Venture For America, a nonprofit that places top-flight college graduates in cities of economic need and entrepreneurial promise, has arrived in the Elm City.
The organization, which launched its first class of fellows in 2012, connects its members to various startup companies across the United States, aiming to spur entrepreneurial growth. VFA recently expanded to New Haven, assigning Ethan Carlson ’12 to pioneer the nonprofit’s presence in the city.
“You can separate [VFA’s mission] into tangible goals and intangible goals,” Carlson said. “Tangible goals include 100,000 [new] jobs by 2025, revitalizing economies in struggling cities and rerouting top college graduates from the paved road to consulting and finance into entrepreneurship.”
VFA’s intangible goal, he said, is to rebuild “the culture of risk and reward and innovation.”
Carlson, who received a degree in mechanical engineering, turned down an offer to join a consulting firm upon graduation earlier this year in favor of what he felt would be a more rewarding experience at VFA, citing the program’s ethical structure as a deciding factor for his choice. Once accepted, fellows like Carlson participate in a five-week training course held at Brown University, after which they move to their assigned city to begin working at a startup.
“One of the notable things about a startup is you have to pitch in where they need you, whether that’s talking to customers, helping build the product, data analysis … there are all sorts of functions,” said Mike Tarullo, VFA’s vice president of corporate development.
Carlson will work with Red Ox, a New Haven-based engineering services company founded by David Kohn ’11 and Claire Henly ’12 in 2011 for two years under his fellowship with VFA. He has not yet decided what he will do after his fellowship ends, as is the case with many VFA fellows. Some might establish themselves securely enough within their designated startup to reach equity positions, Carlson said, while others might move on from VFA to pursue graduate school or other career paths.
Since he began working in New Haven, Carlson said he has grown more aware of its burgeoning technology scene. What he finds most interesting, he added, is that this culture exists largely independent of Yale.
“[VFA’s] criteria for cities are they have to have an up-and-coming entrepreneurial scene and proximity to a university,” Carlson said. “There actually are a lot of startups that come out of New Haven. It’s no Boston, it’s no Silicon Valley, where you have a more tangible scene, but I’ve been able to find it.”
One city that fits VFA’s criteria is Detroit, where Derek Turner, another VFA fellow and a Columbia graduate, works for a software company called Ambassador. Turner said he believed that VFA and its fellows — of which there are currently 12 — can make a noticeable impact on the city’s economy in the long run.
“With VFA, I think you’re going to see a city like Detroit improve on a variety of levels, because the people that are coming in have a variety of interests,” Turner said.
Though VFA remains in its early stages, VFA executives have developed plans to expand the operation to other cities such as Cleveland and Baltimore while simultaneously bringing more talent to its current locations, particularly New Haven. The presence of Yale and startup successes like Higher One, Tarullo said, have helped inspire students and recent grads to get involved in community development through startups.
Tarullo and the rest of VFA’s members hope that spirit will attract the next wave of talent to their fellowship program.
“It’s half as much money for 10 times as much fun — you get to do real things that have a real impact,” Carlson said.
Venture For America’s headquarters are located in New York City.