Start-Up Success with Venture for America

Courtesy Venture for America

Top graduates are rejecting corporate life for a new program that puts young talent on the fast track.

For former attorney Andrew Yang, the problem was obvious: Why should consulting and investment-banking jobs attract so many of America’s brightest grads when their talent could be put to better use? The trouble, as Yang saw it, was the lack of recruitment, so in 2011 he created Venture for America, replicating elements of the thriving Teach for America model, in which recent grads sign on for two-year positions at public schools in low-income communities. Instead of teaching, however, VFA fellows work two-year positions at start-ups in economically distressed cities.

“I hoped that if we could channel more of our young people to grow enterprises,” Yang says, “everyone could benefit.” Yang assembled a board of directors and signed on big-name partners, including Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and UBS. Two years later, the 2013 class of 68 fellows (drawn from more than 500 candidates) has worked at start-ups in cities including Detroit and New Orleans in fields such as genomic data sequencing and cybersecurity. Though starting salaries range from $35,000 to $38,000 a year (a fraction of the six-figure sums established companies offer), VFA fellows are confident that initial sacrifice will pay off long-term.

Competition also helps—part of UBS’s contribution is an annual $100,000 prize for the best pitches. And despite the touchy-feely halo surrounding Venture for America, these kids are type A alphas who play to win. Cornell graduate Edie Feinstein typifies the attitude of a VFA fellow: “We haven’t come up with our million-dollar idea yet,” she says. “But we will.”

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