Let’s say a senior at MIT is about to graduate with a double major in Computer Science and Comparative Media Studies. Career Services tells the student, “You can make six figures at a Manhattan consulting firm, or you can apply to ‘Venture for America.’ Oh, and if selected by Venture for America, you will be sent to a city in need of entrepreneurs. There you will make less than $40,000 a year working for a start-up.” Which would you choose as your first job?  Fortunately, in 2013, hundreds of America’s best and brightest college students chose the latter and applied for the seventy fellowships offered by Venture for America.

Venture for America is the brainchild of entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Yang saw the Ivy League-to-hedge fund/investment bank/consulting firm conveyor belt and thought, “What a waste of talent.” Venture for America re-allocates that talent to where it has the potential to do the most good. Specifically, start-up companies in mid-sized cities across the country that are trying to revitalize their local economies. Recent college graduates receive invaluable experience that they would likely not get at a large, established company, and the start-ups are provided with access to talent they otherwise probably would not have the resources to recruit.

Among the many interesting projects Venture for America has supported is “SocialProvidence,” a social media analytics and consulting company based in Rhode Island, that is supervised by executives from HavasPR, but is run day-to-day by two Venture for America fellows. One of SocialProvidence’s main selling points is that digital natives – like the two young men running the company – have a much more intuitive and accurate sense of what kinds of social media marketing techniques will be most effective.

The Way I See It

  • I see a growing intersection between start-up culture and community development. Some of that is driven by a consumer niche that wants to buy local products and have real relationships with the people whose businesses they patronize. But a lot of it is driven by the genuine desire of a certain class of entrepreneur to use their business as a way of building community.
  • I see a millennial generation that is really driven by a sense of connection. They want to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves. Millennials are one of the reasons that community service has become such a big deal on college campuses. Venture for America has certainly tapped into that spirit.
  • I see entrepreneurship gaining in popularity among the youth of today, and not just in the sense of entrepreneur as business owner. But embracing the entrepreneurial spirit and building things, creating new ventures, and solving problems.

The Way the Industry Sees It

I sat down with Venture for America CEO, Andrew Yang, to discuss entrepreneurship and his upcoming book, Smart People Should Build Things.

 

Before you started your own company, you were on the same Ivy League to law/finance/consulting path that you’re trying to knock your Venture for America Fellows out of. What shortcomings did you find in that path?

When I was graduating from college, law, finance, and consulting were the options that were presented to me – mainly because the consulting firms and financial services firms were recruiting heavily at Brown.  It just seemed natural to go down one of these paths on the road to success and prestige.  After becoming a corporate lawyer, I found that it wasn’t a great fit for me because of how narrow and specialized the role was, and that I didn’t enjoy acting as a document reader and deal facilitator.  These “prestige pathways” of finance, law and consulting, as I call them in the book, are still the options that are being presented to college seniors. The professional services firms have millions of dollars to spend recruiting talent on college campuses each year. The salaries and benefits that they can offer are certainly appealing. These kinds of resources are not available to early stage growth companies that are actually creating jobs in this country and are most in need of the nation’s best and brightest minds.

Your last business was a test prep company. What did you see in the students you were working with that made you think that maybe they were open to a different kind of opportunity?

When I was at Manhattan GMAT, I met hundreds of bankers and consultants who were preparing to enroll in business school. Many of them seemed a little lost, like I had been when I realized I no longer wanted to be a lawyer. They would talk about wanting to make a real impact in an organization, and I think they were going to business school often to reset and seek that kind of opportunity.  Our young people want to build things; they just aren’t being presented with the choice to do so. I started Venture for America because I believe that if we provide the path to entrepreneurship to smart, enterprising young people, they will embrace it.  And early returns suggest that’s exactly what they’re doing.

How have you been promoting the program to young people? Do social media platforms play a large role in getting the word out? What about the start-ups you’re trying to partner with?

We do promote Venture for America via social media such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. However, we have found that actually getting on college campuses and talking to students is the best way to get them interested and excited about Venture for America. In the first few months after I started Venture for America, I went to dozens of college campuses and spoke to groups that ranged from two to 200 people. Our team still does that today, though we generally have a better turnout than two people! Our current Fellows go back to their alma maters and talk about their experiences as well. Many of our best applicants have come from Fellow referrals.  We also have a corporate development team that travels the country to evaluate the opportunities in our partner cities. We look to partner with growth companies in a variety of sectors. Mainly, we are looking for organizations with exciting opportunities for a young person eager to learn the ins-and-outs of starting a business.  Oftentimes our local supporters and funders will introduce us to exciting startups that are eager to take on a Venture for America Fellow. There are so many great companies across our nation and in time, we hope to place Fellows in all of them.

]Tell us about your book, Smart People Should Build Things. What do you hope to achieve through the book that you haven’t been able to achieve through Venture for America?

My goal was to help people understand why what we’re building with Venture for America is important and worth supporting.  I didn’t come to this set of ideas overnight, it took over a decade and a series of experiences, including running a company that served thousands of ambitious young people.  I wanted to convey some of these experiences to others, so they could perhaps gain a similar perspective. Because I’m a 39-year old ex-lawyer, I wrote a book.  If I was one of the Fellows, it’d be a very cool and funny video.

What is the coolest object in your office?

“Lin Lin, the Panda – our office stuffed-panda mascot – who is currently reading, Smart People Should Build Things!”