Program to pair Detroit start-ups with ‘U’ students

By Chelsea Landry, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 11, 2011

Students interested in entrepreneurship, but not yet ready to take the plunge to start their own businesses, might find a fit with a new fellowship program.

The program, Venture for America, aims to match a group of recent college graduates with start-up companies in cities around the country. The fellowship was founded by Andrew Yang, former president of Manhattan GMAT — a test preparation firm that focuses on the business school entrance exam. Yang said he was inspired to establish the program after working with graduates who struggled to find jobs at start-up companies.

Venture for America plans to select 50 recent college graduates and place them in emerging companies for two years. The companies are located in cities including Detroit, New Orleans and Providence, which are less expensive to live in than other typical post-graduate destinations. Program fellows are expected to receive a salary — ranging from $32,000 to $38,000 — for their work.

“Our goal is to provide a recent grad with the network, the experience, and the training to enable them to start their own businesses,” Yang said.

Next year, there will be 12 to 15 opportunities at Detroit businesses, including the popular Detroit eatery Slows BBQ, according to Yang. VFA will also work with venture capital firm Detroit Venture Partners.

Detroit Venture Partners employee Jim Xiao wrote in an e-mail interview that the company is supporting VFA in Detroit as the fellowship program’s “primary launch city.” He wrote that Detroit Venture Partners will assist at least 20 fellows working in Detroit start-ups, particularly in digital and web-based companies.

Other companies countrywide in which VFA will place graduates are VCharge, a Providence, Rhode Island-based company focused on improving energy efficiency, and Audiosocket, a music licensing company in Seattle and New Orleans.

Yang said he believes VFA will have a positive effect on the graduates and the cities they work in.

“VFA is our chance to build a bridge between companies and graduates that will benefit both sides and the economy as a whole,” he said.

Yang said that he has worked with many graduates over the years who didn’t know how to find work with start-ups, adding that VFA is unique because participants gain hands-on experience developing businesses.

“We know that many University students have interest in entrepreneurship and start-ups, but it is difficult to find these opportunities,” he said.

VFA has recruited on campus, and Yang spoke at Entrepreneurship Hour, a talk hosted by the University’s Center for Entrepreneurship. VFA is also employing similar outreach efforts at other schools such as Harvard University, Dartmouth College and Yale University.

“(The University of Michigan) is a high priority for us because it is such an important university on the national stage,” Yang said.

Additionally, many VFA board members are University alumni, including graduates of the College of Engineering, the Ross School of Business and the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Engineering sophomore Najia Yarkhan, project director for MPowered Entrepreneurship’s 1,000 Pitches program, said she expects VFA to be a popular program among University students.

“(This) sounds like something I’d be interested in at least hearing more about,” Yarkhan said.

Yarkahn said the success of 1,000 Pitches, which generated more than 3,000 entrepreneurial ideas last year, suggests that many University students are interested in entrepreneurship. She added that many MPowered members would be interested in gaining hands-on experience with the start-ups connected to the VFA program.

“A lot of our members are interested in going and getting their feet wet,” Yarkahn said.

But not everyone on campus is certain VFA will succeed. Business sophomore Erinn Sandberg said she thinks the program isn’t applicable to everyone.

“I feel like people here are very ambitious and might already have a career path in mind,” Sandberg said.

She added that Business students who are interested in entrepreneurship might be open to joining VFA, but it’s the time commitment that deters her the most.

“I would want to work for an established business (after graduation), then go for my MBA,” Sandberg said.