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Startups scoop up Venture for America fellows

Northeast Ohio
Startups scoop up Venture for America fellows

Boxcast has already hired five fresh college graduates through the Venture for America program.

And CEO Gordon Daily says he may very well hire another from this year’s graduating class.

He loves the Venture for America program. Loves it.

After all, the national fellowship program has provided his Cleveland-based startup company with a steady pipeline of well-rounded, entrepreneurial overachievers from all over the country. People he shouldn’t be able to afford.

“I’ve never met a VFA candidate that I wasn’t impressed with,” Daily said.

Several local CEOs have lavished praise on the Venture for America program since 2013, when it started helping local startups hire recent college graduates who are interested in entrepreneurship. And some of those CEOs now have multiple VFA fellows on staff.

Like Boxcast — which makes a device used to stream live video via the internet — Genomoncology has hired five VFA fellows so far and may still hire another one this year.

To say that CEO Manuel Glynias likes the Venture for America program would be an understatement.

The program has given his genetic data analysis software company a way to hire students who would normally be scooped up by big management consulting firms or end up in law school, Glynias said, noting that many of them started businesses while in college.

The fellows he has worked with so far “have all been stars,” he said. They’re the types of students to whom he can continuously feed harder tasks. And despite their youth, they also know how to carry themselves when dealing with clients and people many years their senior.

For instance, Glynias says that many of the Cleveland company’s clients speak highly of Michael Tantum, an account manager hired straight out of Wake Forest University in 2014.

“I don’t think many of them understand that he’s only a year and a half out of college,” Glynias said.

While in school, Tantum started a company called Sun Tape, which made tape designed to measure the sun’s power generating potential in any given spot. That experience made it clear that he didn’t have all the skills he needed to run a business. 

Tantum plans to continue his entrepreneurial education at Genomoncology, even after his fellowship ends this summer. Many of his peers who joined the program at the same time plan to stick around as well, he said.

“Everyone here has that love of Cleveland and wants to see it grow and succeed,” he said.

Four of the seven fellows who came to Cleveland in 2013 stayed in the area after their fellowship ended, said Deborah Hoover, CEO of the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, one of several nonprofits that has helped finance the program in Cleveland.

Several current fellows plan to stick around as well, she said, citing a conversation she had with five fellows in April, while attending an event that featured a speech by Venture for America founder Andrew Yang.

“A number of them at my dinner table said, ‘We love it here. … Cleveland is my new town,’ ” she said.

Multiple fellows told Crain’s that they’ve formed a strong bond with the region — partly because they’ve formed a strong bond with each other.

Venture for America encourages fellows in the same city to get to know each other and get involved in the local community. And that effort has worked well in Cleveland. So well that it’s kind of weird, Boxcast fellow Lena Kelly said with a laugh.

There are 15-or-so VFA fellows and alumni who still live in the area, and almost all of them live within a few blocks of each other, near PlayhouseSquare. They get together for dinner and coffee. They play sports with each other. They even watch “Game of Thrones” together. 

Why would they not want to hang out with a bunch of like-minded people?

“We joke that we’re a little cult,” said Kelly, a Los Angeles native who is planning to stay in Cleveland.

She joined Boxcast’s marketing team because the company seemed invested in her growth. Daily, the company’s CEO, said companies that recruit Venture for America fellows should go out of their way to find mentors who can help them grow — even if the mentor doesn’t work at the company.

“Don’t you dare bring a candidate in unless you can mentor them with someone really good,” he said.

Back in 2013, Boxcast was based in the basement of a convent in Cleveland’s West Park neighborhood. So how did it manage to recruit its first fellow, Peter Spaulding, from Yale University?

Spaulding said that Daily promised to show him “the ins and outs, the ups and downs” of running a startup. That sounded great to Spaulding, who said his “goal was to learn as much as possible.”

And he’s still learning, which is why he stayed in Cleveland after his fellowship ended last summer. 

“I’m still growing. I saw a bunch of challenges ahead of me — and still do,” he said.

Eighteen local employers are currently recruiting VFA fellows, said Joe Guy, senior community partnerships manager for the Midwest region. Seven 2016 graduates have already accepted positions in the Cleveland area, and that number will probably grow to at least 10, Guy said. 

Companies that recruit them need to pay at least $38,000 a year. They also are required to pay Venture for America a one-time, $5,000 fee for each fellow they hire.

So what do you need to know if you’re a student — or a parent of a student — interested in the program?

For one, Venture for America vets all of its employers to ensure they are actually interested in providing an entrepreneurial experience for its fellows. And if one of those employers goes out of business, as startups often do, the organization will help any fellows who work there find new positions, said Courtney Kishbaugh, a fellow at BioMotiv, a drug development company in Shaker Heights.

She’s one of two fellows with local ties; she attended Magnificat High School in Rocky River. Sam Roberts, a Case Western Reserve University graduate from Boston, worked for Paragon Robotics and helped start Bookwork, which created a career services platform for universities.

Not every fellow is interested in starting a company. For instance, Kishbaugh wants to support entrepreneurs through a career in economic development. However, at least three Cleveland fellows have served as founders or cofounders of new companies. One of those companies is based in another state and another, Bookwork, is on hiatus. The third, a natural hair care products business called NaturAll Club, has been accepted into the VFA Accelerator in Philadelphia. Roberts, who plans to remain in Northeast Ohio, will soon begin serving as that company’s chief operating officer.

Over time, however, more fellows who do stay will start their own companies, according to Baiju Shah, CEO of BioMotiv, which has hired four VFA fellows to date.

“I imagine we will be training a cadre of future bioscience entrepreneurs for the Cleveland area,” he said.

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