Living the Startup Life Without All of the Risk
Jumping into startup life right out of college can be risky. Will the company make it? Will you make enough to pay the bills?
Venture for America (VFA) has found a way to connect college grads with startup opportunities, robust training, and an established network all while minimizing the usual risks of startup life.
The program launched in 2012 with fellows in Cincinnati, Detroit, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Providence, and we had a chance to catch up with Tim Dingman, a VFA fellow in Detroit, to learn about his experience.
1) What were you up to before Venture for America?
I was a master’s student at Brown University, studying electrical engineering. Brown is also where I studied for undergrad. I thought I’d ultimately go for my PhD, but my senior year thesis experience wasn’t quite what I expected and I knew that a life in research wasn’t for me. I went for my master’s as a bit of a stalling tactic while I figured out what to do next.
2) How’d you decide to apply for a Venture for America fellowship?
At the same time that my senior thesis wasn’t quite going as I’d planned, I was running a sustainable design conference at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design called A Better World by Design. I noticed that I liked hands-on operational roles more than research and I wanted to find a way to get more of that experience. Later that summer, I was working abroad in Singapore as part of a program I found out about through the School of Engineering and I saw a tweet about a new fellowship program with Venture for America. As I read more about it I had a gut feeling that it was what I needed to do.
3) How did you choose which startup you’d work with and what’s your typical day like?
VFA actually has a two-step application process. First, you’re hired by VFA and then you need to be hired by one of their partner startup companies. I was able to give my preferences– I wanted to work in sustainable energy and engineering and use my technical skill-set but not be pigeon-holed into a strictly technical role. I went through a few interviews and I was ultimately matched with the perfect opportunity at Accio Energy, a company that is revolutionizing how wind-powered energy is generated.
On a day to day basis, I work on the computer modeling of protoypes Accio is planning to build, measuring how the model will interact with wind and electric fields. Based on the work I do, we can refine prototypes to be as effective as possible. Typically a position like mine would report to the Chief Technology Officer but instead I work closely with the Chief Financial Officer because I wanted to get experience on the operational side as well as the technical side.
4) What’s been most surprising about being a Venture for America fellow?
Being a part of the fellowship network. There are 12 of us in Detroit and we all have similar interests and love to get involved in new opportunities.
Through the fellowship, we’ve gotten the fast track into Detroit’s entrepreneurial ecosystem– we’ve attended Harvard Business School Alumni events, met the Mayor of Detroit, the head of City Year Detroit, and leaders like Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans. We also have incredible support from the board of directors and other leaders.
Before we even started working, we had a 5 week training program at Brown where we got to learn from companies like McKinsey and IDEO as well as industry leaders like Gary Chou about web development, finance, intellectual property, customer validation and other essential skills. I would have never had exposure to these opportunities without a program like this.
5) What advice would you give to someone in college who is interested in Venture for America?
Don’t be concerned if you don’t have formal business or startup experience. One of the most important aspects of working in a startup is the team dynamic so if you can demonstrate grit and enthusiasm for how you look and interact with the world you’ll be on the right track.
Also, this is a radically different experience than what you’ll typically find right out of college. It’s 2 years in a city you’d probably never experience on your own accord with a group of people with similar mentalities. I can’t think of a better possibility for adventure! You also get the safety net of VFA. If your startup fails, VFA will help you find a new opportunity.