By the time Andrew Yang was 35, he’d done a stint at a big law firm and then founded, in succession: an Internet fundraising company for celebrity-affiliated nonprofits, a health care software company, a mobile content management company, and developed the Manhattan GMAT, where he served as president and CEO until it was acquired by Kaplan/The Washington Post.
Now at the ripe old age of 39, Yang’s found two creative approaches to staying put at his most recent enterprise, Venture for America (VFA).
For the uninitiated, VFA was founded as a nonprofit in 2011 with a sweeping ambition to connect college graduates with startups who need smart talent. But it doesn’t stop there. After training and working in the trenches for two years, VFA’s "fellows" will have earned the chops to become entrepreneurs themselves, thereby seeding the need to place more college grads at new startups. A few months into the business of hooking graduates into the startup scene, Yang told me he wanted to create 100,000 jobs by 2025.
Today, three classes of VFA fellows in, the organization is making steady progress. Yang says this year VFA received more than 1,000 applications for 100 fellowships in Detroit, New Orleans, Cleveland, and Las Vegas, among other cities far removed from the startup locus of Silicon Valley. VFA’s budget has swelled from $1.8 million to $3.2 million. But there’s so much more to do, says Yang, including how to figure out what the "right size" is for VFA in order to continue to provide the most opportunities.
So he takes a page from the book of parenting. "I’m relatively new," Yang admits, "I’ve got a 19-month-old at home." But even this short time with his son has taught Yang that "the nature of the challenge changes over time, so you try to address whatever need the organization has this month or this year." Like a child making the transition from infant to toddler, the needs of VFA have evolved over the last three years. Yang’s now just as focused on disrupting the balance of talent that’s hyper-concentrated in certain regions and industries as he is on placing young people in jobs. "The challenge is to meet the need on both sides," he explains, "and it’s a question of resources."
"Parenting also reminds me of building a business in that you can’t imagine leaving until it’s walking and talking and able to make its own money," he says, laughing at the realization. "In the case of humans that’s 18 years," he quips. "In the case of business, most of the time, it's less than that." Yang says it is possible to leave an organization before it’s fully mature, but he doesn’t recommend it for founders, who like parents are a necessary presence in the life of their child.
"I joke all the time that my son is going to be VFA Class of 2035," he says, and often thinks what the organization is going to look like then. "The test is to come back in a couple of decades and see if it’s thriving and still growing."
One of the ways to keep growing is to keep expanding. "We always have a new frontier," says Yang, referring to VFA’s steps into new territory including San Antonio and St. Louis. "Building a business requires [investing] a significant length of time on relationships within and outside of the organization."
Forging creative collaborations with influencers have helped advance VFA’s cause into multiple cities. Take the case of Tony Hsieh and Las Vegas.
Around the same time VFA was launching, the Zappos founder was starting to pump a $350 million investment into revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. Yang had never met Hsieh, but was very familiar with his efforts to spur economic development through the Downtown Project. In what may have seemed like a chance encounter to an outside observer, Yang met Hsieh after he came off the stage at an industry conference.
But Yang had done his homework. He learned all about Hsieh’s plans for the city, and one particular takeaway: "Physical spaces matter, with the Container Park, Learning Village, and other community spaces serving as natural hubs for people downtown." From there, Yang read Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness, which taught him that Hsieh is a logical thinker who values creating a community-oriented culture and environment.
Armed with this knowledge, as well as the confidence that VFA would serve the interests of the other person—a piece Yang says is crucial to the success of cold encounters like this—he "tackled" Hsieh. Not long after, the two were discussing a potential partnership over drinks which would eventually lead to Hsieh’s $1 million pledge to VFA to bring 100 graduates to Las Vegas over the next five years.
Things unfolded in a similar way with Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans in Detroit, "I told (Gilbert) he was a general and I wanted to be his special forces," Yang deadpans. "They were 100 percent aligned with us, so when we reached out it was fast conversation," says Yang. Graham Weston of Rackspace in San Antonio was similarly aligned so it wasn't long before the founder was saying "Welcome to San Antonio" and proffering funding for VFA’s fellows to come and make their mark in the city’s startup ecosystem.
Though he makes it sound simple, Yang says meeting and wooing potential partners takes creativity before and during the process. "My history has been to get on someone’s calendar and be persistent," he says. And while it’s important to have an agenda, Yang cautions, "You shouldn’t be stubborn about what you came to accomplish. You should be able to adapt, the worst thing anyone can do is only have a self-serving goal."
Yang gets energized just talking about the possibilities of approaching new collaborators and expanding to new cities. Sticking around for five, ten, or even until his son is ready to become a fellow himself, won’t be a problem, he says. "I’ll stay until I feel like the organization has accomplished what it set out to do."