Venture for America Unveils First Fellows Bound for Detroit, Other Cities

6/13/12Follow @jpruth

Venture for America believes that attracting talented college graduates to cities grappling with unemployment may help jumpstart those local economies, and now it’s moving forward with its mission to do just that. Last night the New York-based nonprofit debuted its first class of 41 fellows and the companies they will work for across country. Ten Detroit companies—including Digerati, Quikkly, and Benzinga—as well as venture firm Detroit Venture Partners will welcome the fellows. Companies in Cincinnati, New Orleans, Providence, and Las Vegas are also taking on fellows from this summer’s class.

Venture for America is modeled somewhat like Teach for America, but with the goal to bring talented college grads to early-stage companies in cities hit hard by economic challenges. At the end of each two-year session, Venture for America will give $100,000 to the top performing fellows, which they can use as seed money to start their own businesses.

“This has the potential to give rise to a virtuous cycle,” said Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America, at the event, which was held inside IAC’s headquarters in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. “As the companies and fellows mature, they create new opportunities, and hire more fellows,” he said.

Yang pointed to a potential problem with the common trend of college graduates in the U.S. being heavily recruited to work in professional services. With these jobs concentrated in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Boston, other parts of the country are being drained of talent. A bright Wharton student, for example, might not feel inclined to return home to become an entrepreneur after graduation, Yang said. “The odds of going back to create a business and new opportunities are quite low,” he said.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of online shoe and apparel retailer Zappos.com, spoke at the event about his support for Venture for America, as well as an effort to build up the startup community in Las Vegas. “One of our goals is to make downtown Vegas the entrepreneurial capital of the world,” he said.

Zappos, owned by Amazon.com, is based in Henderson, NV and plans to move its headquarters to Las Vegas next year. Hsieh is also the founder of the $350 million Downtown Project in Las Vegas, which includes funding for local tech startups, small businesses, real estate, and residential development. “It’s good for Zappos—ultimately it’s going to help us attract and retain employees—and it’s good for the city,” he said. Downtown Project is also taking on a fellow from Venture for America’s summer class.

Fellows for the program were recruited from schools such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Columbia University, Duke University, and Yale University. Selection of the candidates included video interviews that used New York-based Take the Interview’s platform. Training to prepare the fellows will take place this summer at Brown University. After that the real work will begin when these prodigies dig in to help the companies that chose them.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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