Exploring a new path to entrepreneurship

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The second that I walked into the career fair at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, it hit me: It’s time to get a job. I was about to graduate with a B.A. in rhetoric, but somehow with the technology bubble of 2000 reaching it’s crescendo, and having enjoyed the handful of courses I had taken at the Haas School of Business, I felt compelled to create something new. Unfortunately, that’s where the needle scratched off the record.

When I walked into the student union, I found a roomful of large companies offering the opportunity to work for them. To be sure, they were some of the best companies in the Bay Area — some of the best in the United States. But my own internal compass told me that going to work for someone else wasn’t what was going to teach me the necessary skills to do something meaningful in life. Even worse, I felt as though my energy and passion to create something new would be diluted by corporate bureaucracy and an ocean of cubicles.

It took me all of 18 months to reverse course on exactly what I had feared would happen — I went to work for a large company doing something I didn’t want to do. But, like so many entrepreneurs before me, I left and found myself in a startup that offered me a chance to learn by doing. Reflecting on that experience today, I can say that in the years since, nothing has taught me more about creating something in this world than working in a startup, including getting an MBA. I had the opportunity to work with smart people and was empowered to make decisions — something that was lacking in my first job out of Cal.

That experience vaulted my career into two successful entrepreneurial roles that have allowed me to work on things of impact, to me and the world. I have had an enormously gratifying career to date because of being trained as an entrepreneur.

The rub, as I’ve come to understand it now, was that the entrepreneurial experience I was looking for wasn’t being offered directly out of college. The big companies with the resources to come to campus were there, but the young companies, like the one I found myself at 18 months too late, were nowhere to be found.

Luckily, all that is changing. Recently, a new nonprofit has launched with the express intent of mobilizing recent college graduates as entrepreneurs. In its inaugural year, Venture for America will introduce about 50 qualified fellows to entrepreneurial company’s in the cities that need them most: Detroit, Providence and New Orleans. These fellows will be paid a salary and will work at these companies for two years, and hopefully longer. At the conclusion of the fellowship, the recent grads will have the opportunity to compete for a $100,000 grant to start their own business. More than that, however, they will get a well rounded business experience that provides them with the tools to create jobs, rather than take one like I did just out of college. I’d encourage anyone who wants to learn how to grow a business to apply.

There is certainly more than one path to a successful career. But the doors that Venture for America is opening by providing access to early stage companies should be evaluated alongside the options brought by larger organizations. No longer should the student union only be filled by the ranks of large professional services companies. There are now options available to you that will accelerate your ability to learn and make an impact right out of college.

Darren MacDonald graduated UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in rhetoric in 2000. He is the chief executive officer of the Pronto Network and sits on Venture for America’s board of directors.