Cities like Austin and San Francisco are typically top of mind when it comes to startup hubs, but thanks to the impact of programs like Venture for America, Cleveland may soon have an indelible spot on that list.
The program matches a select group of recent college graduates (or “fellows”) with full-time jobs at startup companies in 14 economically challenged cities—including Charlotte. Kansas City, New Orleans, and Providence. Now in its sixth year locally, Cleveland’s Venture for America cohort kicked off in early September with 13 new fellows hailing from schools including Duke, Notre Dame, Georgetown, and more. They join 15 other VFA fellows already working in Northeast Ohio. (The program follows a two-year “term,” so the 2017-2018 fellows are now in the second phase of their VFA experience.)
“Our mission is to create economic opportunity in American cities by mobilizing the next generation of entrepreneurs and equipping them with the skills and resources they need to create jobs,” explains Elizabeth Brake, VFA's Senior Director of Company Partnerships. “We focus on recruiting a cohort of high-potential college graduates who’ve been out of school for no more than three years and helping them discover the opportunities that exist in cities like Cleveland.”
Brake says the 12 participating local companies range from biotech startups (such as GenomOncology and BioMotiv) to tech companies (like BoxCast and Votem) to manufacturing (MAGNET). “Our fellows are [placed] in industries that are really on the forefront of what Cleveland already does well,” says Brake.
This year’s VFA cohort kicked off this summer with a rigorous monthlong bootcamp in Detroit, where the fellows met with notables like Dan Gilbert, Arlan Hamilton (of Backstage Capital), and Dug Song (of Duo Securities). “It’s a monthlong residential experience in which we equip them with the hard skills they need to be successful, from problem-solving to human-centered design,” shares Brake. “We also cover soft skills, such as managing up or giving and receiving feedback—the kinds of things graduates may not know right out of college.”
Along with providing promising startups with access to talent, Venture for America also runs a four-month accelerator available to VFA alumni. Examples of Cleveland businesses born via the accelerator are HomeCity (which creates a social network via a curated series of events), and PathSpot (a scanner that can detect pathogens that cause foodborne illness on one’s hands).
One of the new developments this year is that Brake—the program’s former Cleveland director—has taken on the role of Senior Director of Company Partnerships, so Carrie Murphy has stepped in as the new Director of Northeast Ohio—a title meant to reflect the program’s broader geographic focus on both Cleveland and Akron.
“We’re focused on Cleveland and local markets beyond Cleveland,” says Brake. “We purposely pitched [Murphy’s] role as Director of Northeast Ohio rather than Director of Cleveland.”
Since 2013, the Cleveland VFA program has welcomed 63 fellows, and Brake predicts that they’ll bring 20 fellows to the Northeast Ohio region next year—growth that she attributes largely to the enthusiasm of local VFA alumni and current Cleveland fellows.
“The Cleveland program really stands out for the strength of its community,” says Brake. “The fellows have become real cheerleaders for Cleveland and feel strongly that their cohort and program is the best VFA city."