September 25, 2012

Four Recent Cornell Alumni Join Start-Ups Through Venture for America Program

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Correction appended

Four entrepreneurial members of the Class of 2012 are working at start-up businesses across the country through a newly launched program that aims to bolster entrepreneurship in the U.S.

The four students are fellows in the inaugural class of Venture for America, a new program that places college graduates in start-ups. VFA is modeled after Teach for America, according to Chris Sanders ’13, a campus representative for VFA.

While TFA promotes education in low-income communities, VFA seeks to bolster entrepreneurship in cities that typically struggle to retain talented individuals, according to Sanders.

With four of VFA’s 40 new fellows hailing from Cornell, the University boasts the largest number of students in the program who graduated from a single institution. With the ongoing development of CornellNYC Tech, the University is expected to become an even greater source of talent for the program, Sanders said.

Current VFA fellows have been placed in five U.S. cities: New Orleans, La.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Baltimore, Md.; Cincinnati, Ohio, and Providence, R.I.

Edie Feinstein ’12, a VFA fellow and a former Sun designer, said the program’s founder and president, Andrew Yang — a former corporate lawyer and alumnus of Brown University — hopes to expand VFA to include about 80 to 100 more fellows and three to five additional cities.

Yang’s ultimate goal is to create 100,000 new jobs in the U.S. by 2025, according to the program’s website.

Before heading to their new jobs in cities across the country, all 40 fellows attended a five-week “boot camp” at Brown this summer  designed to kick-start their entrepreneurial careers, Feinstein said. Students heard from professional speakers and worked on projects such as creating business models and helping to develop VFA’s website.

Feinstein said that speakers at the training tried to impress upon the fellows that working at start-up companies involves a lot of hard work.

They told us that “it’s not always so glamorous,” she said.

After training, the fellows dispersed to their respective locations to begin their fellowships, for which they will work for two years. In summer 2014, fellows will choose whether to remain at their jobs or to start their own businesses, according to Sanders.

Participants will also compete for a $100,000 prize to be awarded to some of the best-performing fellows at the conclusion of the two-year program, according to VFA’s website.

With an acceptance rate of 10 percent in its first year, VFA is already a highly selective program, Sanders said.

To match each fellow with a city and a company, selected graduates undergo “a mutual selection process” with businesses, Sanders said.

“As a fellow, you are placed into an organization where your strengths would be most valued,” Sanders said. “You become a part of a network — people who are interested in the same things as you, people who can form your core for business later, people who are your friends and colleagues. You form connections.”

As a student in ILR, Feinstein said she initially looked for human resources positions at large corporate companies for after graduation, but that entrepreneurship “was always at the back of my mind.”

When she saw an announcement last year about a VFA information session on campus, she decided to attend on a whim, she said. She said after listening to Yang talk about the program, she was intrigued.

“I was looking for something to excite me,” Feinstein said. “I was blown away by the program.”

Feinstein, who was paired up with Kickboard — a company that runs an online dashboard to help teachers track students’ performance and behavior — said her experience at her new job has been a positive one so far. She added that participating in VFA has inspired her to think about founding a startup of her own.

Feinstein said that, for instance, she could potentially draw from her love for food and cooking and possibly launch a “foodie company.”

Sara Cullen ’12, another VFA fellow working in New Orleans, added that the program was a refreshing alternative to choosing a job based on conventionality rather than interest.

“Many people go into mainstream industry jobs because they don’t know what they really want to do and how they are going to apply their college majors to ‘real life,’” she said. “VFA is ultimately a way to apply what you’ve learned in college.”

Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to The Sun, a previous version of this story inaccurately stated the acceptance rate of and information about the prize award by the Venture for America program. The acceptance rate for the program was 10 percent, not one percent, and its $100,000 prize may be awarded to multiple fellows, not just one fellow.

Original Author: Emma Jesch