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New Program Leads Grads to Start-Ups

By Radhika Jain, Crimson Staff Writer

Almost one in three students from the Class of 2011 working for pay this year will take jobs in the financial services or consulting sectors, according to Senior Surveys conducted by the Office of Career Services last spring.

It’s a statistic that embodies the extent to which Harvard students gravitate towards high-profile and high-paying jobs.

Now a group of entrepreneurs are looking to give students another option.

Drawing lessons from the successful Teach for America program that sends college graduates into classrooms across the country, the new program—Venture for America—will connect graduates with start-up companies.

The program, whose board includes a number of Harvard alumni and professors, will give 50 hopeful entrepreneurs two-year jobs at 50 separate start-ups beginning next summer.

The arrangement is “win-win-win,” said VFA’s founder Andrew Yang. College graduates will gain coveted entrepreneurial experience, while start-ups without the recruiting resources of larger companies will be able to entice the country’s best and brightest, he said. And by sending students to start-ups in three “low-cost” cities—Detroit, New Orleans, and Providence—program organizers also hope to foster community development.

“We think that there are hundreds of seniors who very badly want to learn how to start a business, but those ambitions are difficult to fulfill on your own,” Yang said.

The program is gaining momentum. Although its formal recruiting process has not begun, more than 400 students from schools across the country have submitted applications.

Yang hopes VFA will become a “runway” for students interested in entrepreneurship. Following a three-round application process that includes a written application, phone interview, and trip to New York, each selected “fellow” will receive five weeks of training at Brown University.

Participants will be matched with 1 of 50 partner start-ups and will receive normal employment benefits and an annual salary of approximately $35,000.

Gaibrielle A. Bryant ’12, a Detroit native who has already applied to VFA, said the program is more than an internship.

“This is a job that you have for two years,” she said.

And for one talented fellow per class, there is an extra reward at the end of the program: $100,000 in feed investment to start his or her own business.

Jinzhao Wang ’14, co-president of the Harvard College Entrepreneurship Forum, said this incentive is an important aspect of what makes VFA innovative.

“VFA will give people the satisfactory feeling that they are doing something good—but they are making this opportunity just as economically satisfying as other opportunities,” she said.

HCEF is coordinating with VFA to organize a recruitment event on campus early in the fall.

Chris S. Paik ’09, a member of VFA’s Board, said he thinks VFA’s message is a particularly important one for the Harvard community, which is generally very “risk-averse.”

Calling the financial services “prestigious, well paying, safe,” and “logical,” he acknowledged that starting a business means accepting a high rate of failure—an idea that Harvard students may have trouble taking to heart, he said.

He said students mistakenly see enterpreneurship as only high-risk, high-reward. “If you get it right, you’re Mark Zuckerberg, and if you get it wrong, you live in your parents’ garage for the rest of your life,” he said about students' perceptions.

But Paik hopes that VFA can gain the prestige of TFA—and start to eliminate the stigma of risk Harvard students associate with entrepreneurship.

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification.

Clarification: An earlier version of the Sept. 6 news article "New Program Leads Grads to Start-Ups" incorrectly implied that a quote from Chris S. Paik '09 reflected his beiefs rather than students' misperceptions.

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