To Andrew Yang, it seemed that many college graduates pursued fields such as finance, consulting, medicine, law, or graduate school, yet lacked genuine passion for these areas. Rather, it appeared as though they were following an ambiguous ambition for status. As a solution to what he considers an unproductive culture, in 2011 he created an alternative path for young people: Venture for America (VFA).
The two-year fellowship program, of which Yang serves as CEO, looks to revitalize American cities through entrepreneurship by fueling job growth and productivity. VFA recruits recent college graduates and enables them to learn and work with over 150 startups in 15 emerging U.S. cities. The program provides mentorship and networking resources and offers access to capital for those pursuing entrepreneurial initiatives post-fellowship.
Attracting graduates from over 70 schools and currently operating at an 11 percent acceptance rate, the organization holds a five-week, intensive training camp at Brown University from the end of June through July before sending the fellows to their respective placements in August or early September. The startups themselves run the gamut in terms of their industry and categorization—from software and technology companies to nonprofits, breweries, and accelerators—and fellows earn the same salary, regardless of chosen startup.
“We’re sort of what we call industry agnostic,” said Leandra Elberger, communications and development manager at VFA. “What we care about when we partner with these startups is that there’s a growth opportunity for a person, that there’s good leadership and mentorship available at the startup … and that they’re financially viable.”
In terms of the actual startup-matching process, accepted fellows make pitches to companies that interest them and have partnered with VFA. These fellows then go through a normal interview process before receiving an offer and either accepting or rejecting it, with each fellow guaranteed a placement.
Community is central to VFA’s mission, with mentorship, networking, educational updates, and programming enabling fellows to stay in contact with not only the VFA headquarters, but other fellows—current and past—and professional mentors, as well. “A huge part of being in VFA is not just working at your startup, but being a part of the community that is constantly in touch,” Elberger said.
The next application deadline for VFA is Monday, Nov. 30.
Eight Boston College alumni have become fellows since 2012, with their VFA fellowship experiences detailed below.
Swipely | Providence
As the first BC graduate to become a VFA fellow, Sean Lane played a role in the campus outreach that helped others, including Maxwell Walters, get involved with the program. Joining the organization in its second year of existence, Walters never left the first firm for which he worked.
Lane works for Swipely, a company founded in 2009 on the idea of improving businesses’ customer retention that has grown into a full software suite helping merchants with payment, analytics, and marketing tools. Swipely has raised a total of $40.5 million in venture capital funding, and includes industry-renowned investors such as Lowercase Capital’s Chris Sacca, Greylock’s Reid Hoffman, and prominent angel investor Ron Conway.
For most of his time as a VFA fellow, Lane worked as a Success Manager for the startup. He later transitioned to roles as a Senior Onboarding Specialist and Onboarding Manager before landing in his current position as the Manager of Onboarding and Support.
Lane remains actively involved in VFA through sitting on its Alumni Board. Most recently, he relayed leadership and professional lessons he has learned though VFA in a post entitled “Managing Up,” targeted at the newest VFA fellow class of 2015.
Caroline Kirkwood, BC ’15
LeadiD | Philadelphia
Average BC English and International Studies majors likely seldom find themselves spending the bulk of their time on Excel and writing SQL queries on a data science team just months removed from graduation. For Caroline Kirkwood, VFA has played an instrumental role in her transition from interning at public relations and communications firms while in college, to working as a Client Success Manager at LeadiD after beginning her fellowship, to now being a data analyst at the startup.
“After hearing about some friends doing structured post-grad programs like SJVC or TFA, I had found myself on the VFA site and thought that this fellowship would give me the opportunity to explore many facets of the business world that I didn’t have time to dive into during my time as an undergrad,” Kirkwood said.
Her experience at the rapidly growing LeadiD, a 50-person data and analytics marketing company based in the suburbs of Philadelphia, has included many new friendships, professional growth, and insight into the ups and downs of the startup world.
“So far I have loved every bit of the VFA experience,” she said. “From moving to a new city with a bunch of other VFA Fellows from colleges and universities from across the country, to seeing really what makes a startup click and learning the steps and struggles a company must go through to be successful. While there might be some late nights and working from home, it has been incredible to know that the work that I do is directly affecting the company and our clients.”
Moving forward, Kirkwood feels LeadiD is primed for a period of substantive growth, and looks forward to continuing her dynamic learning process.
“The new skills and experiences that I have learned in just over two months are opportunities that I do not think would have been presented to me so early on in my post-grad career if it were not for VFA,” she said.
Dan Klemmer, BC ’14
Rhinegeist Brewery | Cincinnati
Having run his own company in Rhode Island throughout his college summers, Dan Klemmer was not fully engaged in the internship hunt until senior year, when VFA caught his eye at the career fair due to its balance between the influential business world and socially minded focus. “I felt that VFA had really struck that balance for me, so I checked them out at the career fair and really, really dug the vibe,” he said.
Currently in the second year of his fellowship with the nation’s fastest growing brewery, Rhinegeist, Klemmer is part of the marketing team, focusing primarily on outward-facing events, copywriting, and acting as a sales-to-marketing liaison for the company.
Klemmer lauds VFA for the supportive and dynamic community it fosters post-graduation. “I feel really energized by like-minded individuals who are looking to build, and create, and learn, and also kind of enjoy the exploration aspect of doing something off the beaten path of growing,” he said. “And they are truly some of the smartest people that I’ve ever been around, and incredibly impressive, and their skill sets are wonderful,” he said. “It’s a total no brainer—I am a huge, huge diehard fan of VFA, almost as much as I am of Boston College.”
Hoping to vagabond in the wake of his VFA fellowship, ultimately Klemmer looks to work for an NGO or grassroots organization in Latin America.
Kate Murray, BC ’14
Endeavor | Detroit
Working at the newest U.S. affiliate of 43 domestic and international branches, Kate Murray is one of three individuals launching Endeavor Detroit—a nonprofit startup that aids high-impact entrepreneurs build, “scale-up,” and showcase their businesses. Initially drawn to VFA after having interned at Detroit Venture Partners following her junior year alongside two, then-current VFA fellows who encouraged that she apply, Murray was with Bedrock Real Estate Services for the first year of her fellowship before leaving for Endeavor, a company she individually brought into partnership with VFA through networking.
Despite quitting her first job within her fellowship due to her desires to have a more meaningful role within a company, Murray’s VFA experience has been a good one. “Venture for America was super supportive in the process of trying to find a company, and then when Bedrock didn’t work out, helping me to find a new one that would be better,” she said.
At the conclusion of her fellowship, Murray intends to work for a company focusing on international business or helping U.S. companies expand internationally. “I’m getting a lot of great experience in that from working with an international nonprofit right now, and also just by working with entrepreneurs, seeing what it takes to start a business and to scale a business,” she said. “It’s really exciting to work for a three-person company, you get to do so much more. You know, as a 23-year-old, I’m part running a company. You get a lot more hands-on experience.”
Devon Sanford, BC ’15
GoodCompany Ventures | Philadelphia
Following what she considered a soul-sucking internship in Midtown Manhattan prior to her senior year, Devon Sanford decided to reevaluate post-grad options. “I was really miserable, and it was kind of a reality check for me,” she said. “If I don’t want this to be my life, what do I want?” VFA provided the answer: knowing that she wanted to do impactful, socially conscious work, Sanford spoke to Dan Klemmer, current VFA fellow and BC ’14, her senior year and realized that many of the organization’s values and goals correlated with her own.
Sanford, a former Heights editor, currently works for GoodCompany Ventures, a non-profit startup accelerator based in Philadelphia that provides educational services to early-stage socially- and politically-minded entrepreneurs, and her job involves a myriad of tasks—from running communications and marketing, to organizing and networking with the alumni community and aiding in partnerships and planning.
The journey here hasn’t been free of obstacles, however, as the first offer Sanford received and accepted fell through due to that company’s departure from VFA partnership and left her scrambling to reconsider her fellowship options. “That was definitely trying, but the training camp, which happened this past summer, was just extraordinary,” she said. “I was surrounded by a group of intelligent, charismatic, empathetic recent grads who were all just amazing people. [And] I feel like I’m having an impact on my company, and the work that I’m doing, I think, is really important for the Philadelphia community, as well as on a global scale.”
At the conclusion of the two years, Sanford can see herself either potentially continuing in the social entrepreneurship vein or pursuing additional schooling. “Most importantly, I think that I really want to continue learning and figuring out where my needs and my skills are most valuable, and where I feel like I can have a really strong impact on the community,” she said.
Maxwell Walters, BC ’13
Revelry | New Orleans
For Maxwell Walters, VFA’s focus on helping revitalize communities in the U.S. led to three separate assignments at startups in New Orleans, as well as continued employment in the area after his fellowship ended. A member of VFA’s third class, Walters notes that the program had less structure and organization when he went through it, which led to numerous interesting work experiences.
His first role was the COO of a small business consultancy that aided entrepreneurs in developing strategic roadmaps for products. He then became the General Manager of a company seeking to raise awareness about the harmful environmental effects of plastic beads used during annual Mardi Gras festivities. His third and final stop as a VFA fellow was at a marketing startup, where he focused on telling the stories of local businesses to increase brand loyalty and drive sales. As a result of the varied experiences, Walters indicates that the fellowship seldom if ever left him in a dull moment.
“The experience was an amazing roller coaster filled with every high and low you could imagine. I would absolutely do it again,” he said. “The best part for me was the safe environment that VFA built to support recent graduates taking an untraditional path. The community of fellows, the connections and the resources that VFA provides create an amazing toolkit with which to build the foundation of your career.”
Having made a home out of New Orleans, Walters now works for a web development firm called Revelry that focuses on client specific applications and staff augmentation. He credits VFA with helping him learn about himself and build the foundation of his career.
“VFA is about surrounding yourself with a community of people who want to build things and learning to be comfortable with risk,” he said. “The positive impact on society comes through creating opportunities by working on or leading a team trying to solve a problem.”
Cathryn Woodruff, BC ’15
Banza | Detroit
For Cathryn Woodruff, food startup Banza provides a perfect mix of creativity and autonomy in the workplace. A member of BC’s most recent graduating class and a former Heights editor, Woodruff sought to get away from the rigidity she experienced during internships in more corporate settings. Although she formed an interest in working for a startup early on in her senior year, she was unsure exactly how to get involved.
“I had played around with the idea of working for a startup a bit,” Woodruff said. “The problem, though, was that I didn’t feel competent. My perception of what a startup is was formed by stereotypes of tech companies in Silicon Valley, such as Facebook. As an English major with absolutely no hard skills, I felt there was no way I’d fit into that environment.”
VFA, however, helped Woodruff facilitate her interest by providing a large network of entrepreneurs as well as an organization whose values aligned with her own. Joining the program after graduation, Woodruff now works in marketing and business development for the seven-person Banza in Detroit. Founded in 2014, the company focuses on reinventing staple foods in more nutritious ways. For instance, the first product is a type of pasta made through chickpeas that boasts twice the protein, four times the fiber, and half the net carbs as traditional pastas. In just over a year, the company’s product has spread to 1700 stores nationwide.
Woodruff plans to continue working for Banza as part of her involvement within VFA as the company seeks to maintain and build upon its rapid growth.
“Working at Banza has been such a unique and rewarding experience,” she said. “I’m a 21-year-old who just graduated from college in May, and I’m trusted to make company decisions, and move the brand forward in ways I feel are beneficial. The amount of responsibility I am encouraged to take on has been the most rewarding learning experience for me.”
Muhan Zhang, BC ’15
Kairos | Miami
Although initially skeptical of VFA—an organization he considered replete with business buzzwords after having seen its table at last year’s October job fair—Muhan Zhang found that a lot of its character formation virtues and core tenets were similar to his own, having parents who both immigrated to the U.S. “What ended up really being the turning point for me in terms of applying was that I had read the book of the founder, Andrew Yang, Smart People Should Build Things … and he sounded like he was a real person, someone with a lot of values that resonated with me,” Zhang said.
Now a VFA fellow stationed with Miami-based, human analytics software company Kairos, Zhang aids in designing and developing software for human emotive and facial recognition. “I really enjoy my company now … there’s lots to learn, lots of fun things to do—I get paid for playing at a computer all day, so I really can’t complain,” he said.
Following his fellowship with Kairos, Zhang wants to pursue the entrepreneurial path: “I’m definitely interested in the [entrepreneurship] route,” he said. “And you don’t have to be a founder of a company to help a new idea sail … that’s something I’d be very happy to do at the end of two years.”
All Images courtesy of Venture for America