Connecting Startup Firms, Bright Graduates

By Jamie Smith Hopkins
The Baltimore Sun.

Peter DiPrinzio interviewed for jobs with big finance and consulting firms in his senior year of college in Vermont. Then he heard about a fledgling effort to send talented new graduates in a different direction, to jobs at startup companies in cities those grads might otherwise pass over.

That program, like Teach For America but with an entrepreneurial twist, quickly hooked him. Now he’s one of seven Venture for America “fellows” working in Baltimore, all of them about six months into two-year stints here.

“I think from an economics perspective, Venture for America is solving a very critical resource problem,” said DiPrinzio, 22, a business analyst at a nanotechnology firm in Baltimore called Pixelligent.

What he means is that small firms don’t have the staff to recruit high-performing students from across the country. Those students might like to work for startups but are much more likely to end up with the big players that show up at campus hiring fairs.

The Baltimore-based Abell Foundation, which helped bring Teach for America to the city in 1992 and is now supporting Venture for America with a $150,000 grant, sees the new effort as economic development.

“We need to attract bright young people to Baltimore,” said Robert C. Embry Jr., Abell’s president. “And secondly … Baltimore’s future lies in innovation.
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So this serves both purposes. It brings talented people to Baltimore and hooks them up with startup companies.”

Venture for America, founded in 2011, placed its first fellows in Detroit, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Providence, R.I., the following year. Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia came on board in 2013.

Baltimore made the cut thanks to its research universities and former startups that went public, creating mentors for the newest set of young firms, said Mike Tarullo, the group’s vice president of corporate development. Organizers want to send seven to 10 fellows to Baltimore every year, “indefinitely,” he said.

The title of Venture for America CEO Andrew Yang’s new book sums up the philosophy behind the group: “Smart People Should Build Things.” America has shifted from making products to providing financial and other professional services, he argues, but it’s difficult for a country to support itself on services alone.

So Venture for America is trying to redirect students being recruited by investment banks and consulting firms, and those on track to become lawyers and doctors, toward startups and economic development groups instead. The hope is that the fellows will become entrepreneurs themselves, creating businesses and jobs.

The companies that hire fellows pay their salary, set at $38,000 to start, and benefits. What the firms get out of it are pre-vetted graduates with impressive resumes who come fresh off a five-week Venture for America training camp.

Santosh Venkatesha, CEO of Vigilant Medical, a Baltimore company that graduated from the city’s Emerging Technology Centers incubator last year, gives the fellowship program an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Small businesses don’t have much time to recruit, he said. Venture for America helped him skip to the qualified-candidate stage and broadened his pool of applicants beyond the region.

Vigilant Medical helps health-care professionals share medical images needed for patient care. It’s Venkatesha’s second startup, and his Venture for America fellow, Adam Rhoades-Brown, came on as employee No. 6.

“I got into startups and small businesses out of college as well, just as he did, but I had no VFA,” Venkatesha said. “Now it’s great there’s an actual, formal conduit.”

Rhoades-Brown, 22, who majored in biomedical engineering, helped run a business in college. Washington University in St. Louis gives students the opportunity to become part-owners of campus operations, such as the laundry and dry cleaner he bought into while there.

He enjoyed the experience, but he wasn’t sure how to recreate it after college.

“There was sort of only the typical paths, grad school, med school or law school, the financial services, consulting,” Rhoades-Brown said. “And I really didn’t have sort of a way out of college that involved a startup. So when I heard from Venture for America, it was perfect.”

His goal is to start his own business. He’s laying that foundation now by working alongside a serial entrepreneur and expanding his network through Venture for America.

Malavika Kesavan, 25, a Venture for America fellow who works at Pegged Software, a Baltimore firm that helps health care employers figure out which job candidates would be a good fit, came with a master’s in neurobiology from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

For her, Venture for America’s appeal isn’t primarily entrepreneurship training. She likes putting research to practical uses and working at a startup.

“If I had applied to bigger companies, I might have gotten an entry-level job,” she said. “But in the company I’m at now … I get to have an impact more directly, more quickly.”

And there’s the chance to get broad experience. DiPrinzio said he’s involved with financial due diligence, market research, sales, social media and website management.

“Venture for America was such a welcome alternative … to help me find something I really was passionate about,” he said. “As opposed to waiting for my manager to give me a project and then making a PowerPoint, other entry-level jobs that some of my friends are doing now.”

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