It’s an ambitious goal, but one that Yang believes is completely attainable just by getting recent college graduates to work at startups rather than take positions in finance, consulting, and law. But not just any startups: Yang wants to recruit young talent to ignite entrepreneurial sparks in such economically depressed areas as Detroit; Providence, Rhode Island; and New Orleans.
So who is this one-man economic stimulus package?
Yang is a 37-year-old serial entrepreneur with experience in just about every industry sector, from health care to fashion retail. This August he founded Venture for America (VFA), a wildly ambitious nonprofit based in New York City that is recruiting its first class of fellows.
Yang spoke with Fast Company about his own career and how he aims to change the unemployment game, one aspiring entrepreneur at a time.
The Big Idea
Early-stage businesses are different, says Yang. “You need more people to help you grow capacity effectively,” countering the prevailing wisdom at many larger companies to run as lean as possible. “To expand, you need the right kind of talent on board early. Talent is a key lever that drives growth.”
In his opinion, no one is better at recruiting talent than Teach For America, the 21-year-old initiative that places top college grads in teaching positions in low-income schools. VFA aims to place 50 fellows a year at startup businesses in underserved communities for at least two years. For example, Digerati, a Detroit-based business with an innovative focus on IT, will be offered a VFA fellow for an annual salary of between $32,000 and $38,000. During that time, the fellow’s performance will be assessed through regular conferences between VFA and the business owners. At the end of their tenure, the company can opt to hire the fellow under new terms.
Rooted in Personal Experience
The idea for VFA came from Yang’s own life after academia. After graduating from Brown in 1996, Yang pursued a law degree from Columbia. That’s when he first became aware that many graduates were unsatisfied with their professional choices, and the impact Teach For America had on attracting young people to historically low-paying jobs in education.
Yang’s own career reflects a restless pursuit of new opportunities. After a brief stint as an associate in mergers and acquisitions at law firm Davis Polk, Yang embarked on a series of ventures, including an Internet fundraising company for celebrity-affiliated nonprofits, a health care software company, and a mobile content management company. He then developed the original curriculum for Manhattan GMAT (he scored a 780 on the exam) and served as the company’s president and CEO until it was acquired by Kaplan/The Washington Post.
“As someone who’s run a company or two, we are always looking for young, talented people to hire, yet find it difficult to connect with them,” says Yang. Thus, Venture for America was created as a platform to connect graduates looking to pursue more satisfying career paths and executives at startups looking for the best and brightest employees.
Rules of Attraction
In just a few months, early-stage companies have flocked to be part of the program, and VFA has collected more than 1,000 applications submitted by college seniors applying alongside and in place of more traditional opportunities in finance, consulting, law, and even big tech. “When I go to college campuses, I encounter students with passion and enthusiasm that badly want to be put in positions [that make a difference],” Yang says. “It speaks to the nature of young people.”
Yang’s initiative has also attracted a slew of A-listers to invest and sit on its board of directors. Execs from Acumen Fund, Zynga, JP Morgan, and Viacom pepper VFA’s extensive team. Yang quips that part of his success stems from a skill he learned as a teenager waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant: “It helps to smile.”
On a more serious note, he chalks VFA’s early traction up to sales.
“As an aspect of a successful startup, sales gets a bad rap for not being intellectual, but it’s a key driver in VFA,” he explains. “Many people have experienced the same need that we seek to address firsthand, so it was an easy idea for people to support.”
“I think people learn best in positions of responsibility,” says Yang. “I like to put them in places where they have to stretch, and I’m there to provide guidance.” It’s a management concept that’s embedded into the VFA program and one that goes hand-in-hand with Yang’s view of mentorship.
“For someone’s first job out of college, it’s important to have a professional environment to learn and structured ways to do things. Mentorship and role modeling are a big part of the early stages of someone’s career. I think the best mentors had careers that you would like to have, and being in same industry is helpful.”
In the Trenches
VFA can provide its fellows with early career mentors but it also gives them the kind of experience you can’t learn from a textbook. The single biggest difference between a whiteboard and an actual operation is how a person meets goals.
“When someone gives you a set of deliverables, you immediately translate how to deliver. People who had that [real-world] experience immediately translate to what it would take to accomplish goals. Instincts don’t grow overnight. There’s no way to get them but in the trenches,” he says. His own experience on the ground taught him a lot about complications and complexities.
For now, Yang’s got his sights set on sending a critical number of best and brightest to work in startups in Detroit, New Orleans, and Providence, beginning next spring. From there, he hopes to grow the program to other cities; they’re also considering Cincinnati and Las Vegas.
Though he’s industry-hopped a lot in the last decade, Yang asserts he’s dedicated to Venture For America. “One thing I tell people starting a company is that you have to be committed for a long enough time to build. I committed the next number of years to VFA. I’m very focused on it and I really like startups.”
Not to mention the potential he believes there is to grow.
“Imagine a country where the same proportion of talent that goes to financial services or law school goes instead to early-stage companies,” Yang says. “A relatively small proportion of the best and brightest are going there now, that’s what we are setting out to change.”