Student selected for two-year national entrepreneurship program
AT A GLANCE
Venture For America (VFA) applies the Teach For America model to startups around the country, placing top college graduates into early-stage companies for two years in under-performing cities with the purpose of educating a new generation of entrepreneurs and creating jobs. VFA’s goal is to create 100,000 jobs by 2025.
Source: Venture For America website.
An OU student has been selected to be part of the second class of a national entrepreneurship program that aids the economies of under-performing American cities.
Oliver Li, industrial engineering and economics senior, was selected in November for the 2013 class of fellows for Venture For America (VFA), a program that seeks to give entrepreneurial experience to college graduates by employing them in emerging businesses in lower-cost cities like Detroit and New Orleans, according to the VFA website.
VFA pitches its fellows’ applications to partner companies, who then choose applicants to interview and then to hire. Partner company interviews with current fellows will begin in February.
Li said he applied for the program because it would provide entrepreneurial experience, a network of other VFA fellows and staff, combined with the ability to make social change in some of the cities that need it the most.
He would like to be hired for one of the venture capital startups, which currently exist in Cincinnati and Detroit, and maybe in Cleveland and other cities where VFA will expand this year, Li said.
He was particularly interested in a startup currently partnered with VFA in Detroit, Li said.
“There’s a ton of changes that can be made there to help the city,” he said. “Being able to have some capital to invest in different promising startups and then working with them to actually develop them I think would be really cool.”
The matching process with companies begins in February.
He said being able to pursue both an engineering and an economics degree at OU allows him an extra benefit: being able to communicate between engineers and businessmen within industries.
Two OU alumni are currently fellows in the first class of 40 VFA Fellows; both, like Li, also are alumni of OU’s Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth.
Li, who found out about VFA through CCEW alumni Barry Conrad and Scott Lowe, said his experience with CCEW was what motivated him to apply for the program.
“Having that experience [with CCEW] was pivotal to not only getting the Venture for America fellowship, but to excelling at it and to really being prepared amongst my peers,” said Conrad, finance alum and VFA fellow.
Conrad said he was nervous when beginning the program that he wouldn’t be able to compete with students from Ivy League schools and small private schools, but his experience with CCEW, which he said is unlike anything the other universities, enabled him to stand out from the crowd.
“Neither Scott, nor Oliver, nor myself would be in the tradition that we are today without CCEW,” Conrad said.
Conrad was hired in May 2012 by a Las Vegas startup called the Downtown Project, a $350 million initiative by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh to revitalize downtown Las Vegas.
“There’s a lot of crime and homelessness down here,” he said.
But Hsieh wants to create a “community-centric” center for business in the city to help, Conrad said.
Scott Lowe, engineering physics alumnus and VFA fellow, said “[VFA] seemed like a great segway into an entrepreneurial career.”
He was hired as an analyst for a custom software company called Digerati, where he tests and designs software and analyzes the company’s market and customers, Lowe said.
“One of the things that I really like about startups is getting to do a lot of different jobs at once, not just being a cog in a big organization,” he said.
Although the VFA fellowship lasts for two years, Conrad said the end date is de-emphasized because VFA wants its fellows to stay in their communities to continue to help them grow.
“We can either stay within our company or start our own company in two years,” he said.
Li, Conrad and Lowe all said they plan to start their own companies after their fellowships with VFA end.
“I think it would be interesting to incorporate China in [my future] plans, since that’s where all my family is from,” Li said. “Especially with social entrepreneurship experience [from VFA], there’s a lot of opportunity in the lower areas of Sichuan, where I’m from.”
There are also a lot of opportunity and new ideas in the Silicon Valley, where he would like to work with venture capital, but he doesn’t have any specific plans for a business he’d like to start yet, Li said.
“As the years go on I’ll keep updating myself,” Li said.