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A fellowship program for entrepreneurs

Marketplace Staff Aug 26, 2011

A fellowship program for entrepreneurs

Marketplace Staff Aug 26, 2011

Bob Moon: The other day in our Letters segment, a listener pleaded for “more positive reporting, please.” Truth is, we never shy away from constructive stories, like this one.

A new nonprofit is launching an innovative fellowship program, aimed at smoothing the way for business startups that can help turn our economy around. Much like the Teach for America program, which places recent grads in teaching jobs where they’re needed, Venture for America seeks to put fresh talent to work, with a salary, for small startup companies in struggling cities.

Its founder Andrew Yang joins us from New York, and from Massachusetts, Harvard senior Gabby Bryant, who’s among the first venture fellow applicants.

Welcome to both of you.

Gabby Bryant: Thank you.

Andrew Yang: Thanks for having us.

Moon: Andrew, first to you. Why the need for an organization like this?

Yang: Over the last number of years, I’ve personally encountered hundreds of enterprising 20-something-year-old recent college graduates who desperately wanted to themselves become engaged in startups and entrepreneurship and learn how to build businesses and create jobs. But there was no easy pathway for them to access those sorts of opportunities. And I personally experienced that myself. When I graduated from college, I also was interested in startups and started my own company when I was 25, and saw just what a difficult road that can be for a recent college graduate.

Moon: Now the three cities that you’re sending students to so far are Detroit, New Orleans and Providence, R.I. Why those cities?

Yang: We think that those cities represent the new American frontier. They’re where both the opportunities are and where the need lies. Those cities also have the huge advantage of having tremendous entrepreneurial ecosystems; they each have a dozen or more thriving companies that are all hungry for talent that we can send our fellows to support and contribute to.

Moon: Gabby Bryant, let’s turn to you. You’re from one of those cities: Detroit. If you could go back there as a venture fellow, what would you hope to do?

Bryant: Detroit has really been hard-hit. In the past, Detroit’s really been known for the car industry, but it’s such a harbor for talent and music and in art. I think that things like that need to be expanded, and it needs to be a place where artists can just express themselves and make the city a better, thriving place.

Moon: And how does this program lend itself to being able to do that sort of work?

Bryant: The main reason that Venture for America really impressed me is because it brings young people and it shows them how to make your own startups and how to bring jobs to the city and how to create an active place for people to live and want to be in.

Moon: Andrew, back to you. Give me a couple of examples of companies that want to take on some of your venture fellows.

Yang: Sure. In Detroit, there’s actually an entrepreneur named Phillip Cooley who has just opened up a 28,000 square foot warehouse that’s going to be a community startup space. And Phillip and his brother Ryan are actually going to hire one of our venture fellows to become their lieutenant in helping them build out that space. So that’s exactly the kind of opportunity that Gabby’s looking for.

Moon: This impresses me in a business sense as sort of a PeaceCorps for entrepreneurs, if you will.

Yang: Yes, that’s exactly the idea, and as someone who’s run a company myself, I know how difficult it is to find good talent. But it’s doubly difficult if you are a startup that’s strapped for resources and you’re in a city like Detroit or New Orleans or Providence.

Moon: This is not some sort of glorified internship kind of program?

Yang: No. If you’re selected for the fellowship — first, we expect to have thousands of top applicants applying for 50 fellowships, so it’s going to be extraordinarily selective. If you’re selected for the fellowship, you will then come to Brown University next June for a five-week boot camp, where you’ll meet with experienced venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. And then you spend two years at the company as a fellow, working full-time.

Moon: Gabby, I have to ask: You’re graduating from Harvard University with a degree in economics — I imagine you’re going to be getting plenty of well-paying job offers — why do you need something like Venture for America?

Bryant: I don’t have a lot of that real-life experience in a startup company, and the best way for me to get that is by throwing myself into a real-life situation. And especially because Detroit has such a special place in my heart, it’s really important for me to be able to give back. And I think I’m in a special position because that is my home, and I’ve gone off to Harvard and have this great education to come back and help the city in a way that people from necessarily the outside may not be able to do.

Moon: Gabby Bryant is a senior at Harvard University, and an applicant to the Venture for America fellowship program, and the founder of the program is Andrew Yang. Thanks to you both for joining us.

Bryant: Thanks.

Yang: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

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