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After Graduation: Young Alumni Venture into Start-Ups

“There’s a reason W&L has one of the highest acceptance rates in VFA. W&L turns out [graduates] who are well-suited for start-ups and working in a collaborative, high-pressure environment.” – Dillon Myers ’14, Venture for America Fellow

Lexington, Virginia, is about as far from Silicon Valley as you can get, but that hasn’t stopped Washington and Lee students from pursuing careers at start-ups after graduation. In the past three years, six graduating seniors have been named Venture for America fellows, and together they’re proving that W&L graduates don’t have to go to Silicon Valley to launch the next big business idea.

Venture for America (VFA) was established in 2011 by entrepreneur Andrew Yang and accepted its first class of fellows in 2012. The program is modeled after Teach for America, a two-year fellowship program that places the best and brightest college graduates in some of the United States’ most troubled school districts.

Yang argues, quite effectively, that students need to consider careers that will allow them to build things and improve the world around them. Going to work for a start-up spurs job growth, which helps communities grow.

“When you work in a smaller organization, you get to learn everything,” says Jeff Shay, W&L’s Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship and Leadership. “You’re assigned responsibilities far beyond what your experience would earn you.”

Venture for America works in 15 “emerging” cities – places with vibrant start-up communities and a demonstrated need for both an economic boost and access to talent. Fellows are likely to find themselves living and working in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati or New Orleans after graduation.

“There’s so much that these smaller, middle-tier cities have to offer,” says Dillon Myers ’14, who is a VFA fellow with TicketFire, a Columbus-based ticket reseller. He calls the start-up scene “so much more collaborative. If you’re in New York or San Francisco, you’re another face in the crowd. In a city like Columbus or Detroit, you’ve got access to the top entrepreneurs in the community.”

Students apply to Venture for America in the fall of their senior year. There’s a written application, then a Skype interview and finally a series of in-person interviews in select cities across the U.S. In just four years, the program has tripled in size. VFA’s 2015 class boasted 120 fellows, and three of them were Generals.

Mike Wilner ’13 completed a summer internship in investment banking, but by the time he returned to Lexington to begin his senior year, he had ruled out a career in finance. He thought a lot about what he enjoyed most – the entrepreneurship class he was taking and a web-based event subscription service he tinkered with in his free time. “I heard about Venture for America, and it was the answer to the big questions I’d been asking,” says Wilner, “Namely, ‘How do I start a career as an entrepreneur?’ “

Being named a fellow is only half the battle. Students have to land a job at a start-up, though VFA does help them with the search. There’s an online portal where VFA’s partners can place job ads, and the non-profit hosts regional job fairs intended to pair VFA-approved start-ups with fellows.

Stewart Cory ’15 (pictured above, on campus during W&L’s annual Entrepreneurship Summit) attended VFA job fairs in Columbus and Detroit before accepting a job with a Detroit-based start-up, Are You a Human, about a week after graduation. Are You a Human is a software company that helps companies verify the integrity of their web traffic. “I didn’t quite know what I was going to be doing,” she says. “It’s hard for a company that’s growing quickly to be able to tell you what you’ll do in three months. I liked that they were honest and said they couldn’t tell me.”

VFA requires start-ups to pay fellows a flat salary of $38,000, which levels the playing field and ensures that new grads choose the right job, not the right starting pay. The real reward comes two years later, when they walk away with the experience, confidence and even capital to launch their own ventures.

“More important than the capital VFA provides access to is the quality of the people. There’s such incredible talent,” says Cory. “At W&L, I loved being around smart, creative, motivated people. I didn’t want to lose that just because I wasn’t going to graduate school.”

Most fellows have secured employment by the time they begin VFA’s training camp at Brown University in June. For five weeks, fellows work in teams to learn basic skills – everything from website design and accounting to marketing and fundraising – which will be put to good use when they start their full-time positions at the end of the summer.

“There’s a misconception about start-ups. People think every single role is a technical role, and that’s just not true,” says Leandra Elberger, senior communications and development manager for VFA. “Liberal arts majors have a ton to offer. Start-ups are looking for people with grit and character and work ethic.”

Wilner was the first W&L alumnus to complete VFA’s two-year fellowship. Back at the non-profit’s headquarters, the staff call him a “paragon fellow” because his outcome is exactly what Yang envisioned when he founded VFA. Not only did Wilner spend two years working for a start-up in Detroit, but he also secured funding from VFA’s Innovation Fund to test a side project, and then received money from VFA’s Seed Fund to launch his company – a website development platform called Compass. Last year, VFA launched an accelerator in Philadelphia, which provides VFA alumni with the opportunity to spend three months getting their business off the ground, and Compass was one of the first companies in the door. “We just hired a 2015 VFA fellow, so it’s coming full circle now,” says Wilner.

Last September, both Wilner and Myers sat on a “Young Guns” panel at W&L’s Entrepreneurship Summit. The J. Lawrence Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship gets much of the credit for fostering an atmosphere on campus that encourages both students and alumni to take risks and engage in creative problem solving.

“There’s a reason W&L has one of the highest acceptance rates in VFA,” says Myers. “W&L turns out [graduates] who are well-suited for start-ups and working in a collaborative, high-pressure environment.”

– by Rachel Beanland