Pittsburgh Business Times

New Venture looks to place top grads at start-ups

Friday, June 22, 2012, 6:00am EDT
By Patty Tascarella– Senior Reporter, Pittsburgh Business Times

The Pittsburgh region has puzzled over ways to retain graduates of local colleges and universities for years. Now, a New York City-based entrepreneurship initiative is planning to serve up others’ best and brightest to area start-ups.

Venture for America is a nonprofit that aims to recruit top college graduates to work for a two-year fellowship at early-stage companies in what it calls “lower-cost cities.” It was launched by Andrew Yang , a lawyer turned entrepreneur who wanted to give like-minded students a jump-start to working at fast-growing companies rather than opting for graduate school and a professional services career.

Yang’s goal is to generate 100,000 new jobs by 2025 by helping young companies expand and training top graduates to become business builders and job creators. His plan hinges on a substantial proportion of the fellows becoming successful entrepreneurs, preferably rooted in the communities where they were assigned.

Its debut group, 45 newly minted members of the class of 2012 from various universities across the country, just began training camp at Brown University. They will be deployed to companies in five cities — Cincinnati, Detroit, New Orleans, Las Vegas and Providence, R.I. — in August.

Pittsburgh is among five cities Venture for America plans to add in 2013, confirmed Mike Tarullo , director of corporate development. The others are Baltimore; Cleveland; New Haven, Conn.; and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.

Tarullo expects to visit Pittsburgh “at least once this summer,” to get things moving. No date has been set.

“We’re very early in that process, but we’re very drawn to Pittsburgh,” Tarullo said.

Venture for America finds the host companies and serves as a matchmaker, considering each fellow’s interests and skills and suggesting the companies that might be the best fits. Companies and fellows connect via phone interviews. If that phase goes well, an in-person interview follows.

For the initial group of fellows, Venture for America received more than 500 applications. Tarullo expects that will more than double for next year’s crop.

To find the companies, Tarullo plans to meet with local entrepreneurs and investors, economic development groups such as Innovation Works and Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, and representatives from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. He could not say at this point how many companies might be selected. He said he has had some limited, initial contact with a handful of locals, identifying only the venture capital firm Draper Triangle Ventures. Draper did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Innovation Works CEO Rich Lunak has heard about Venture for America and plans to reach out to Tarullo.

“This is terrific, but I’m not surprised they picked Pittsburgh,” Lunak said. “We are increasingly getting a great reputation in the entrepreneurial circles locally and out of town.”

Innovation Works has run a large internship program for more than six years, placing students from 20 universities located both inside and outside the region with local companies, Lunak said. There are 65 this year; their pay is subsidized by the Benedum Foundation.

Venture for America’s fellowships aren’t internships, Tarullo stressed. Each host company will foot their fellow’s annual salary, “between $32,000 and $38,000, based on the cost of living in the city,” Tarullo said. “We want the company to treat them like an employee — reward them, promote them, chastise them. We want them to be part of a team that grows with the company.”

Mel Pirchesky , CEO of Eagle Ventures, which organizes high-net-worth individuals to invest jointly, said that amount is “significant enough” that the start-up would want to be sure it was taking on a “value-added talent, someone who has a future,” not just a limited arrangement.

“I’d be hiring with the intention of keeping them long-term,” Pirchesky said.