For most Wesleyan students, the post-grad dream does not take place in Detroit, New Orleans, or Las Vegas. Why move there, one might wonder, when you could follow your friends to New York and stay in the Wesleyan bubble for just a little longer? For students who go on to work with Venture for America, however, that’s exactly the point.
Modeled after Teach for America, Venture for America (VFA) sends college graduates to work for two years at start-ups in lower-cost cities such as Cleveland, Providence, and Las Vegas. VFA Founder and CEO Andrew Yang explained that although a significant part of the program’s focus is teaching bright college graduates the skills needed to be successful entrepreneurs, there is also a substantial emphasis on positively affecting communities in the cities where fellows are placed.
“We want to put talented young people in places where they can have an impact,” Yang said. “We believe that cities like Detroit and New Orleans and Las Vegas have enormous opportunities for talented, motivated young people that are often hard to find.”
VFA is a new program; its first class of 40 fellows began working at start-ups last summer. Of those fellows, three were Wesleyan graduates. So far this year, two Wesleyan students have been accepted into the program: Jacob Eichengreen ’13 and Alexander Persky-Stern ’13.
Eichengreen said he became interested in the program because it offered a chance to get exposure to the business world in what might be considered an atypical fashion.
“It’s an opportunity to get a job that’s a little bit different, to do something new with a start-up in a location I wasn’t really thinking about going to,” Eichengreen said. “Building organizations [and] building businesses seemed way more interesting than getting a job in finance. It’s not really a glorified intern position; it’s really doing work.”
Persky-Stern added that the program is appealing because of the small companies into which fellows are placed.
“I really like small companies,” he said. “My big thing is to get exposure to a lot of different aspects of the business, and that’s why I want a small start-up. It’s a cool atmosphere when it’s 10 people.”
On the other hand, of course, a new graduate working with a small company is given much more responsibility, and with responsibility comes added pressure.
“If you do a really horrible job at a 10,000-person company, it’s not a big deal, but if you do a horrible job with whatever you’re doing at a 10-person company, you can really have a big impact,” Persky-Stern said. “It’s definitely a lot of pressure, which I like, but it can be stressful.”
Both Eichengreen and Persky-Stern cultivated their interests in business and entrepreneurship while at Wesleyan. Eichengreen is the manager of Espwesso, and Persky-Stern has long been involved in the Wesleyan Consulting Group. They have also each spent time working in microfinance abroad—Persky-Stern in Honduras and Eichengreen in Uganda. They agreed that while these experiences may not directly translate to the work they will be doing with VFA, the same basic skill sets will apply.
“At the most conceptual level, I’ll probably still be put in charge of a project where I’m identifying something that’s not working with the company or expanding into a new field, and then figuring out a way to do that,” Eichengreen said.
Perksy-Stern added that these practical experiences will come in handy when he is fully removed from the academic structure of the University.
“A lot of the general skills will be helpful, I think, like researching, data analysis, working with management of companies, [and] having a client,” he said. “It’s really different than your schoolwork, where you just write a paper and give it to somebody. It’s a pretty different process.”
The three Wesleyan graduates currently completing the VFA fellowship—Daniel Bloom ’10, Josh Levine ’12, and Max Nussenbaum ’12—are currently located in Cincinnati, Las Vegas, and Detroit, respectively. Bloom feels that his experience at Wesleyan prepared him for the situations he now confronts on a regular basis while working for the start-up with which he was placed.
“At Wesleyan, you’re constantly challenged to talk to people that have different opinions,” Bloom said. “I was a jock and was a wrestler in college, but I was interacting with people who lived in WestCo. A pretty great thing about Wes is that you’re constantly put in these small groups where everyone has a completely different story to tell. I definitely feel like it prepared me for this experience where I’m completely comfortable having a conversation and asking questions about something I know completely nothing about.”
Yet moving to a city without a reliable network, particularly of Wesleyan students, certainly has its challenges.
“I moved to Detroit after having spent 36 total hours here, ever,” Nussenbaum said. “I’d never been to the Midwest before. The whole thing feels like being plunged into cold water.”
Eichengreen expressed a similar concern, citing in particular the fact that these cities are not known for their dynamic youth culture.
“You’re packing up everything you have and moving to a new place,” Eichengreen said. “It’s a taxing process and can be exhausting. Moving to a new city, especially like Detroit or Las Vegas or Cleveland—a city without a reputation for a really vibrant, young-people scene—is kind of nerve-wracking.”
As daunting as the prospect of moving to a less-sought-after city may be, however, it can also be a chance to start completely anew.
“Being in a place where you’re completely new really forces you to build relationships and branch out and become a new person again,” Bloom said. “People really take it for granted, that if you go to a big city you have this big network of people you can tap into, but then you’re not breaking out of the box a whole lot.”
Nussenbaum, who recently wrote a blog post for The Huffington Post arguing in favor of moving to a city like Detroit, explained that moving somewhere completely new has allowed him to get a head-start on his adult life.
“I’ve had a clean break from getting trapped in the nebulous, out-of-college-but-still-hanging-out-with-everyone-from-Wesleyan netherworlds of New York,” he said.
As idealistic as this may seem, however, living in these cities is not always smooth sailing. Levine feels that while many aspects of his new life are wonderful, there are also considerable challenges to living in a city like Las Vegas.
“There are very, very few young, educated people around my age,” Levine said. “It’s a very, very scarce supply. That’s a challenge in terms of making new friends, meeting people that you can build close relationships with. That’s tough.”
Levine added that Las Vegas’s environment stands in stark contrast to what he became accustomed to while growing up in Connecticut.
“There’s a really terrible healthcare system, [and] the economy has been largely built off of gaming,” he said. “It’s very different from growing up in New Haven. I love it, but there’s certainly a lot of work to do. It’s nothing like moving to New York or Boston.”
By placing educated, ambitious young people in these cities, VFA hopes to revitalize and develop their communities. The question, of course, is whether this is indeed an effective mechanism for change.
“VFA is really small,” Nussenbaum said. “It’s growing, but it’s not like you can just look at Detroit and be like, ‘Wow, this is the impact VFA has had.’ There is certainly an incredible resurgence of entrepreneurship in Detroit, and just young people, and VFA is definitely a part of that and I think emblematic of that trend.”
Yang, VFA’s CEO and founder, explained that the organization evaluates its success based on the number of jobs created as a result of the fellows’ work—and this applies regardless of whether fellows stay on in the communities with which they are placed or move elsewhere after the two-year fellowship.
“If someone moves to another city and starts a company, that’s a good thing, too,” Yang said. “Our mission is to revitalize cities and communities throughout the US, so if you move someplace else and do something good, we’d be excited about that.”
Because the program is so new, there is no established trend for current fellows to follow. As the Wesleyan alumni currently working with VFA explained, they have no idea whether they will remain in the cities where they are currently located.
“One of the biggest mysteries is whether as a cohort we will tend to stay in our cities and create things, or if we’ll leave,” Levine said. “I would say it’s more likely than not that I’ll stay in Las Vegas [for more than] two years, but you never know what’s going to happen—there are a lot of challenges living here, mostly related to the demographics.”
Creating things and making positive change, regardless of the precise location or the nature of the work being done, is the ultimate goal of Venture for America. Yang hopes that when learning about the program, students look beyond the for-profit nature of start-ups and acknowledge that they, too, can have a worthwhile impact.
“It’s not about the legal status of an organization; it’s not about whether something’s for-profit or non-profit, or that profit’s somehow bad,” Yang said. “There’s a false bifurcation going on in the minds, in my opinion, of many Wesleyan students, where certain institutions are intrinsically good and certain institutions are intrinsically not. If you create an organization that creates value, whether it’s for-profit or non-profit, it’s a positive thing.”