Talent is frequently a topic of discussion for most industries. How does an organization attract and retain talent? Are there programs that can help? Venture For America is one of those notable programs focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship. EntryPoint guest blogger, Sarah Craft, Director of Detroit at Venture For America, would like Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to know more about Venture for America and how it has impacted the community over the past decade.

Sarah Craft, Director of Detroit, Venture for America
Sarah Craft, Venture for America

Guest Post by Sarah Craft, Director of Detroit, Venture for America

Spring marks the end of the 2020 Fellow selection season for us at Venture For America. We’re a nonprofit whose primary focus is a two-year fellowship for recent college graduates – who want to work in innovation and entrepreneurship – to make a positive impact in one of 14 American cities, including Detroit. Fellows pick up essential skills through our training programs and fortify them with on-the-job experiences with startup leaders. When they transition from the fellowship and are ready to start a company – be it two years after graduation or 10 – we offer resources and a network to help bring their ideas to fruition. 

This year, more than 3,000 of the country’s top college graduates applied to become a Fellow and we’ll ask about 200 of them to join the 2020 class. Of that 200, at least 20 will join us here in Southeast Michigan. These Fellows will learn from startups and growth companies in our backyard, and will stay because of the community they build by leveraging resources and networks across our region.

Since VFA was founded in 2012, more than 1000 young people have gone through the fellowship, creating a close-knit and increasingly diverse community of startup leaders across the country. 2019 marked our largest and most diverse class yet. Of the 31 Fellows that joined VFA Detroit this past fall, 24 identify as a racial or ethnic minority and 12 identify as a woman or gender non-conforming. Our efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion are paramount as we envision a world where anyone who wants to start a company can. 

More than 90 companies based in Southeast Michigan have hired VFA talent to help grow their businesses. Companies like allergy management platform, Alerje, internet company, Rocket Fiber, and telemedicine addiction treatment company, Workit Health, are all part of our local company partnerships.

VFA’s Impact on Southeast Michigan

VFA has called Detroit home for nearly 10 years and during this time, more than 150 Fellows have done the same. Today, there are about 100 Fellows and Alumni living and working in Southeast Michigan. Although our first class of Fellows are just now turning 30, already 19 Fellow-founded companies have launched in Detroit. 

Banza, the chickpea pasta, is perhaps the most notable company to have been created by Detroit Fellows. Banza co-founder, Brian Rudolph, was part of VFA’s first Fellow cohort in 2012, but the business is now a national brand.

Ash & Erie co-founders, Stephen Mazur and Eric Huang, are 2013 Fellows and started a clothing company for shorter men. The Alums won $50,000 at Detroit Demo Day in 2018, appeared on SharkTank, and have since doubled their staff locally, including hiring two 2019 Fellows.

2016 Fellow, Yelitsa Jean-Charles, started building Healthy Roots Dolls during her time in Cincinnati, but relocated to Detroit for the Backstage Capital Accelerator in 2019 after graduating from VFA’s Detroit Accelerator in 2018. Healthy Roots Dolls represent kids with curly hair and darker skin tones and the growth of her company is helping kids locally and nationally take pride in their appearances and cultures. Yelitsa decided to remain in Detroit to grow her business because of the well-connected ecosystem.

Not only are Fellows making an impact on our regional economy, but they’re also contributing to our community. They own homes, ride the bus, serve on nonprofit boards, organize startup events, vote in local elections and participate in community projects. Only a handful are from Southeast Michigan to begin with, but more and more Fellows are integrating into the startup ecosystem and community as a whole.

Right now we’re sourcing innovative, diverse and impactful growth companies across the region who want to hire a VFA Fellow this fall. For more information about hiring a Fellow in 2020, consider participating in a VFA information session in Detroit on February 27 or in Ann Arbor on March 10, or by reaching out to me at sarah.craft@ventureforamerica.org. I also encourage you to learn even more about us by visiting https://www.ventureforamerica.org.

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