March 5, 2014
By Richard Feloni
As Detroit leaders work to pay back the city’s estimated $18 billion in debt, one entrepreneur is building a rich startup culture that he hopes could revive the Motor City.
Venture for America founder Andrew Yang plans to bring back an entrepreneurial spirit to lower-cost cities by placing top graduates from the country’s elite universities into startups in Detroit, Las Vegas, and New Orleans.
After gaining a comfortable amount of wealth from selling a test prep company to Kaplan, Yang gathered a team and set about creating the Venture for America nonprofit. It launched in 2012, with help from investors like Detroit businessman Dan Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures.
Yang saw the abundance of vacant, cheap property in Detroit through optimistic eyes. Rather than leaving the once-great city to rot, smart and talented people could re-invent it from the ground up.
In his new book, “Smart People Should Build Things,” Yang includes testimonials from VFA’s first round of fellows. Meet three fellows who took a risk and headed to Detroit in the fall of 2012 for a two-year program:
Nussenbaum is a Wesleyan grad from Newton, Mass. whose friends all questioned his move to Detroit (even one who was about to volunteer in a Nigerian slum). His heart wasn’t exactly set on the city, but he wanted to avoid the well-tread paths to cities likes New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. Nussenbaum was sure he had made the right choice as soon as he got to Detroit and started working with tech startup Are You a Human. He writes:
When you get to Detroit, the city screams at you to do something. It doesn’t matter what — just do something …
The point is that it’s easier to get your ideas off the ground here than it is in a lot of other places, that the city’s rebirth is just a bunch of people’s crazy ideas somehow becoming reality. Detroiters are building their city together, from the new transplants lured like I was to the former suburbanites returning from their exile to those who’ve been here all along, refusing to give in to the weight of the outside world’s preconceptions.
He’s still doing work for Are You a Human, as well as helping restore a house in Detroit for VFA fellows through the nonprofit’s program Rebirth Realty. You can get an idea of his goofy sense of humor on his personal site, where he also highlights his “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” audition tape music video that got him onto the show in 2009.
East Brunswick, N.J. native Cheng was ready to graduate MIT when she realized that a job in finance could bring her money, but didn’t align with her creativity. After seeing one of Yang’s presentations, she decided his program could be the place to find meaning in her work. She joined VFA and got paired with Doodle Home, a virtual studio for interior designers. She writes:
When I look around Detroit, what drives me is not the need to create technology but the need to activate the many spaces here that are longing for a renewed purpose.
And what I’ve come to appreciate most is that when I have lofty ideas like these, I am no longer afraid to pursue them.
Cheng is a business analyst at Doodle Home and has fallen in love with the city. In a blog post from July, she writes, “The shock is not only in how much I have adopted this city as my home, but also in how much distance I have put to between my life now and my life as I saw it as a senior at MIT.”
Dingman was an electrical engineer at Brown University from Sudbury, Mass. who wanted to apply his talents beyond the lab. Venture for America paired him with Accio Energy, which is developing a new kind of wind power generator. He writes:
The city of Detroit has been a lesson in itself, showing me what a city with nothing to lose can achieve if enough determined citizens put their minds and bodies to work. Organizations like Detroit SOUP, D:hive, and Opportunity Detroit are bringing people and ideas into Detroit at a breakneck pace. Downtown shows new signs of life every time I look out my window.
When Dingman was at Brown, he created the student-run Organizing a Better World by Design sustainable design conference, which is held annually at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design.
VFA’s Future Plans
Andrew Yang recognizes Detroit still has a long list of infrastructural hurdles, but he’s hopeful the network of entrepreneurs he has established in the city will grow organically over time, creating a culture of innovation.
He hopes to have Venture for America create 100,000 new U.S. jobs by 2025.
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