February 2, 2014
By Laura Baverman
When the management consulting and investment banking job offers and law and business school acceptance letters come in this spring, 100 U.S. college seniors will decline those typically sought-after opportunities.
They’ll choose Venture for America instead, working for the next two years at start-ups around the nation, in preparation for starting a business someday.
Their careers will become examples for the researchers and economists who believe bright young people can revive the U.S. economy by creating new products and starting companies.
Venture for America is a two-year-old organization founded by corporate attorney-turned-serial entrepreneur Andrew Yang. It has placed 106 new college graduates in paid fellowships in eight U.S. cities — Las Vegas, New Orleans, Detroit, Cincinnati, Providence, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Baltimore — assigning them to start-ups that have raised $7 million and added 800 jobs since mid-2012. Those fellows have started at least seven of their own businesses.
In his new book Smart People Should Build Things, Yang shares his insights from 30 visits to high-ranking colleges. Like himself years prior, students were interested in alternative careers but knew only the most obvious routes.
“Students tend to look for jobs very specific to what they studied in school,” Yang says. “Their sense of opportunity is heavily emphasized by who is recruiting there.”
Yang’s observations are echoed in the first youth entrepreneurship study in decades, set for release this fall. Researchers at Tufts, Stanford and Ball State universities have found that as many as a quarter of all twentysomethings are “drifting” with no career path.
Universities, though they’ve created entrepreneurship majors and minors, clubs and business-accelerator programs, still have few students enrolled or involved in these efforts. Entrepreneurship isn’t presented as a career opportunity for the majority of students.
“I see this as the great untapped potential of our economy,” says Bill Damon, a study leader and director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. “Entrepreneurship is an avenue that is wide open for these young people, but a lot of them don’t have confidence or don’t think they have the needed skills, even if they have a lot of ideas about services or products that could be useful and successful.”
Venture for America offers that avenue. It already has some successes.
Brian Rudolph, a 2012 Detroit fellow, in January won $10,000 in a Venture for America crowd-funding contest after he raised $17,581 for Banza! Greek Pasta, a brand of chickpea pasta he’ll soon launch.
And 2013 fellows Kate Leisy and Zubin Teherani won second place in the contest for Bandaloo, a weekend for musicians to meet, write music and form bands, modeled on the popular Startup Weekend.
Leisy is a Vanderbilt University graduate working at Curalate in Philadelphia, managing the customer accounts for the analytics and marketing start-up. Georgetown University grad Teherani works in New Orleans for IDScan, selling its software to read and capture data from identification cards.
They’re performing tasks that might require years of training and experience at a large corporation. That’s given them the confidence to tackle Bandaloo. The first event will happen in New Orleans in March.
Rudolph of Emory University was Quikly’s second hire. He’s since left the marketing software company to pursue his business full-time. But there, he learned to run an e-commerce website, craft a passionate pitch and use data to make decisions. He’s armed with strategies for marketing a business online. They’re all skills he’s funneling into Banza!, which he wouldn’t have started if not for Venture for America, he says.
“Start-ups are baptism by fire,” Rudolph says. “You don’t necessarily know what you’re doing, but when you’re forced to learn on the spot, it accelerates your learning curve.”
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