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Wilner Named W&L's First Venture for America Fellow

Mikel Wilner, a Washington and Lee University senior from Owings Mills, Md., has been selected as a Venture for America Fellow.

“Honestly I’m ecstatic. The shock hasn’t really worn off yet,” said Wilner of his selection.

Venture for America (VFA) is an organization working to funnel the best and brightest college graduates toward American start-up companies in cities with struggling economies. Its ultimate goal is to immerse talented graduates into the world of start-up companies and encourage them to become socialized and mobilized entrepreneurs, while also assisting start-up companies survive in the rocky economy.

VFA sent its inaugural class of 40 fellows to work in start-ups in Detroit, Cincinnati, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Providence. This year, VFA is working to expand by recruiting 80 to 100 fellows and adding companies from cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and New Haven to their program.

Wilner, a business administration and mathematics double major, is the first W&L student selected for a fellowship. “Venture for America provides people like me with the opportunity to work at a start-up company, which is usually a very risky thing,” said Wilner

Wilner also explained that, as a VFA fellow, if a start-up company were to go under for some reason, the fellows working for that company would then be moved to another company.

“It’s that kind of that security that enables people to go for it and immerse themselves in the start-up culture,” said Wilner.

Although Wilner always knew he would do something in the business field, he said his interest in entrepreneurship was first sparked two summers ago at an internship he had with a Baltimore venture capital firm.

Last summer, Wilner worked for J.P. Morgan and although he believes it was a good experience, he said he knew after a few weeks that the banking industry was not for him.

“I think a lot of business students are pushed in the banking direction without knowing what else there is out there,” said Wilner. “I was fortunate enough to take a step back and have a moment of clarity and realize I definitely belonged in more of an entrepreneurial field.”

Wilner said he values his time at J.P. Morgan because he first heard about VFA from a friend while interning there.

“One thing that influenced me to become involved with Venture for America was the idea of being a part of something that was bigger than ‘I’m gonna get mine’,” said Wilner. “It’s almost patriotic in a sense.”

Jeffrey Shay, the Johnson Professor of Entreneurship and Leadership at W&L, was not surprised at Wilner’s selection for the fellowship.

“I’m glad that Mike’s tenacity to find a truly entrepreneurial opportunity paid off, and it’s no surprise that VFA saw the same desirable characteristics and skills that Mike demonstrates on a daily basis, ” said Shay.

When he graduates in May, Wilner will enter the Venture Fellow Training Camp where he will meet with seasoned investors and entrepreneurs and learn more about the business world in general.

Once in the program, Wilner and the other Fellows are matched with and apply to work at the various companies that partner with VFA. Each fellow is eventually placed depending on which company best aligns with the fellow’s background, skills and experience. While at the training camp, Wilner and the other fellows will assist real businesses in order to gain practical skills to use during their fellowships.

By the conclusion of the training camp Wilner along with the other fellows will be assigned to the start-up company for the next two years. The fellows will also be assigned mentors to advise them throughout their fellowships.

“Hopefully, after the two years of the fellowship I’ll be trying to start my own company,” said Wilner about his future plans.

Applications to become a VFA fellow are still available on the organization’s website and due by Feb. 18. VFA will hold an information session at Washington and Lee on Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. in Elrod Commons 345.

— by Sara J. Korash-Schiff ’15

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459