Venture for America Recruiting College Grads for Startup Jobs in Detroit, Providence, and More, Says Founder
New companies struggling to hire fresh talent may find help in the form of a nonprofit organization that debuted last Wednesday in New York. Venture for America says it will match a select group of college grads with early-stage companies, particularly in cities that face employment challenges.
“Our main goal is to create U.S. jobs,” said Andrew Yang, president and founder of Venture for America, in an interview. “We think that sending talented college graduates to early-stage companies is the way to do that.”
Yang says his New York-based organization is modeled in part on Teach For America, which recruits college grads and professionals to teach for two years in under-resourced urban and rural schools across the country. Venture for America plans to place its recruits as full-time employees with startups and other early-stage companies for two years. Yang says the program will initially focus on filling the ranks at companies in Detroit, MI; New Orleans, LA; and Providence, RI, with other cities to follow. “We are also talking to [Mayor] Corey Booker’s office to include Newark in the first year,” Yang says. Venture for America says it has $500,000 in funding commitments from its board, individual donors, and other sponsors.
Recruiting recent and soon-to-be grads to help companies evolve is not a new idea. The Silberman College of Business at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ, for example, matches MBA students with companies at all stages of development through its business ventures program.
Yang says college grads and professionals will be chosen for his program next March, with training to commence in June 2012 at his alma mater, Brown University, and placement at the companies to follow in July. Participating companies include Detroit Venture Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm that has committed to hire at least 20 of the first class of recruits, and music licensing and technology company Audiosocket in New Orleans.
Venture for America recruits will be narrowed down based on their academic transcripts, résumés, and essays expressing their desire to serve in the program, Yang says. Further interviews will determine the final class. “We would select a class based on the needs of the companies,” Yang says. “We are looking at getting 5,000 applicants for more than 50 fellowship slots.” Their training at Brown will include general business skills in project management and sales, as well as some technical skills such as search engine optimization and the use of social media.
In exchange for a two-year commitment to work full-time for the companies they are matched with, the recruits will receive salaries ranging from $32,000 to $38,000 plus health benefits. The companies can opt to rehire the recruits under new terms after the two-year term. Yang says the program will teach its participants entrepreneurship skills for building companies and creating jobs in cities that desperately need new businesses that generate employment opportunities. Sweetening the pot for the participants, Venture for America says it will provide $100,000 after the two-year period to one person from the class who has performed the best at his or her company. The funds can be used as seed capital to help launch his or her own startup, or for the company the person has already worked with.
Yang says he knows firsthand the difficulties entrepreneurs face when launching companies. “I started a company that failed and licked my wounds,” he says. Yang graduated with a bachelor’s in economics from Brown in 1996, and then earned his law degree from Columbia University in 1999. He joined law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell in 1999 but left the firm after six months to co-found Stargiving.com, though he still owed $100,000 in law school debt.
Stargiving.com was a fundraising company that worked with celebrity-backed nonprofits. Yang says people who made donations through his website could win a chance to meet participating celebrities; however the idea did not catch on with the public. “We got Magic Johnson to agree, Hootie and the Blowfish, Muhammad Ali, but the site was really boring,” Yang says.
After Stargiving.com fizzled out, Yang says he apprenticed under experienced entrepreneurs in a variety of industries. He served as a vice president with mobile software platform provider Crisp Wireless (now Crisp Media) in New York from 2001 to 2002, vice president from 2002 to 2005 with MMF Systems, a New York-based developer of medical file management software, and then in 2006 became CEO of test preparation firm Manhattan GMAT, which was acquired in 2009 by Kaplan.
Yang says he hopes most graduates of the Venture for America program remain with the companies they work with. He plans to recruit another class to serve in 2013.