As entrepreneurship becomes an increasingly viable and attractive career path, there’s often the question, is entrepreneurship teachable? Venture for America is helping recent college grads explore what it means to be an entrepreneur not by a strict curriculum, but by placing them in hands-on roles in real, growing startups across the country.
A career path that went lawyer, turned startup founder, turned failed startup founder, turned apprentice that learned the ropes and worked his way up to successful startup CEO, influenced VFA Founder Andrew Yang to create an outlet for young people to get better at entrepreneurship.
Starting and failing made him realize this entrepreneurship thing was hard work, and sent him searching for ways to improve. When Yang put himself in the position to learn from other successful startup founders, he got better himself, eventually becoming CEO of his own successful test-prep company.
Through it all, he noticed some trends when it came to recent college grads. They did one of six things in one of six cities – finance, consulting, law, medicine, grad school or Teach for America in New York, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles.
Yang thought there had to be loads of college grads that wanted to start their own business, but were taking a roundabout way to get there. So, inspired by Teach for America, he started Venture for America in 2011.
VFA recruits recent college grads, seniors to three years removed, for fellowship opportunities.
“They get access to a network of startup partners that we partner with across the country,” says Midwest Community Partnership Manager Joe Guy. “What we hear from founders time and time again, the biggest issues they face are funding and how to find great talent. What VFA seeks to do is provide early-stage companies with talent to help them grow, while allowing fellows to learn from an experienced founder.”
To solve the second part of that six in six equation, “We focus on emerging startup ecosystems,” Guy says. VFA has fellows in 14 cities across the country, including three in Ohio – Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus.
“The common theme of our cities is that they often have great startup opportunities and great startup ecosystems,” Guy says.
Columbus was an attractive city for the program, not only because of its startup density, but for its affordability, fellows make $38,000 per year, and quality of life. VFA aims for cities that a young person would want to be in – hoping they establish personal and professional roots.
Once accepted into the program, “Our goal is to have our fellow living in a VFA city and working with a partner company for two years,” Guy says.
Many fellows fill the jack-of-all trades / startup ninja role, doing a little bit of everything, as is common when pursuing entrepreneurship.
“That’s what a lot of founders are looking for,” Guy says.
Columbus transplant and Drive Capital portfolio company Beam is currently hosting three VFA fellows (out of their 25-person team), and finding big advantages to the fellows’ flexibility.
“That’s just the beauty of it; the diversity of skills and trainability of a fellow is a great attribute,” Beam Co-Founder & CEO Alex Frommeyer says. “We have VFA fellows doing sales, business development, marketing, content, social media, customer support, account management and more.”
When looking for partner companies, VFA aims for startups younger than five years with a leadership that believes in developing young talent and taking an active role in that process.
Beam took an interest in the program because one of their investors is a big supporter.
“Then, I actually met one of the local VFA-ers, who we ultimately hired,” Frommeyer says. “She blew me away. The quality of people in the program is astounding. We are bullish on the fellows’ future at Beam.”
Snapping up that talent is exactly one of the outcomes VFA hopes for.
Throughout their two years and after, VFA sets up many avenues for success for its fellows. First, should a company go under or not be a good fit for a fellow, they will be placed at another company. During their fellowship, individuals can also apply for the Innovation Fund – an internal crowdfunding campaign that helps fellows launch side projects.
After graduating from the program, fellows are met with a bevvy of resources that only a few classes in, are boasting huge successes. Guy says VFA research shows:
- – 90 percent of fellows stay involved with startups or entrepreneurship
- – 26 percent are starting their own companies within six months of fellowship completion
- – 40 percent of fellows are hired on at their placement company
- – 25 percent go to work at another startup
- – 66 percent stay in their VFA city
Fellows can also apply for the VFA Accelerator once their commitment wraps up. Run out of First Round Capital in Philadelphia, the program doesn’t take equity in a company, but gives the entrepreneur time and space to further develop their idea. The VFA Seed fund further supports startups born out of the program. It’s all meant to ease the path to entrepreneurship, lowering the barriers to entry and encouraging fellows to branch out on their own.
Columbus is starting to see these outcomes for its fellows. TicketFire and SafeWhite have made hires from the program. Azoti’s fellow is on his way to become the first fellow founder out of Columbus. The fellow at CrossChx is experiencing the scalability some startups only dream of.
“Beam has been fortunate to find VFA,” Frommeyer says of their experience so far. “The process is made frictionless, which is great for a startup. The fellows are workhorses, and bring amazing diversity to the team.”