Venture for America allows young people to take risks and revitalize cities

Rehab house in progress from Rebirth Realty

Max Nussenbaum and three other participants in Venture for America in Detroit started Rebirth Realty after buying this abandoned house at a tax auction and rehabbing it to live in themselves.
Photos courtesy of Rebirth Realty

Venture for America trains and mentors college graduates in entrepreneurship, which gives them business experience and helps revitalize American cities. Could this serve as a model for the church to encourage creative innovation among young Christians?

If solving problems is one of the core skills Venture for America fellows are supposed to learn, Max Nussenbaum and three other fellows got an early start.

After living separately in various places, the Detroit fellows tackled their first problem: finding a place where they could live together. They’d come to the city to work as part of the two-year VFA program, which recruits, trains and places top college graduates at startups across the country to earn $33,000 to $38,000 a year and learn how to solve problems and build businesses.

What would happen if the church helped create opportunities for innovators to unleash their problem-solving energies to address local community issues?

After one of the fellows spotted an abandoned house three miles north of downtown, the four checked it out.

The seven-bedroom, 3,500-square-foot Prairie-style house was “completely destroyed,” said Nussenbaum, 24. Scavengers had ripped out the copper plumbing. The house needed a new roof and a new electrical system. But it was slated to sell at a tax auction for $8,000 -- a price that seemed realistic for the recent college graduates.

They scraped together $10,000 from family and friends, plus another $6,000 from Venture for America’s innovation fund. Then they put in a bid.

Rehab house in progress from Rebirth Realty
The roommates and partners are fixing up the house to live in, but plan to rent it later.

“None of us had any interest in real estate,” Nussenbaum said. “But living in the city, it’s impossible not to become somewhat interested in real estate, because the biggest problems Detroit faces are all these urban-related problems of blight, infrastructure and population loss that have real estate at their core.”

Next they cast about for a more serious pile of money to make the house livable.

The four formed a business, Rebirth Realty, and went to private investors with an idea: in exchange for a financial investment, the homeowners would offer a guaranteed share of the rental-income profits from a steady stream of reliable Venture for America tenants. Several investors ponied up a total of $200,000, and the four began rehabbing the house, doing most of the work themselves during evenings and weekends.

Rebirth Realty Housewarming Party!
Even though the house had no kitchen, holes in the floor and a big piece of plywood over the front door, a recent housewarming party was a success.

The renovation, which is still ongoing, gave the group a valuable education in property management -- so much so that in 2014, Nussenbaum and two of the other owners, Tim Dingman and Scott Lowe, launched Castle, a company that provides landlords an online platform for screening tenants, collecting rent and coordinating ongoing maintenance.

It’s the kind of problem solving that Andrew Yang, the founder and CEO of Venture for America, envisioned when he started the program in 2011. Modeled on the successful Teach For America, it offers talented college graduates an alternative career path to finance and law, and in the process, revitalizes cities and creates jobs.

Reid Tatoris, a startup founder who employed Nussenbaum for two years before he started his own company, is a fan of the VFA model.

“Without these smart fellows coming into Detroit, this new company wouldn’t have existed, and this house might not have been renovated,” said Tatoris, whose own digital startup, Are You a Human, has employed two VFA fellows. “It’s the perfect fit for what happens when you take smart minds and put them in a place they might not [otherwise] go. You have a great opportunity for the city they’re entering and for the students.”

Building things

Yang believes that “smart people should build things,” as the title of his book suggests.

Yet when he graduated from Brown University in 1996, he found himself with only a handful of career options: go into finance or consulting, sign up for Teach For America, or go to medical school, law school or graduate school.

These six paths account for 50 to 70 percent of the choices made by top graduates from U.S. colleges and universities. That seemed too limiting to Yang, especially when he considered that some of the brightest innovators of the past three decades were college dropouts (think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg).

Yang chose law school at Columbia University, but after working briefly in a law firm, he continued to feel unfulfilled. So he started a business.

That first one failed, but eventually he built a successful test-preparation company that was sold to The Washington Post’s Kaplan, the leading test prep provider. Working with college students to improve their GRE and LSAT scores, Yang learned that many of them faced the same career dilemmas.

“Having most of our top students being trained in the same handful of ways might be good in some ways -- we might break fewer things,” he wrote in an editorial in Quartz. “But it might make us less likely to build new things too.”

Electrical work in progress
Construction continues.

The success of Teach For America convinced Yang that seniors wanted more options and they were willing to take risks to work for the common good.

How can your church or organization encourage young people to take risks, creating new ways to address community issues?

He launched Venture for America with a similar model: recruit top-achieving students and offer them training in a five-week camp that includes classes on problem solving, public speaking and entrepreneurship.

The camp, which is held each summer at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, includes sessions with seasoned leaders from such places as IDEO, the global design firm, McKinsey, the management consulting firm, and The Flatiron School, a web development and coding academy.

After the training camp, the fellows move on to VFA-partner startups in 12 cities across the country, including Cincinnati, New Orleans and St. Louis. New York, San Francisco and Boston are not among the 12; the idea is to support innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging cities where the cost of living is relatively low.

VFA partners with about 150 companies. Fellows commit to working at one of the companies for a minimum of two years, but they may stay on longer.

During those two years, they are encouraged to submit projects or ideas to an annual crowd-funding competition. Winning projects are eligible for up to $40,000 in additional VFA funding. The hope is that these competitions will help spur fellows to start their own businesses.

But fellows say that beyond the competition and mentoring that are available as part of the program, it’s the friendships they form with other fellows that make the experience so valuable.

“The most phenomenal part is the network of other fellows,” said Nussenbaum, who was part of the inaugural class. “I’ve made some of my best friends in the program, people I expect to have a lifelong relationship with.”

So far, the 40 fellows in VFA’s inaugural class have launched seven startups. In addition to Castle, the Detroit-based property management platform, they include Banza, which makes high-protein chickpea pasta, TernPro, which provides video content marketing solutions, and Zest Tea, which makes a highly caffeinated tea.

Shelves full of Banza pasta
The kitchen cabinets are full of Banza pasta -- one of the startups launched by VFA fellows.

Nine more companies are in various stages of launch.

“If you want to make an impact on the world and go into something where you can control your destiny and create value for yourself, it’s the best program I know of,” said Brian Bosché, a VFA alumnus whose startup TernPro is now releasing its first software platform, Slope. TernPro made more than $160,000 its first year.

Startup culture

Over the past decade, the steadily rising startup culture has attracted college students excited by the prospect of creating something new.

Matthew Nash, the managing director for social entrepreneurship at Duke University’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, sees it every day.

“There’s a significant interest in entrepreneurship in our classes,” Nash said. “It’s very dramatic.”

For some, the experience begins with hackathons or startup weekends, where a group of people come together for 48 hours to brainstorm a computer program, a product, an app or a basic business plan.

“It’s eye-opening to see how different people live. This experience will help me in my career way more than most experiences kids have after college.”
Max Nussenbaum

That’s what happened with Camille Seyler, a 2014 graduate of Vermont’s Middlebury College, who was accepted into the Venture for America program last summer.

A solar decathlon competition organized by the Department of Energy to design and build solar-powered homes was “the activity that defined my college experience,” she said.

Seyler, who majored in economics with a minor in environmental studies, now works at Geekdom, a startup accelerator in San Antonio, Texas. This fall, she managed the construction of an event center and now serves as its publicity maven.

Six months into the Venture for America program, she doesn’t yet have an idea for a startup. But she’s grateful for the chance to work with creative people.

“I’m learning so much more than if I was left to my own devices,” she said.

Seyler’s class includes 106 fellows, more than double the inaugural class of 40. VFA hopes to admit 140 new fellows in the 2015 class.

Do you know of churches or organizations with innovative services or ministries? We’d love to learn about them. Contact Leadership Education at Duke Divinity at leadership@div.duke.edu

Those fellows will come from 70 colleges and universities, including Brown, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina.

Nash, the manager of the Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, said it’s hard to say how large the VFA program can grow.

“I don’t know financially how scalable it will be,” he said. “What’s the right number of VFA fellows in a community? It will depend on philanthropists willing to place their dollars into those opportunities.”

But Nash likes the idea of the program. And he said interest in startups is not merely a pipe dream of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg. There’s interest in all kinds of entrepreneurial ventures in such areas as medicine, green technology, transportation, and food systems, not to mention the maker movement of traditional artisans and DIYers.

“There are lots of people who want to spend their time in service to a small business,” he said. “The VFA model gives them an exposure to what it takes.”

Experience and opportunity

A 2014 Kauffman Foundation study found that when it comes to job creation, it is not the size of the business that matters so much as its age. New companies are the primary source of job creation, it found, while older and larger firms shed more jobs than they create.

That’s an equation that fits Venture for America’s model.

Tatoris, co-founder and chief operating officer of Are You a Human, has employed two VFA fellows since 2012 and speaks highly of both. His company is a four-year-old Detroit startup that helps advertisers determine whether their ads are being seen by real people or online “bots.”

“The screened list of VFA fellows I get to choose from are almost always better than anyone else I’ve found myself,” Tatoris said. Besides being enthusiastic, the fellows tend to be self-starters -- people who can “take a problem and work on it on their own.”

College graduates say they relish the opportunity.

Mitch Rubin, a 2014 Duke University graduate from Chappaqua, New York, with a certificate in markets and management studies, said that if he hadn’t heard of VFA, he probably would have applied for marketing jobs in New York City. He’s glad he didn’t.

“I’m learning how to run a company.”
Mitch Rubin

Rubin, who works for BoostUp, an online platform that helps people save money toward the purchase of a car or a house, said he loves living in downtown Detroit, where he can walk to work.

“I’m learning how to run a company,” he said. “And I’m doing something different every day, versus going to New York, where I grew up my entire life, working at a desk, cranking out the same things every day.”

Rubin, who is 23, doesn’t know yet what he’ll do when his fellowship ends. But he’s banking on the friends, mentors and resources VFA offers to provide a solution.

In the meantime, he’s soaking up as much experience as he can in a city he otherwise might never have visited.

“I grew up very fortunate,” he said. “It’s eye-opening to see how different people live. This experience will help me in my career way more than most experiences kids have after college.”

Rubin’s presence in Detroit may offer a lesson on the program’s most innovative element: its impact on struggling cities.

“A lot of what Detroit needs is people to come back, to live here and employ people here, maintain their home and pay taxes and get involved in local government -- basic citizenship stuff that I hope we’re playing a small role in,” Nussenbaum said. “When thousands of people do that, that’s how a city comes back.”

Questions to consider:

  • How might the church identify, nurture and resource young people who want to create products and services that respond to God’s care for the poor and other marginalized people?

  • Where do you see motivated, imaginative young folks gathering and collaborating socially or professionally? How can the church support those efforts and join with people who are doing good?

  • What differences might innovators of all ages make in the church if we were intentional about learning from them? What would happen if the church helped create opportunities for innovators to unleash their problem-solving energies to address local community issues?

  • How do you and the congregations and institutions you love incubate services, products or ministries? How might these be scaled or replicated to increase positive impact in our society?