Not long ago, the notion of a talented student skipping college would have silenced many a family dinner table. But that was back when a college degree held the promise of work. With more than half of current grads under 25 jobless or toiling in low-wage posts, it's clear the university model isn't for everyone. Enter [E]nstitute, an apprenticeship program designed to immerse aspiring professionals in their local startup scene.
The company believes that the skills necessary to succeed in today's business climate can't always be acquired in classrooms. It's not unlike the ethos espoused by other alternative approaches to learning, ranging from adult tech and entrepreneurship academies to online educators. It's also a belief that [E]nstitute's founders developed firsthand.
Michigan native Kane Sarhan, 25, was a Pace University student in New York when he waited on the table of Jacqui Squatriglia, partner in the iconic Coyote Ugly chain. On the spot, Squatriglia offered him a job with the company. His role quickly grew and after two years, Sarhan landed a gig with mobile ad platform Buzzd (later called LocalResponse). There he met Shaila Ittycheria, 30, a Harvard MBA in charge of hiring—a position that exposed her to the inadequacies of a university education. "I took so many interviews with grads of top schools who couldn't talk through a rational argument," she recalls.
She and Sarhan became friends and came to realize that he had gained more professional ground working closely with two startups than he ever could have as a student or an intern. "What I got from working with smart, successful people was a model education," Sarhan says. Last fall, they set out to create a not-for-profit that could replicate Sarhan's experience for others.
They hatched a two-year program that links apprentices aged 18 to 24 with N.Y.C. tech shops such as link-sharing utility Bit.ly, men's lifestyle guide Thrillist, and personal-investing outfit Betterment. Each member of this fall's inaugural class of 15, culled from more than 500 applicants, will work full time at one of the startups, with the ability to switch to another after the first year. They also will be given writing assignments, attend lectures, and take part in weekly dinners with experts. The program will be tuition-free, covering housing and providing a small stipend; to fund it, [E]nstitute is raising $1 million from foundations and private donors.
"We had two reasons for participating," says Neil Blumenthal of online eyewear hub Warby Parker, one of the 35 companies partnering with [E]nstitute in exchange for free employees. "Selfishly, we're growing quickly and think they'll be able to identify talented individuals. More altruistically, we believe businesses should be active problem solvers."
Sarhan and Ittycheria are already eyeing [E]nstitutes in other cities. They hope that successful apprenticeships will attract new support and that happy entrepreneurs will pay it forward. But if the program doesn't lead to gainful employment, a fallback plan exists: As 22-year-old applicant Kent Kwame Henderson notes, "College will always be there."
A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.