Thursday, January 19, 2012

Rebuild our Inner Cities one Venture at a time?

As an active participant in the Silicon Valley new venture ecosystem and entrepreneurship educator, I'm intrigued by the recently announced program Venture for America (VFA). VFA is sending high achieving recent college grads into small businesses and start-ups in inner cities.

Conceptually, this is very intriguing and goes against the current popularity of accelerators in start-up hubs (Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Seattle, Boulder) that are filled with recent grads and drop outs looking to build the next web sensation. I am a big fan of the accelerator programs and while most of the companies coming out won't be successful, many will, and all of the graduates will receive a tremendous education. Many will likely be successful in subsequent ventures and you can't start your second company until after you've done your first.

VFA is taking a different approach to fostering entrepreneurship. It is modeled after Teach for America (TFA), a program that sends high achieving college grads into inner cities as teachers. These have become very high sought after jobs as TFA has been successfully recruiting students that would otherwise be going to McKinsey or Goldman Sachs. Rather than spending 80-100 hours per week on Wall Street, these students spend 80-100 hours per week creating lesson plans and learning how to teach disadvantaged children. While certainly a laudable mission, I question how many of these teachers actually remain in the career vs. using TFA as the golden ticket to Stanford Business School, Harvard Law or other select grad school.

VFA's tagline is "Mobilizing graduates as entrepreneurs" and is "A program for young, talented grads to spend 2 years in the trenches of a start-up with the goal that these graduates will become socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs moving forward." In an Inc magazine article on VFA, one student is quoted:
I've applied to a ton of companies," she says. "I have this entrepreneurial mindset that I have to work at a start-up and do marketing, but every company I have applied to, whether it was a start-up or not, said they found someone more qualified or I didn't have enough experience."
Nothing against Ashley from UVA, but that is not how you go about finding a job in a start-up. You network! You attend start-up events! You go hang out at the engineering school! You find companies you are passionate about and where you can offer solutions to problems! You don't send in a bunch of applications. Is this the kind of individual that is going to create jobs in inner cities? I don't know, but I'll bet against her.

Couldn't you accomplish the same thing within the university environment? That is what I am doing with the ELAB program at San Jose State University. (Entrepreneurship Lab Provides Students Work Experience in Start-up World) We have had 50 students through the first four offerings of the program and almost 50% have received job offers at the end of the semester for either full time jobs or paid internships. All have received tremendous experience not available in a typical academic setting.

Back to Venture for America. I hope they are successful in creating companies and jobs in inner cities. Clearly, we live in a bubble in Silicon Valley and our economy is rarely in sync with the nation as a whole. If the rest of the country were experiencing the new company growth, hiring challenges, decreasing office vacancies and rising rents that we are in the Bay Area, the economy wouldn't be the top issue in the presidential campaign. In fact, nobody outside of the far right would care about the Republican primaries as Obama's reelection would be a fait accompli. Politics aside, as the Beach Boys sang, "Wouldn't it be nice"...


Wade said...

I think it is a great idea, I get many new grads applying for positions in my consulting firm. Generally I don't hire them since it takes to long to train them in how real business works, not just in text books. By that I mean juggling cashflows, creditors, telling people the "checks in the mail" while waiting for your invoice to be paid so you can forward off payment to your suppliers, ect.

A couple years on a very tight budget were you have to learn how to get things done, often in innovative ways should actually help them immensely.

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