University News

Alum program pairs graduates with start-ups

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, September 11, 2012



Forty college graduates were selected from an application pool of 500 for the inaugural class of Venture For America, a program founded by Andrew Yang ’96 and dedicated to promoting entrepreneurship through a focus on start-ups. Through the program, which held its first summer training program at the University in July, fellows will spend the next two years working with innovative start-up companies in five cities.

The organization has three primary goals – it seeks to “revitalize American cities,” encourage graduates to “create new opportunities for themselves and others” and works to “restore the culture of achievement to include value-creation, risk and reward and the common good,” according to its website. 

Bryant Yik was one of the fellows of the first VFA class. Yik, who graduated from the Wharton School of Business at Penn and went on to work at the Department of Homeland Security, said he decided to apply to VFA because his desire to build companies and experience the “start-up sense” was not being fulfilled by his work in the U.S. government. 

The summer training program – required for all VFA fellows – included talks by professionals on topics such as public speaking and teamwork management, as well as assignments centered around solving business models and developing the VFA’s website. 

The organization also brought guest speakers from leading corporations such as McKinsey and Company, and IDEO – two consulting agencies – to advise the students.

“We were very fortunate to build on the experiences others have had,” said Yang, who studied economics and political science. 

The training program concluded with an independent challenge that required fellows to “‘(create) value’ for their future company, an organization in their city or for Venture for America,” according to the website.

Kathy Cheng, a VFA fellow who graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in economics and urban science, called the training a “very good refresher course.” Like all fellows enrolled in the program, Cheng was hired by a start-up company after completing her training. Her employer, a Detroit-based organization called Doodle Home, helps interior designers build their own websites. Fifty start-up or early-stage companies like Doodle Home have partnered with VFA to provide fellows with the entrepreneurship experience the program promotes. 

Fellows such as Cheng are scheduled through VFA to work for two years with companies based in cities identified by the organization as “lower-cost.” This year, VFA targeted five cities – Detroit, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Providence. 

The process of selecting partner start-ups involved significant research into various companies, said Mike Tarullo, director of corporate development. Companies needed to have some degree of financial stability, as well as a comfortable work environment. Tarullo noted that there was “a real desire from owners to be a mentor and shape the fellows.” 

Depending on their home base and the associated living costs, companies are expected to pay fellows a yearly salary ranging from $32,000 to $38,000 and are welcome to offer more. Tarullo, also known as the “matchmaker” of the VFA team, is responsible for gauging fellows’ interests through surveys and interviews and subsequently partnering them with the start-up most suited to their needs. Fellows met with Tarullo throughout the training program and were paired with a company toward its end.

Company managers review resumes and meet with the fellows before selecting them for positions. Bill Cunningham, co-founder of VFA partner OneMorePallet, a company that aims to minimize storage waste, said he was “excited to be a part of the first-ever program” run by VFA. Cunningham, who is an officer of the Greater Cincinnati Venture Association, served as an adviser to the students during the business model challenge in training camp. 

The success of the training camp has enabled VFA to become clearer in its goals, Yang said. “Over the next two years, the fellows are going to be exactly the kind of people you want to invest in.” After completing two years with their employers, fellows have the option of staying with the companies or becoming entrepreneurs themselves – and even competing for a $100,000 cash prize awarded by VFA to the most innovative and promising start-up idea.

For the next class of fellows, VFA will expand its outreach to several more cities, including New Haven, Cleveland and Baltimore. 

“I genuinely believe start-ups are the best environments for enterprising, smart people,” Yang said. 

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