5 Venture for America Fellows Innovating in DetroitBy Benjamin Seidman on September 9th, 2015 /
It was late summer of 2012 in Detroit. As summer was ending, a handful of Venture For America (VFA) Fellows were touching down in Detroit. Eight to be exact, after a 5-week Training Camp in Providence, Rhode Island. These eight brave fellows were the first to venture to Detroit as part of the Venture For America program.
VFA is an organization engineered to provide young talent with opportunities to revitalize American cities through entrepreneurship by restoring a culture of value-creation, risk/reward, and the common good. About a month ago, the Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, Founder Andrew Yang and Team VFA sent a fourth class to the Motor City following Training Camp. The VFA classes have grown from 38 to 122 fellows, with twenty-one 2015 Fellows Detroit bound. Concurrently, Detroit is experiencing an all-out resurgence in entrepreneurship. Mayor Mike Duggan and the City of Detroit have made a concerted effort to welcome the new wave of idea generators and creators.
“I think people feel like now is the time and you can have a much more immediate and tangible impact in Detroit than you can in most any other major city around the country,” says Yang. “The work Mayor Duggan is doing to reduce barriers to all sorts of activities and initiatives is a big part of it.”
Since day one, the Detroit-VFA relationship has been symbiotic. For many Detroit transplants, the city empowers those who inhabit it. Each fellow during their time in Detroit are placed in innovate corporations or growing startups, and many are now beginning to branch off to start their own companies in the city.
The following is a look at the journeys of just 5 original VFA fellows in Detroit and their stories, their words.
Brian Rudolph – Co-Founder of Banza, 2012 Fellow
Why come to Detroit for Venture for America? I always thought I would land in a more traditional career path after college, like finance or consulting. Then, I heard Andrew Yang speak about VFA and was moved to apply to be a part of its first class of fellows. I met some incredible fellows at selection day, including some of the people who I now live with and I was fully convinced that it was a great opportunity. I knew I wanted to work at a company where I could learn every facet of the business so I joined as the first employee of a startup called Quikly. Soon after, I started my own company, Banza, a food innovation company.
His claim: Inventing a new kind of pasta. In the beginning, I thought I would start a tech company because everyone mentors suggested it was the smartest way to create a scalable and high potential startup. I tested a dozen concepts for technology businesses when it suddenly hit me that I could create a super high potential company in food, too. After looking at the dynamics behind Chobani’s runaway success, I recognized that there’s room to do the same thing in other categories. We’re starting with pasta. If we can make pasta more nutritious by using better ingredients, then it could become the obvious choice for consumers. So far it’s working.
I live two blocks from where Henry Ford lived when he started the Model T. There’s a resurgence happening here in Detroit, and we’re grateful to be a part of it. Read our latest story on Banza pasta’s product launch.
Sean Jackson – Rock Ventures Executive Associate, 2013 Fellow
Why come to Detroit for Venture for America? It’s not been perfect all of the time. When I moved to Detroit from the Orange County area, I didn’t know anyone or anything in Detroit and was moving my entire life to a new place. Frankly, moving to Detroit 2 years ago was not the easiest thing in the world. It was a shock when I first came to Detroit. Every city has places that need some work or have some room to grow. There are a lot of great things about living in this city and especially being in the Venture For America network. When I came here there were about 15 other kids who were brand new to the city of Detroit, most of whom had never been, most of whom had never been to Michigan, so you really have this close cohort that you can learn from and with.
His claim: leading innovation in blight removal. Now I work more in the real estate and policy space and the largest thing I’ve worked on is the Blight Removal Task Force development. In 2013, Sean Donovan, who was then Secretary of housing and urban development for the Obama administration came to Detroit and said I want a commission and task force to look at the issue of blight and vacancy in Detroit and come up with solutions. Dan Gilbert, my boss, was put on as one of the co-chairs of this task force. I didn’t know anything about demolition. It was a learning process. In the midst of that, we decided as a task force that if we were going to figure out how to tackle blight and vacancy, we needed to figure out how much there was, where it was and how much vacancy.
On October 27th the task force decided they were going to survey the whole city and we had partners like Loveland Technologies and Data Driven Detroit to help us. We had to think about how were we going to pay for this, how are going to do this, how much is it going to cost? What do we have to do about security? How are we going to collect this information? What are the right questions to ask? All of that happened in a month long process. It was long days and working weekends but that’s where Venture For America had came in handy because I had just been through training camp and it was kind of like Training Camp on steroids.
Stella Safari – Director of Operations at Floyd, 2012 Fellow
Why come to Detroit for Venture for America? I arrived to Detroit in an unusual way. I am originally from the Congo. I grew up in Washington DC. I went to Dartmouth for college. I’ve always been really interested in social impacts and how you make people’s lives better. That’s the most basic driving philosophy behind most of the things that I do. I think earlier on I saw that as a non-profit or service-oriented avenues to try to improve lives of people. Especially since I’m super passionate about young African-American women and giving people the opportunity to make a decent life for themselves.
I was raised by my sisters and grew up around very strong women and knew that all you needed was that opportunity. I think me being from Congo and having a connection to a place that in many ways is like Detroit and has been through a lot of trauma and needs some kind of revitalization. The way I had approached it before had been through a non-profit lens and but I was never satisfied with that because the power dynamic there made me uncomfortable. I started looking into different options and have always been super fascinated by entrepreneurship. I grew up in a family of people who make things work and that is what entrepreneurship is. You have little resources or you have some type of tough situation and make it work or create a product to make it better. That’s what entrepreneurship is and that’s the story of my life.
Her claim: Leading an innovative design for furniture. When I graduated, my goal was to go back to Congo. There was insecurity there and it was not a good time to be there. I thought I might as well do something else and get some startup experience and exposure to what it’s really like to start a company before jumping the gun. It’s funny because a lot of people ask, “Were you afraid to come to Detroit?” and for me, it was like Detroit or Congo and Detroit was the safer option for me. I really wanted to be in Detroit and fell in love with it. At the end of the day, I really want to learn what it’s like to run my own company so when Floyd came around it was the perfect opportunity and the perfect fit. It’s a product that I am super passionate about so it made a lot of sense to stay.
Tim Dingman – Co-Founder and COO at Castle, 2012 Fellow
Why come to Detroit for Venture for America? I did not know I wanted to go on the entrepreneurial route. The thing that interested me about VFA was the idea of shifting the talent to cities that need it and fields that actually create value. The part of training fellows to launch their own businesses was cool and I thought I’d work at smaller companies for all of my life but I never pictured myself as being a founder. At Training Camp they asked us who thought they would be an entrepreneur I did not remember raising my hand but there I was at the end of 2 years.
His claim: innovating in real estate. In August 2012 I moved to Detroit to do computational physics for AccuEnergy. My first role wasn’t consuming me and left me with a lot of time on nights and weekends to think about what types of things I might be interested in. The first step from Accio was Rebirth Realty was the initiative that three fellows and I started to restore an a historic house to make it a home for future VFA Detroit fellows. We started crowdfunding money for that in June of 2013 and two of my fellow rebirth co-founders ended up starting Castle based on our experience but also through talking to people in the real estate industry and seeing that there was this real need for not just good property management but PM done in an entirely different way.
I didn’t have any type of business training at all and the 5 week training camp gave me a foothold into the lifecycle of a startup. For Rebirth, VFA encouraged us through the Innovation Fund and incentivized us. That’s how we raised some of the initial money. They advised us and hooked us up with people knowledgeable in real estate investment. We have a great team which is the core component of any business but while we were trying to hammer out the market and the product, they were there to be our sounding board. Rebirth was the entree to Castle and I don’t think this could have happened in many other cities. Detroit is perfect for young people who are willing to do a lot of work but don’t necessarily have an incredible amount of resources.
Brian Bosche – Founder of Slope, 2012 Fellow
Why come to Detroit for Venture for America? I was in the first class of VFA Fellows before it was really an organization, before they had fellows, before they had partner cities. I wanted to go to a place that I had never been before to make an impact. I was more about the company at first. I thought Bizdom had a ton of potential to help start in Detroit in its ability to spur investment as a seed investor and accelerator.
His claim: innovating in the world of media. We started out as a video production company. As I worked with Bizdom and worked with a lot of different companies, it became clear that creating video content was the future of how people were going to present themselves for branding or for sales. I wanted to learn as much about this space and brought on Dan Bloom from Cincinnati and my roommate from Training Camp. We got to profitability within a year and a half and we were making hundreds of videos. Video collaboration has not been updated for modern times. People are still sending around hard drives and using different software to hack together the process and we could not find anything that could satisfy us. We built Slope, which is a video collaboration platform which makes it really simple for team to work together on video and media projects. We got into the Microsoft Venture Accelerator Program, closed a seed round and we are off to the races hiring team members and getting customers on board.
My advice is to create as many relationships as you can. Business is all about relationships so learn as much as you from people and learn from them and add value to them, don’t just try to network and get as much you can. Just be open to learning new things and experiencing new things. Read our latest story on Slope.
Ben Seidman author of this post is also a Venture for America fellow.