The elements of what makes up an emerging startup ecosystem is an often-debated topic — is it capital, universities, large corporations that can turn an ordinary city into a startup hub? In Techstars’ co-founder Brad Feld’s book “Startup Communities — Building An Entrepreneurial Ecosystem In Your City,” he says that the first ingredient is a simple one: entrepreneurs to lead the community.
That’s the heart of non-profit Venture For America (VFA), which is modeled after a Teach For America-type program, but with the aim of increasing entrepreneurial talent in emerging startup cities. Started in 2012, VFA now places Fellows in 15 cities around the country to augment the talent base and expose young, bright leaders to the entrepreneurial world. Their thesis is that the best way to become an entrepreneur, is to learn from one.
In 2017, VFA placed Fellows in five Southeastern cities — Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte, Nashville and New Orleans. They go to work at high-growth startups such as Atlanta digital experience company Rigor and Charlotte fintech unicorn AvidXchange and are given resources to integrate into the city’s startup community and, above all, support its growth.
VFA Fellow Amanda Halacy, a University of Virginia grad who founded an entrepreneurship education ‘clubhouse’ during college, was placed at Atlanta-based health tech startup Aces Health. During her time there she’s seen the company grow from six employees to 20.
“I don’t plan to ever leave the startup world. The most beneficial thing I can do after my fellowship is gain more experience at early stage startups before I take the leap to start my own company,” Halacy reflects on her VFA experience.
Sara Williamson, VFA’s Director of the Southeast, explains that some of their most successful and oldest markets are in this region. VFA Fellows have been in New Orleans since the organization’s inception in 2012.
Meanwhile, Birmingham, a new market to VFA, placed 18 Fellows in 2017. This made it the 2nd largest cohort placed last year.
Williamson says they often have to actually get the Fellows to cities such as Birmingham for them to understand how they can benefit the ecosystem there. Fellow Sherouk Omara, who was placed at Rigor, had never even been to Atlanta before she was placed in the city.
“I… didn’t know much about it. It’s a great city. There’s always something to do and, I won’t lie, the weather is much nicer than I’m accustomed to. I could definitely see myself staying here longer,” says Omara.
“We have to get them here for them to love it,” Williamson echoes. “They can really have impact on a community-based level — they’re able to move the needle here and make a real impact.”
That ability to make a measurable difference is what makes the Southeast such a hot region for VFA, says Williamson. In fact, 100 percent of graduating Birmingham Fellows decided to remain for a third year following the duration of their Fellowship, many at their original placement companies.
And, while the Southeast is ripe for the Fellows’ education and opportunities, they are just as beneficial for the cities they’re placed in. VFA only accepts the very best talent, with about a 15 percent acceptance rate. In 2017 about half of their applicants identified as female and 40 percent as a person of color. They bring a range of talents and new eyes to emerging markets, and with most, a goal of starting their own companies and creating jobs.
“Over time you’ll have a group of millennials that never would have considered moving to Birmingham. They’ll start
building their own companies and really grow that ecosystem,” explains Williamson.
Last year, VFA re-evaluated the cities they had a presence in against a new, data-driven strategic plan. Part of that was examining which cities really needed their help — and dropping those who had matured beyond the VFA mission.
That included Atlanta and Nashville, which Williamson says doesn’t have a lack of talent coming out its major universities or a problem attracting millennials. VFA will not place Fellows in those southern cities this year, but they’re ramping up operations further in other markets like Charlotte.
Though traditionally thought of as a banking hub, Charlotte’s startup scene is growing, particularly in fintech. Fellows have been placed at several high-growth startups, as well as the city’s biggest accelerator program, Queen City Fintech. The VFA class in Charlotte is growing every year.
“We really do our due diligence to make sure they’re going to have a strong experience,” says Williamson.
Photos via Venture For America