My Soapbox: Andrew Yang, Founder, Venture For America

Fast Company called Venture For America a “wildly ambitious” nonprofit focused on growing entrepreneurship and investing top talent in low-cost cities like Cincinnati. So when VFA’s founder, 37-year-old Andrew Yang, landed in town to chat with local entrepreneurs about hosting a few members of his inaugural class of fellows -- a handpicked group of the best and brightest culled from top universities around the country, a la Teach for America -- Soapbox met him at the airport.

The Brown University and Columbia Law School alum has practiced law, launched numerous startups and been an apprentice at others. A decade of exploration and learning led to his latest and most audacious effort, Venture For America: "A program for young, talented grads to spend two years in the trenches of a start-up with the goal that these graduates will become socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs moving forward."

Soapbox: How did you come up with the idea for Venture For America?

Andrew Yang: The idea for VFA built up for over a decade through my own experiences. When I graduated from college I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I went to law school, which is what a lot of people do if they don’t know what they want to do. I had the experience of practicing law, briefly, and then starting a company in my mid-20s that didn’t achieve its goals. After my own company wound down, I apprenticed myself to a couple of more experienced entrepreneurs over a five-year period. I realized that working alongside a more experienced entrepreneur is a phenomenal way to learn and develop.

SB: What are the advantages of lower-cost cities to startups?

AY: If you are an entrepreneur, you love having lower startup costs. It gives you greater room for trial and error and to develop a firmer idea of how your organization is going to grow and succeed.

SB: Why is VFA interested in Cincinnati?

AY: I think Cincinnati has a very high degree of resources and also some very forward-thinking institutions that are looking to develop the startup landscape in the city. We’re here because of the very high degree of institutional support. We’ve heard great things about Cincinnati and the city’s ability to get things done.

SB: You’ve been actively recruiting for VFA fellows. What’s the response been so far?

AY: The response has been tremendous. We’ve had more than 1,300 seniors and recent college graduates initiate applications. Hundreds of them are from top universities. We actually sent out our first offers this week for early applicants. We’re optimistic that we’re going to assemble a group of some of the best kids in the country that want to learn how to build businesses and create jobs.

SB: What makes an applicant successful?

AY: We’re looking for someone who could contribute to the growth and success of a company that’s going to go on to create dozens, maybe even hundreds, of jobs. We look for exceptional performance in a particular arena. That could be academics, it could be in a business setting, it could be extracurricular, it could even be athletically, because we believe some of those qualities actually translate very well to the business setting. We are of the opinion that exceptionally high performance in other contexts translates well to startups.

SB: Why do you think this opportunity is appealing to a new generation of high-achieving graduates?

AY: I think that many of today’s recent graduates very badly want to be in a position where they can make an impact early on and feel like they are directly affecting the success of the organization.

SB: Why is it important that fellows stay in their placement cities?

AY: We believe that small businesses, growth businesses and entrepreneurship form the backbone of job growth in this country. We need more of our best and brightest in positions where they are working at leading and even founding those sorts of companies. That’s what VFA strives to do.

The hope is that they [fellows] become integral parts of the businesses they are supporting during their time here in Cincinnati. This would be a logical place for them to start a business.

SB: What do you hope to get out of your visit here?

AY: My hope is that we find exactly the sort of exciting opportunities that very, very talented recent graduates would love to be a part of. I expect that to be the case, that there are a lot of vibrant growth companies here in Cincinnati that we would love to support.

Interested in learning more about VFA? Visit their website for details. Businesses interested in connecting with VFA about potential fellow placement can apply online.
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