Wednesday Wisdom from Andrew Yang, Founder and CEO at Venture for America
We’re halfway through the week, and it’s time for a boost of inspiration to keep us going. Our #WednesdayWisdom blog series taps into the minds of industry leaders and disruptive visionaries who are working to build the future of entrepreneurship.
We sat down with Andrew Yang to discuss the reality of startup life. Andrew is Founder and CEO at Venture for America, a fellowship program that places recent graduates at startups in cities with emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems, forging a community of entrepreneurs committed to building companies that matter.
Why did you found Venture for America, and how do you hope to change the landscape of entrepreneurship in our country?
I was the CEO of the largest GMAT prep company in the country, and I noticed hundreds of smart, enterprising people in jobs they didn’t like. I thought that they and society would be a lot better off if these people were instead building companies and solving problems around the country.
I also knew firsthand how tough it is to start a company. My first company in my twenties flopped. I got better by working with more experienced entrepreneurs. The goal of Venture for America is to channel aspiring entrepreneurs to teams around the country where they can both contribute and develop into entrepreneurs themselves. It’s working better than I could have hoped – over 20% of our alums have started companies and the vast majority continue to work in startups after the 2 years. Basically, we want to get smart people building things again by giving them a pathway, community and runway to do so. 47% of our last cohort of 170 were women and 18% were black and Latino – we want entrepreneur communities and startups to reflect society.
You’ve written that entrepreneurship is less about having a great idea, and more about smart organization-building. What are some myths about startup life that cause entrepreneurs to become disillusioned with building their businesses?
Building a business is much less glamorous than it’s made out to be. The biggest myth is that all good things get recognized and rewarded. Progress isn’t linear – sometimes you’re not even sure if you’re moving in the right direction. It’s one reason why building an organization is so crucial. Most entrepreneurs have to do extraordinary things to get their business off the ground. You need to add complementary people and partners as quickly as possible so that you can continue to grow.
If that sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. It’s awesome! The biggest guarantee is that you’re going to grow as a person and do things you might not think you’re capable of.
What specific strengths have you noticed among women entrepreneurs in the startup and early growth stages? What challenges are unique to women entrepreneurs?
Women entrepreneurs will actually listen. They care about their customers. They prepare and want to get things right. Their challenges are that they often undersell and underprice. Basically, they don’t believe how incredible and valuable their company or product is until they hear it dozens of times. I would also say that it’s still harder for women entrepreneurs to get a hearing from male investors and partners than it should be. Sexism is alive and well. Again, do not let that stop you! Just find the right ones and ignore the others.
You consider yourself a self-taught entrepreneur. What lessons did you learn from experience that can’t be taught in a classroom?
I was an above average student, which means I got 80-90% of things right. The main thing I learned out there is that you can positive responses from only 30 or 40% of potential customers or investors and still do pretty well. You have to recalibrate and accept that in the real world things are messy and disparate. You just have to find your fans and focus on them. Some failure is baked in and okay. School kind of teaches the opposite.
VFA works in cities across the country. Where are you seeing the strongest emerging startup scenes, and what do those cities/communities offer to entrepreneurs?
We’re now in 18 cities around the country so it’s hard to pick favorites. The strongest scenes often have a few breakout companies led by people who then reach back and help the next generation. Baltimore, Birmingham and Pittsburgh come to mind as cities that I think will surprise some people, in part because the entrepreneurs there really want each other to succeed. What all communities need is access to talent that will enable them to grow. That’s where we come in and think we can help.
Anything else that you’d like our readers to know about?
We just had a documentary made about us, Generation Startup, that features two strong female role models and is co-directed by Academy Award winner Cynthia Wade. The Directors and Producers are all women. It’s the best movie about entrepreneurship that I’ve ever seen. Keep an eye out because you’re going to love it! Women make amazing things happen.
For an extra dose of #WednesdayWisdom, read our interview with Nnena Ukuku, Partner at Venture Gained Legal and a Co-Founder of Black Founders. We discuss the key knowledge needed by every early stage startup.