A look at three current Venture for America fellows and what drove them to learn about entrepreneurship in New Orleans.
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.
illustration by Tony Healey
First the bad news: Current data suggest that millennials are on track to produce the fewest entrepreneurs in several generations. A number of factors are behind this, among them the inherent limitations that come with huge amounts of student debt and also limited entrepreneurial training opportunities.
Now the good news: An organization called Venture for America is working to address the latter issue, boldly proclaiming that “America needs more entrepreneurs.” VFA’s main focus is providing recent college graduates with opportunities to “learn about entrepreneurship while adding value to local startups and early stage companies.”
Venture for America operates in 15 cities, with a focus on moving away from the traditional, coastal hubs such as New York and San Francisco. New Orleans is one of the non-traditional cities the New York-based organization has turned its attention to, and I recently got to sit down with three of the 14 talented young people who are participating in the 2018-19 program in New Orleans. VFA calls them fellows.
Henry Joyce, who is working with local software company Align, explained that after joining a large financial services institution straight out of college, he “had a desire to be part of an early stage operation, where I could help shape the culture and direction of the company.”
In a similar vein, Grant Steinhauer, a 2018 college graduate is now the first full-time employee at Maverick VR, a virtual-reality event-experiences company launched in 2016. Steinhauer was driven to the VFA by his dissatisfaction with several finance and tech firm interships.
“I felt I couldn’t be as impactful in those corporate structures,” he said. “The VFA opportunity aligned much better with my interests.”
For Jin Sohn, working with global survey company Lucid is a step she sees toward eventually working in government.
“I thought it would be best to get some experience in other industries first,” she said.
All three note that they have been inspired from being part of the vibrant entrepreneurial environment in New Orleans.
“People tell you relationships are so important,” said Steinhauer, “and you can see how greatness can come out of them.”
In turn, each feels they add value to their companies in several ways.
“Bringing a fresh, younger perspective to the conversation helps people see different potential solutions,” said Sohn.
As his company’s first staff member, Steinhauer said, “I make an impact simply by existing. My decisions have a real impact, pro or con.”
This real-world entrepreneurial experience has been motivational for all three, even as it opens their eyes to the challenges of this particular ecosystem.
“Entrepreneurship is inherently risky,” said Joyce. “The network that I am building here is inspiring, because I know that I now have people I can talk to when I face those risks in the future.”
“The entrepreneurial path is not necessarily stable,” added Steinhauer, “and it makes your entire existence unstable and super volatile.”
Sohn added, “Entrepreneurism is scary in a good way, because anything is possible. Highly successful is scary; crumpling up any day is scary. Your decisions will impact other people’s lives, their investments, their paths.”
As they develop their entrepreneurial skill sets and networks, each is beginning to think about their own paths forward. Steinhauer already has his sights set on another entrepreneurial opportunity.
“The hiring process is really fascinating,” he said. “The interview process for all startups seems very similar, but startups are so much more volatile than established companies. I want to work with startups to develop personalized hiring processes that will actually test for the specific skills each really needs.”
Sohn still sees her future in government work, but thinks she will be more successful by “bringing an entrepreneurial mindset into government.” Hard to argue with that! And Joyce is still considering his options, though he is “interested in creating more inclusive structures as a way to help businesses’ bottom lines.”
For more information on working with a VFA fellow, visit VentureForAmerica.org.