Last year, I decided to accept a fellowship at Venture for America (VFA), a two-year entrepreneurship fellowship working at a startup, because I wanted to (1) surround myself with other entrepreneurial-minded people, (2) learn the best skills in order to be successful at a startup, and (3) expand my horizons to join a more diverse and inclusive community.
After a little over a year, I’d recommend VFA 10/10 times to anyone who wants to start a company in the future or is interested in working at a startup in one of VFA’s cities.
One of the reasons I started this blog was to have a series of connected ideas and stories that I can share with people (and thus limit the amount of time I need to spend explaining these ideas to friends).
Last night was the PERFECT example. My friend Bryant reached out to me saying that he was thinking about starting a 30-Day Blogging Challenge too, and I was giving him some tips and motivation on why he should definitely do it (plus we realized that we have a ton in common in what we want to write about).
After he told me some reasons why he wanted to start writing online, he asked me the same question: “What’s got you wanting to write?”.
At first, I started texting a long message to him on all of the many reasons I started the blogging challenge, but then I remembered something: I literally wrote a full 1,000+ word mini essay (my very first blog) on exactly why I started this challenge. Sending him this instead of re-explaining my reasoning saved me a lot of time and effort.
This is the immense power of blogging and publishing your ideas and thoughts. It’s like creating software to solve a problem: you can build it once and distribute it an infinite amount of times.
Instead of re-explaining yourself 100 times (especially for the questions you get asked the most frequently), just write about it once and share it with people when they ask. Of course, don’t be a robot and just send a link to your friends without elaborating on it. But I think the real power in blogging is that it’s a major time-saver for your future self and a permanent database of your unique experiences.
This brings me to the question I get asked all of the time: why did you decide to do Venture For America (VFA) and what’s your general opinion on it? I figured writing this article was the best way for me to answer this question without explaining it over and over and over again. I’ll start with the basics:
What is VFA?
Venture For America prepares recent college graduates for careers as entrepreneurs.
As a Fellow, you’ll gain business skills and professional development at our intensive Training Camp. For two years, you’ll work at a startup in a full-time salaried position, learning how to build and grow a business firsthand. From there, you’ll be ready to be a leader in business or launch one of your own.Excerpt from the VFA Homepage
The goal is that after 2 years of working at a startup in one of the VFA cities, you will have the tools to either (1) start your own company or (2) continue being a leader at other startup companies (of course, fellows go many different routes after VFA, but these are typically the most popular options).
VFA was started in 2012 by Andrew Yang (shoutout Yang Gang!) as an entrepreneurship fellowship for recent college grads to be able to work for a startup for 2 years instead of going down the traditional path of working for a consulting company, investment bank, or attending law school. If you have 30 minutes to kill (or want to throw it on 2X speed in 15 minutes), here is a really interesting talk that Yang gave about VFA at Cornell in 2017:
Since Yang casually left Venture For America to run for president of the United States, Amy Nelson has taken over the reigns as the CEO and face of the organization. She’s working to strengthen the fellowship and double down on what has made it so successful in the past (the fellows themselves) while also investing in building a more diverse and inclusive fellowship.
Why I Decided to do VFA (and what I’ve learned along the way)
Unlike most normal college seniors, I only applied to one job/fellowship my entire senior year of college: Venture For America.
Why didn’t I apply to any other jobs? Well, I was pretty set on traveling abroad for an indefinite amount of time after graduating. Traveling is something I wanted to do for a long time since I was never able to take a gap year. This was my golden opportunity to travel before starting my career. However, out of all of the professional opportunities that I knew about, VFA seemed to be the most aligned with my skillsets and value system.
In all honesty, I almost wanted to be declined from the fellowship just because I knew it would make my post-grad decision much easier. The other part part of me knew that if I was going to kick off my professional career, VFA was the right path for me.
To my surprise, I got accepted into VFA after Selection Day and had a difficult choice to make: should I decline the fellowship and travel for a year (or more) abroad OR do I accept the fellowship and jumpstart my career working in the startup world? Obviously, I decided to accept my VFA offer or else you would not be reading this.
While I closed one door to traveling long-term, I’m very happy with the decision I made (especially in light of the pandemic this year). This isn’t to say I never got the chance to travel in the past year. On the contrary, I’ve been lucky to travel to so many places including a trip to Europe for the first time, Miami, Detroit, Philadelphia, Arkansas, and even a solo road trip to Colorado and Utah. After the fellowship, I hope to re-visit my goals of traveling, even though that will probably look different in a COVID world.
Just so we’re clear on where I’m at in my VFA experience, I wanted to give a quick overview of my timeline since I accepted my offer in March 2019:
- April, 2019: Started the VFA Match process (where I interviewed with over 20 companies across the country)
- June 2019: Accepted an offer at Launch Pad, a network of coworking spaces based in New Orleans
- July 2019: Attended VFA Training Camp for a month in Detroit
- September 2019: Moved to New Orleans and started my job as a generalist and salesperson at Launch Pad
- March 2020: COVID happened
- May 2020: Furloughed from my job at Launch Pad because our coworking spaces were hit so hard from the pandemic; took some time off before starting the job search
- August 2020: Accepted and started a new job as a part-time content marketer for Gilded
Now that you have a gist of where I’m at in my VFA experience, I want to talk about my decision and what I’ve learned. After asking the team, VFA understandably wouldn’t allow me to defer my decision in order to travel for a year (I would need to re-apply if I did that), so I decided to close one door temporarily (traveling) and open another door (VFA).
Below are the 3 main reasons I decided to open the door with VFA and what I’ve learned from the fellowship so far.
1. Creating a Life-long Network of Cool and Ambitious Friends
You’ve probably heard the cliche that you’re the combination of the people you surround yourself with. Before accepting my VFA offer, I was seriously weighing the pros and cons of traveling versus working. The biggest reason that I decided to go with VFA is because I knew I would make life-long friends from across the country who are all interested in entrepreneurship.
I certainly wasn’t wrong with this reasoning. Last July, I was introduced to some of most badass people I know at VFA Training Camp. Everyone had done insanely interesting things in their collegiate careers (talk about imposter syndrome) and wanted to make their dent in the world. Everyone’s positive energy and go-getter attitudes has been super contagious (in fact, I was inspired by another VFA fellow to start this blog).
I learned a ton at training camp but the number one thing that I got out of the month (and VFA as a whole) is the network of 200 amazing people that I get to call my friends, people who I see myself staying being friends with for a very long time. Every single day at Training Camp was an opportunity to meet someone new and learn something new.
Sure, at times, it could be overwhelming. Constantly socializing with 200 of your closest friends is mentally exhausting (especially for an introvert) but I promise that it’s 100% worth it. Besides potentially going to get your MBA after undergrad, I think Venture For America (or other fellowships like Teach for America) are one of the few structured opportunities you have in your life to network with so many like-minded people at one time. Take advantage of it!
2. Learning How to Work at a Startup
I’ve always known that I didn’t want to go work for a large corporation after college; it just never fit my personality or where I saw myself going in my career. I worked for a couple startups in college, including a startup accelerator in Memphis called Start Co., and loved the scrappiness of working for a company that was still establishing itself. Plus, I truly believed that you could learn more at a startup company in one year than you could at a big company in three.
The resources that VFA offers at training camp during your fellowship, and even post-fellowship, made me realize that I’d be foolish not to take advantage of this opportunity, especially if I knew I’d be working at a startup eventually. Again, I was right in assuming this because during my two jobs in the past year, I’ve felt that VFA has helped me immediately start adding value and contributing in a way that helps push companies forward.
I could write a full essay on all of the skills I’ve learned working at startups in the past year (which I will probably do soon), but for now I just wanted to mention how impactful VFA has been on my professional skillsets at startups.
3. Diversity & Inclusion
While this was not a reason I originally decided to do VFA, it’s quickly become one of the aspects of VFA I love the most. Throughout my life, I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of the same types of people. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I needed to expand my horizons beyond my tiny bubble.
Enter VFA. VFA immediately helped to expand those horizons. They do an incredible job of recruiting, accepting, and retaining an incredibly diverse group of fellows. Through this program, I’ve been lucky to become friends with people of all different races, religions, ethnicities, and backgrounds. And I’ve also been able to hear opinions and stories that I’ve never heard before, making me more thoughtful along the way.
For example, every day at Training Camp, fellows give short talks about their life and how it relates back to the VFA mission and Credos. At first, I thought this would be a cheesy, annoying part of training camp but I quickly grew to look forward to these talks every day because it opened my eyes to so many different unique experiences.
Especially during such a divided time in our country, it’s refreshing to see an organization like VFA put new initiatives into action rather than just talking about it like some other big organizations in the US. If you want to learn more about VFA’s commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, you can do so here.
Accepting my VFA offer has been the best decision I’ve made post-grad. Even though COVID threw a wrench into the fellowship for me this year, I’m so grateful that I’ve had this experience with VFA and to still have another year in the program.
I’ve surrounded myself with some of the most ambitious and flat-out coolest people I know, learned how to be personally successful at a startup company, and become a more inclusive person along the way (while interacting with people from all walks of life). I’d recommend anyone who is considering an alternate career path in entrepreneurship and startups to apply this year. You must be a senior in college or graduated college no later than Spring 2018 (so if you graduated the same year as me, you still have one more year of eligibility after this year).
If you’re interested in applying, the next deadline is November 21st, and I’m happy to help any way I can. Ultimately, I hope this article gave you a better understanding of my experiences with VFA whether you’re considering applying or just interested in my experiences with the program.
And next time anyone asks me what I think of VFA, I’ll probably just send them this article.
Cheers to building cool things,
This was day 15 of the 30-day blogging challenge!