Venture for America Boosts Entrepreneurs

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- An initiative hopes to boost the allure of entrepreneurship in economically challenged U.S. cities by offering jobs to recent college graduates.

Venture for America, based loosely on the popular Teach for America, aims to direct more of the country's recently graduated, unemployed top talent into entrepreneurship.
The Venture for America initiative hopes to help economically challenged U.S. cities as well as job-challenged graduates.

College seniors or graduates can apply to become Venture for America fellows starting this month. The organization plans to accept a minimum 50 students from the Class of 2012 and place them at jobs in three economically challenged cities: New Orleans, Detroit and Providence, R.I. The program will expand to other cities as well.

"There is a massive talent war. Consulting firms and banks are rolling out the red carpet and we think that these paths bring people away from environments of impact, like these companies in Detroit that need smart help," says Andrew Yang, the initiative's founder and president. "We're really excited about providing that runway."

Yang wants to offer recent college grads what basically amounts to an apprenticeship at small startups.

Companies are required to keep a fellow on for two years (assuming there are no major issues). Starting salaries are meager -- roughly $32,000 to $38,000, Venture for America says -- but at the end of the two years, companies can rehire the employee under new terms.

But that's when the fellow found to have performed the best will get $100,000 in either seed investment for a new venture or support for his or her company. Yang expects to work with more angel investors and venture capital firms to award multiple grants.

"The idea is that these people stick to entrepreneurship and contribute to the success of small businesses," he says.

Yang has experienced firsthand how difficult it is to start and sustain businesses. He says that while many college grads may have an idea in mind, it's unreasonable to expect them to know how to run a business day to day from the start.

"In our view, that's too far of a bridge to cross," Yang says. "Most people would benefit from having a couple years in the trenches."

The first group of fellows will be sent to Brown University next June for a five-week training session on entrepreneurship, then sent to their placements.

While the program seeks to open doors for young graduates, it also provides small startups with pre-selected talent they wouldn't otherwise be able to afford or have the resources to find themselves.

"We have 30 placements so far, and the main criteria we have is that the company has the capacity to generate jobs," Yang says. "So there is a pretty strong bias toward tech and innovative companies."

Other areas include energy, materials sciences and education innovation.

One partner is VCharge Energy, a 2-year-old Providence, R.I.-based renewable energy company.

"We're looking for people with an extra spark, people who can walk into a situation and come up with new ways of doing things," says Jessica Millar, CEO of VCharge. "It's not just problem-solving, it's creating new possibilities. And it's hard to find these people. Finding good employees is the single hardest things for a startup."

Other qualifications Millar is looking for is someone who is flexible and versatile.

"Like most startups, we are a very fluid organization and don't know what our needs will be in as little as six months from now. So we want people who can play all positions and perhaps more importantly who can recognize a need that we have and then go meet that need," she says.

Venture for America expands the company's reach to find people, Millar says.

"We think that once somebody comes and interviews with us they'll be interested, but that first step is a problem for us and VFA helps solve it," she says.

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

To follow Laurie Kulikowski on Twitter, go to:!/LKulikowski

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