They're wide-eyed students interested in entrepreneurship, but they're eschewing incubators and sidestepping venture funding. What gives?
Elizabeth Weber has been paving her own path to entrepreneurship for years. As a kid, she launched an art studio in her garage, and transformed it into an arts education center, the Academie de Couleur. Today as a sophomore at Brown University, she's majoring in commerce, organizations, and entrepreneurship. She is co-president of the Brown University Entrepreneurship program.
But instead of jetting off, diploma in hand, to a venture capital firm or incubator with a start-up idea, she hopes she'll be taking a placement from a nonprofit to work for a small company in a struggling city. Her aim is to be a Venture for America fellow.
Venture for America, which launched this summer, is a nonprofit organization that seeks to place recent college graduates interested in entrepreneurship in start-up organizations in economically depressed cities. It's modeled in part after Teach for America, a popular nonprofit that places recent graduates as teachers for two years in underprivileged schools around the country.
What will Venture for America really look like? The start-up boom of the past few years has come hand-in-hand with a proliferation of tech incubators, and "venture capitalist" can be a far more lucrative title than "investment banker." What recent grad with dreams of hyper-fast-growth entrepreneurship would sign on to work with a nonprofit in a slumped city?
Like Teach for America applicants, Venture for America fellows will most likely be the sort seeking a way to use their education to help revitalize neighborhoods and provide new jobs and opportunities to people without them. In interviews, future applicants for Venture for America say they favor hands-on experience, networking, and are looking for the chance to learn. They don't necessarily want to launch a business right away—at least not at this moment. Some will already have entrepreneurial experience through internships, while others will have little, if any.
For its inaugural year, Venture for America will place about 50 fellows in start-up companies in Detroit, New Orleans, and Providence. Founder Andrew Yang says the organization plans to expand and is already in talks with Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark. The organization's ultimate goal is to create 100,000 new jobs by 2025; they're jobs that fellows will create by starting their own companies after their fellowships, and by becoming executives and employees with hiring capabilities.
"If you can imagine a country where the same proportion of talent went to building businesses and creating jobs in environments like Detroit as currently goes to banking or law school, we believe our economic problems would be solved," Yang says. "That's what we're looking to accomplish."
Laurie Ann Atienza, a recent graduate of Cornell University who majored in industrial and labor relations with a concentration in inequality, is in the process of applying for Venture for America's first cycle, which would begin in September 2012. She said Venture for America's goal of creating jobs was what peaked her interest in the program most.
"Knowing the unemployment rates and learning about the Bureau of Labor statistics, the idea of creating 100,000 jobs was really interesting to me," she says. "I want to be a part of something like that, something that contributes to a better labor market for the United States."
Though Atienza says she does not have a lot of business experience and wasn't a business major in college, she is still interested in working for a start-up company and gaining hands-on experience through Venture for America.
"It would be good to see what kinds of companies are starting out and how I can help build a company, she says. "I don't know if I myself could start a company, but I would love to contribute my skills and my knowledge."
Others, like Ashley Eidson, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, have long known they want to work in start-up companies and hope Venture for America would give them the chance they wouldn't otherwise have to work at one.
"I've applied to a ton of companies," she says. "I have this entrepreneurial mindset that I have to work at a start-up and do marketing, but every company I have applied to, whether it was a start-up or not, said they found someone more qualified or I didn't have enough experience."
Eidson said Venture for America is offering a very similar experience to the jobs she's been applying for, so she also plans to apply for the first round of fellowships. While she waits to hear if she's been accepted, she says she'll be helping friends who've launched start-ups. Ultimately though, she wants to launch her own fudge company and hopes Venture for America would put her on the path to do so.
Josh Linkner, CEO of Detroit Venture Partners (full disclosure: Linkner is also an Inc.com columnist), a venture firm focused on rebuilding Detroit through entrepreneurship, says his company will place between 20 and 25 fellows at its portfolio companies. Linkner says fellows will help the cities they're placed in, whether it's by bringing their talent to a start-up or starting their own business later on.
"We need smart, young talent," he says. "We need people who are staying here rather than fleeing. Our next generation of success will be greatly determined by the talent we can attract and retain."
Atienza considered moving to Detroit or New Orleans to find a job after she graduated, but ultimately decided to settle in New York City. Working in an economically repressed city is still a big factor in her decision to apply to Venture for America, however.
"Those are the cities I studied, and it'd be good to contribute outside of books and reading case studies and actually get there and work," she says.
Yang says there is a hyper-allocation of recent graduates to professional services like finance, consulting, and law, and not enough people working to start businesses and create new jobs, in part because larger companies have the means to recruit heavily. Over the next year, Yang will be reaching out to colleges, universities, and students to get them interested in the program.
"Right now we're not really providing recent graduates a concrete path to step onto," he says. "The concrete paths that are being presented take them quite far away from these environments that need them most. We want to make it so going to start a business and working in these environments will become as much of a desired default path as applying for law school or working in finance."