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.