, and diversity, while delivering a vital call-to-action—with entrepreneurship at a record low, the country’s economic future is at stake. 

This inspiring film, available on Netflix, follows six recent college graduates who became Venture for America Fellows and moved to Detroit to help build startups.

Andrew Yang is the Founder and CEO of Venture for America (VFA). He has been selected by the White House as a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship and a Champion of Change for his inspiring, impactful work in our communities. As a serial entrepreneur, Yang has developed amazing workplace cultures through such strategies as continuous improvement, throwing “convocations,” and acting as an “Asian Santa Claus.” As VFA’s CEO, Yang is uber committed to mentoring, developing, and counseling our country’s next generation of entrepreneurs.

This week, I had the opportunity to catch up with Andrew Yang. I learned a heck of a lot about entrepreneurship and the startup culture during our hour-long conversation. I believe you will as well. Here is a (lightly edited and condensed) write-up of our chat.

Renwei Chung (RC): You had quite the conventional middle-class background prior to entering Columbia Law School. Then you followed a traditional law path and joined a Biglaw firm in New York City. Within a year of taking the bar, you drastically altered your career trajectory. Can you tell us about this?

Andrew Yang (AY): I was working on an acquisition in my first year, and I was documenting what several executives were going to get paid. I thought to myself, “Wait a minute, why am I doing the paperwork for someone else’s achievement? I should be trying to achieve something myself.” I also looked around the firm and didn’t feel that I necessarily wanted to model myself after anyone around me.

I was young and didn’t have many personal obligations. I was certain that I was going to leave at some point, and I realized that it was going to get harder, not easier, to leave. I began to think that the real danger wasn’t going broke – the real risk was looking in the mirror years later and wondering why I didn’t do anything. So I left to co-found a dot-com after five months. It didn’t work out, but it led to many other interesting things.

RC: Your focus on revitalizing American cities and communities through entrepreneurship echoes the philosophy of one of my personal heroes, Grace Lee Boggs. How did you come to the realization that entrepreneurship was the key to revitalizing our country?

AY: By the time I started VFA, I had run a private test prep company that had grown to become #1 in the U.S. in its category. I saw firsthand how a growing company creates opportunities at every level, from the teachers and curriculum to the office staff and customer support teams.

We had someone go from an entry-level hire to running a department and lifting her entire family’s standard of living out of the Bronx. Seeing that play out dozens of times makes you want to do as much of it as possible. Nothing you can offer is more appreciated than giving someone a job that they like and can successfully grow into.

RC: After watching Generation Startup last week, I bought your book Smart People Should Build Things and shared some quotes with a few attorneys. Friends from Sidley Austin and Skadden Arps, as well as one buddy who is a federal judicial law clerk, picked up your book the same night I shared it. Needless to say, we loved it! Why do you think this book resonates so well with lawyers?

AY: Man, lawyers are my tribe still. We are some of the smartest people in the country. We were often the best in school. I wanted to write a book that honestly encapsulates what our experiences were and why so many of us wound up doing what we do.

We are capable of so much, yet we get socialized to stay in our lanes and document worst-case scenarios.

If you look into and understand the forces that made us who we are, it becomes easier to make a choice and say, “That’s exactly what I want to be” or “I want to be something a little bit different.” What our most talented people do is vitally important, and we don’t pay enough attention to it.

RC: Growing up several blocks away from the infamous 8 Mile Road (made popular by Eminem’s hit movie), I was thrilled to read that VFA first launched in Detroit. As you wrote, “[Detroit’s] post-bankruptcy renewal is one of the great projects of this age. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have a giant recruitment arm to make the case on college campuses.”

Can you briefly make the case for Detroit and other similarly situated cities?

AY: Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland and many of the other cities that VFA operates in have a bunch of advantages for someone who wants to be entrepreneurial.

First, they have robust resources – Detroit, for example, has philanthropy and public financing well into the billions of dollars. If you’re talented you can access those resources, particularly because it’s not quite as competitive and funders are looking for people like you to back.

Second, the costs are a small fraction of what it would cost to start a business in a coastal city. You get time to experiment and figure out your product-market fit. Third, the communities are tighter and much more accessible. I was blown away by how much easier it is to reach the business and civic leaders. There are gaps in these markets to be sure, but also opportunities if you’re willing to find them.

RC: Two of my favorite quotes in your book are:

  1. Plato wrote that “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” Role models and narratives are important; and
  2. Where our talent goes drives our economy—if we know where our smart people are going, we can tell the future.

Can you expound on these concepts?

AY: When you’re young, you naturally emulate the folks that are presented to you as role models. When I was at Davis Polk, I’d look at the partners and say, “Okay, I guess I’m supposed to try and be like them.”

What we need at this point are people to build and start companies that solve real problems. Yet these folks are tougher to try and emulate because there’s no ready track. If we change that, we can change everything.

Human and intellectual capital drive progress. If I tell you that our smartest people are all heading to Wall Street, you can pretty much tell what’s going to happen over the next twenty years. If I told you that our smartest people were building businesses around the country, you could predict that many of them would succeed. I’m happy to say that’s exactly what is happening with  VFA. Some of them are succeeding beyond my wildest hopes and creating dozens or hundreds of jobs in the process.

RC: Throughout the development of your various startups, you’ve paid special attention to culture and invested a lot of time, energy, and resources to ensure a unique, vibrant culture in the workplace. Why?

AY: The culture at VFA is incredibly strong, that’s for sure. I like to think I had something to do with it, but it’s as much the people we attract and the kind of things that motivate them.

I’ve always highly valued culture because I still remember being the marginalized Asian kid growing up, so it’s natural to me to try and create a friendly and collegial environment where people feel important. It’s also a massive competitive asset when you’re trying to get things done with limited resources – culture can take you a long way when the night is long and people pull together out of genuine desire to help each other succeed.

RC: What would you say to an upcoming college graduate who was fortunate enough to be accepted to both VFA and a top law school? What should factor into their thinking?

AY: There’s no right answer. You have to figure out what kind of person you are, what you value and what type of activity you enjoy most. I will say that the VFA application process is long and difficult enough that the vast majority of people who get through it are pretty determined to pursue a particular kind of experience.

No one is going to stumble into it, because it requires a lot of exertion. I’d actually describe it as something of the opposite of the law school application, which hinges primarily on one’s test-taking ability. We’re trying to get to know the entire individual and provide the path that we wish had existed after college.

RC: It was great chatting with you. Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?

AY: If you are reading this, the odds are you were the smart one growing up. The best at school. The most serious-minded. You are still that person. You can do whatever you want. You have much more in you than you’ve been led to believe.

On behalf of everyone here at Above the Law, I would like to thank Andrew Yang for sharing his story with our audience. We wish him continued success in his career.

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