Young Alumni Venture into Start-Ups
Lexington, Virginia, is about as far from Silicon Valley as you can get, but that hasn't stopped Washington and Lee students from pursuing careers at start-ups after graduation. In the past three years, six graduating seniors have been named Venture for America fellows, and together they're proving that W&L graduates don't have to go to Silicon Valley to launch the next big business idea.
Venture for America (VFA) was established in 2011 by entrepreneur Andrew Yang and accepted its first class of fellows in 2012. The program is modeled after Teach for America, a two-year fellowship program that places the best and brightest college graduates in some of the United States' most troubled school districts.
Yang argues, quite effectively, that students need to consider careers that will allow them to build things and improve the world around them. Going to work for a start-up spurs job growth, which helps communities grow.
"When you work in a smaller organization, you get to learn everything," says Jeff Shay, W&L's Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship and Leadership. "You're assigned responsibilities far beyond what your experience would earn you."
Venture for America works in 15 "emerging" cities - places with vibrant start-up communities and a demonstrated need for both an economic boost and access to talent. Fellows are likely to find themselves living and working in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati or New Orleans after graduation.
"There's so much that these smaller, middle-tier cities have to offer," says Dillon Myers '14, who is a VFA fellow with TicketFire, a Columbus-based ticket reseller. He calls the start-up scene "so much more collaborative. If you're in New York or San Francisco, you're another face in the crowd. In a city like Columbus or Detroit, you've got access to the top entrepreneurs in the community."
Students apply to Venture for America in the fall of their senior year. There's a written application, then a Skype interview and finally a series of in-person interviews in select cities across the U.S. In just four years, the program has tripled in size. VFA's 2015 class boasted 120 fellows, and three of them were Generals.
Mike Wilner '13 completed a summer internship in investment banking, but by the time he returned to Lexington to begin his senior year, he had ruled out a career in finance. He thought a lot about what he enjoyed most - the entrepreneurship class he was taking and a web-based event subscription service he tinkered with in his free time. "I heard about Venture for America, and it was the answer to the big questions I'd been asking," says Wilner, "Namely, ‘How do I start a career as an entrepreneur?' "
Being named a fellow is only half the battle. Students have to land a job at a start-up, though VFA does help them with the search. There's an online portal where VFA's partners can place job ads, and the non-profit hosts regional job fairs intended to pair VFA-approved start-ups with fellows.
Stewart Cory '15 (pictured above, on campus during W&L's annual Entrepreneurship Summit) attended VFA job fairs in Columbus and Detroit before accepting a job with a Detroit-based start-up, Are You a Human, about a week after graduation. Are You a Human is a software company that helps companies verify the integrity of their web traffic. "I didn't quite know what I was going to be doing," she says. "It's hard for a company that's growing quickly to be able to tell you what you'll do in three months. I liked that they were honest and said they couldn't tell me."
VFA requires start-ups to pay fellows a flat salary of $38,000, which levels the playing field and ensures that new grads choose the right job, not the right starting pay. The real reward comes two years later, when they walk away with the experience, confidence and even capital to launch their own ventures.
"More important than the capital VFA provides access to is the quality of the people. There's such incredible talent," says Cory. "At W&L, I loved being around smart, creative, motivated people. I didn't want to lose that just because I wasn't going to graduate school."
Most fellows have secured employment by the time they begin VFA's training camp at Brown University in June. For five weeks, fellows work in teams to learn basic skills - everything from website design and accounting to marketing and fundraising - which will be put to good use when they start their full-time positions at the end of the summer.
"There's a misconception about start-ups. People think every single role is a technical role, and that's just not true," says Leandra Elberger, senior communications and development manager for VFA. "Liberal arts majors have a ton to offer. Start-ups are looking for people with grit and character and work ethic."
Wilner was the first W&L alumnus to complete VFA's two-year fellowship. Back at the non-profit's headquarters, the staff call him a "paragon fellow" because his outcome is exactly what Yang envisioned when he founded VFA. Not only did Wilner spend two years working for a start-up in Detroit, but he also secured funding from VFA's Innovation Fund to test a side project, and then received money from VFA's Seed Fund to launch his company - a website development platform called Compass. Last year, VFA launched an accelerator in Philadelphia, which provides VFA alumni with the opportunity to spend three months getting their business off the ground, and Compass was one of the first companies in the door. "We just hired a 2015 VFA fellow, so it's coming full circle now," says Wilner.
Last September, both Wilner and Myers sat on a "Young Guns" panel at W&L's Entrepreneurship Summit. The J. Lawrence Connolly Center for Entrepreneurship gets much of the credit for fostering an atmosphere on campus that encourages both students and alumni to take risks and engage in creative problem solving.
"There's a reason W&L has one of the highest acceptance rates in VFA," says Myers. "W&L turns out [graduates] who are well-suited for start-ups and working in a collaborative, high-pressure environment."
- by Rachel Beanland
In Action People and Programs
Washington and Lee occupies a special position among its peer institutions, offering not just an exceptional liberal arts education but also one especially appropriate for this day and age. Strong international and interdisciplinary programs address some of our most challenging contemporary questions, while our professional programs in law, business, journalism and entrepreneurship shape campus conversations in ways that do not occur in other liberal arts colleges. These professional programs benefit because they exist in a liberal arts setting, and our liberal arts programs benefit because they exist alongside areas of inquiry attuned to the problems facing our society.
Our commitment to innovation extends beyond our academic programs to our academic calendar, which features two 12-week terms and one 4-week Spring Term. This short semester at the end of the year allows students to focus their energies on one discipline and, often, to study abroad. With small class sizes, students in these Spring Term classes often work in the field, studying everything from plants to salamanders to stars. Students craving an artistic opportunity can make and produce music videos or learn the finer points of poetry. And these are only a few of the courses.
Co-curricular programs like the Rockbridge Report, the AdLib Conference, the Entrepreneurship Summit and the Williams Investment Society emphasize the link between the professional world and the liberal arts, effectively demonstrating the myriad ways students can use their liberal arts education after graduation. Facilities like the new IQ Center and the Center for Global Learning offer state-of-the-art technology that allows undergraduates to interact with professors-and the world-in new and exciting ways.
At a Glance Facts and Figures
Visit, Interview, Apply See Yourself Here
Ready to learn more? Come visit us in Lexington for a campus tour and class visit, or connect with one of our admissions counselors in a city near you. We look forward to meeting you.
Visit Tours and Interviews
Schedule your visit with a campus tour and/or info session online.
Call our office to schedule your interview and/or class visit (for high school seniors only). We will coordinate your interview and class visit with your already scheduled visit. (540) 458-8710.
There are various ways in which you can still connect with Washington and Lee University and the Office of Admissions:
Apply Quick Guide
Early Decision is a binding commitment; enrollment is required if you are accepted.
- ED-1: Nov. 1
- ED-2: Jan. 1
Regular Decision is for students who want to maximize options.
- Deadline: Jan. 1
Johnson Scholarship (additional essay required, instructions on the W&L Writing Supplement to the Common Application.)
- Deadline: Dec. 1
Financial Aid and Scholarships
We seek to ensure that the cost of attending W&L does not prevent outstanding students from choosing to enroll. A generous need-based aid program and merit-based scholarships can make that investment more manageable than you may think. Visit Financial Aid for more information.
The Johnson Scholarship Program awards over 40 full tuition, room and board scholarships annually. Read More
Admitted students who meet financial aid deadlines and are found to have need will have their full need met with grant funds and a work-study job -- no loans.
The W&L Promise guarantees free tuition to any undergraduate student admitted to Washington and Lee with a family income below $100,000. Learn More