I had the chance to check out Venture for America’s (VFA) training camp at Brown today. I know the Teach for America model (on which VFA is based) fairly well, and met VFA founder Andrew Yang at the Social Innovation Summit this spring. A business school classmate has gotten involved with VFA this spring as a judge and donor, and brought me to Providence with her to see the 2013 fellows being trained, as well as a midterm session for the 2012 fellows.

VFA recruits top college grads who would otherwise be seduced into finance, law, or consulting careers. They host them for an intense 5 week training and match them with jobs in startups in American cities that lack the robust entrepreneurship infrastructure of NYC or Silicon Valley. The startups pay their $38,000 (more or less) salary, and VFA provides ongoing guidance throughout the two years of fellowship. VFA’s hope is that its fellows will gain the skills, motivation, and connections to establish their own startups during or after the fellowship, contributing to the100,000 jobs the organization aims to help create by 2025.

A team from McKinsey did a great job with the new fellows, though a few fellows confirmed our speculation that it was probably an odd experience to be ‘trained’ by people essentially their age doing the very jobs that the fellows chose not to do. Anyhow, the consultants facilitated an interactive workshop about basic workplace success tools to help the fellows contribute valuably to the startups they’ll join in a few weeks. They integrated VFA Founder Andrew Yang’s commitment to fellows learning an ‘owner’s mentality,’ working for and thinking about the startup as though they were the founder.

The VFA team managed the second year fellows on their own, reflecting the organization’s ample and talented team with tangible commitment to the mission and empowerment from Andrew and the board. Indeed, we learned that staff members attend board meetings, which struck me as a great way to ensure alignment within a young organization. The group of 2012 fellows had a different feel, thanks to their year of ‘real world’ experience at their startups, and also as the first-ever VFA fellows.

David Rose, of New York AngelsGust, and Singularity University, came to speak to the new and old fellows.

A primary theme that came up over the day (which ended in a full-on New England lobster bake, complete with steamers and corn on the cob) was the ratio of young men and women in the program. There are 17 women out of 68 2013 fellows, and the first class had an even lower percentage. VFA is aware of this challenge, and keen to right the balance to 50/50. They haven’t quite cracked it, but mentioned a few contributing factors:

- Female candidates think there’s a technical background required for the positions. (Not true: there are many business development, sales, and strategy opportunities too.)

- Young women are more intimidated by the idea of living in VFA cities like Detroit, New Orleans, and Cincinnati because of safety. (I don’t give this theory much credence, given an internship program I know of in Palestine that has 80% female applicants.)

- Women want to work for non-profits and drop out of the selection process (or never apply) when they learn that VFA would place them in a for-profit startup. (THIS is the issue I really want to dig in to… more in a second post.)

In the meantime, I wish VFA and the 2013 fellows the very best and look forward to engaging more with the organization.

Take-aways:

1) Staff attending board meetings is a great tool for mission and vision alignment for social enterprises, especially in early days.

2) We still have a lot of work to do encouraging young women to work for and establish startups.

3) Entrepreneurship (and supporting entrepreneurs by working at startups) is something that we need to be teaching, for the good of the American economy.

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