While some students launch businesses during their time on campus, five alumni from the class of 2015 began their entrepreneurial careers post-graduation through a training program called Venture for America.
Founded in July 2011, VFA is a fellowship program for recent college graduates who wish to work at startups across the country. Alumni have joined since 2012, but the number of Yale graduates in the 2015 VFA class is the highest yet: five participated in 2015, compared to four in the previous three years combined. Harvard had three VFA fellows for the class of 2014 and none for 2015, according to the VFA website.
“It’s kind of like a condensed, abbreviated taste of business school,” said Sophie Kaye ’15, who is one of this year’s fellows, of her experience while working at Leagueside, a startup based in Philadelphia working to help fund youth sports leagues.
The five members of the class of 2015 — Kaye, Landon Acriche, Sophie Janaskie, Sam Lowenkamp and Christopher Morse — went through five weeks of training at Brown University over the summer, during which 120 fellows participated in weekly team challenges, attended formal training sessions by corporations like McKinsey & Company, panel speaker events with serial entrepreneurs and lectures by professionals in various industries. In August, the fellows started working for emerging startup companies, where they said they hope to learn new skills that may prove useful when they decide to launch their own businesses in the future.
“[Training activities] ranged from ‘build a website’ to ‘develop a growth strategy for VFA,’” Lowenkamp said. “Most of the challenges were based on real problems at real companies, so our learning and practice were nicely grounded in the reality of building a startup.”
Out of the five alumni VFA fellows, some only recently came to entrepreneurship as a career path, while others have been set on trying to start their own businesses or working at a startup for a long time.
Lowenkamp, for example, said he spent his junior summer interning for a startup accelerator — a company that provides mentorship to startup companies -— and was inspired by the high-speed, high-stakes world of startup companies. He said he knew right away that he wanted to work at a startup company after graduation, and when he learned about VFA, he decided to apply.
“When I learned that VFA helps its fellows find new positions if their current startup goes under, I was sold,” he said. “I had found a startup with a safety net.”
Acriche, who currently works at Alabama Power in Birmingham on startup projects for the corporation, said that joining VFA is not only for people who want to start their own businesses. Acriche said that although one of the goals of VFA is to help people start their own businesses or organizations in the long run, it is not a requirement and not the path for everyone who participates in the program. He added that he would recommend VFA for people who might not be interested in the more streamlined routes of finance, law or medical school.
Leandra Elberger, senior communications and development manager for VFA, echoed the sentiment, stating that the program partners with startup companies in which a young college graduate could make a real impact.
“More important than looking for a startup that is going to be the next ‘unicorn,’ we look for startups that have great opportunities for a young person to make an impact and learn through good management and mentorship,” she said.
While Yale’s alumni at VFA are committing their first years out of college as entrepreneurs working in startups, some current students are getting a head start by launching their companies while at Yale. Last week, for example, Mustafa Malik ’16 opened his business, Lassi Bar, which offers lassi, a traditional Indian yogurt-based drink. Malik said that his entrepreneurial experience on campus has been both “exhilarating and exhausting,” adding that Yale’s resources and network allowed him to grow very quickly as a business.
While Malik did say that Yale’s entrepreneurial culture is not as strong as other colleges’ like Stanford or Harvard, he said that Yale is definitely making progress and that the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute has been very helpful in launching his business. But Malik added that YEI needs more funding and a larger presence on campus. In order to improve the entrepreneurial environment at Yale, students should be made more aware of the many New Haven businesses started by Yale alums, such as Blue State Coffee, he said.
“I think the university should definitely expand and provide more resources for student projects, especially undergrads,” Malik said.
VFA operates in 15 cities nationwide.