Venture for America wants Cal graduates

According to Andrew Yang, CEO and founder of Venture For America, our country has a problem: “Our smart people are doing the wrong things.”

Yang believes America’s current system of employment is deeply flawed: Students often instinctively apply to graduate, law, business and medical school as a result of having been taught to “seek the ‘next level.’ ” Ambitious college students with “no real idea what to do upon graduation” enter crowded professions with only “a vague notion of status and progress rather than a genuine desire or natural fit.”

This has become a serious problem for our nation’s economy, as America faces significant structural unemployment — unemployment arising from technical change such as automation — resulting from rapid technological advances made in the past several decades. This phenomenon has become apparent across several industries. While the demand for computer programmers, electrical engineers and other tech workers is not being met, thousands more lawyers and hundreds more academics are trained each year than there are jobs for.

In his book, “The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the nature of legal services,” Richard Susskind argues that, due to legal process outsourcing, improved courtroom technology and e-learning for lawyers, to remain employed, those in the legal profession will have to identify what makes them distinctive. They will have to highlight the “capabilities that they possess that cannot, crudely, be replaced by advanced systems or by less costly workers supported by technology or standard processes, or by lay people armed with online self-help tools.”

The issue of America’s structural unemployment has profound implications for the American economy as a whole. Yang argues that the current system makes it so that national university graduates congregate in a handful of metropolitan areas — primarily New York City, Silicon Valley, Boston and Washington, DC — leaving cities with stagnant or weakened economies to grow even weaker.

Attempting to solve this widespread economic inefficiency, Venture For America connects college graduates with startups across the nation. By providing a network for aspiring entrepreneurs, VFA — which has gone from an annual budget of $200,000 to $3 million since its launch two years ago — aims to create jobs and to revitalize economically stagnant cities throughout America.

“What we’re trying to do is bring the elements that make San Francisco so successful to Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland — other cities that could use that sort of spirit as well as enterprising young talent,” Yang says. “Our venture fellows partner with local entrepreneurs and companies to help them expand and grow.”

Yang hopes that, having over the course of their two-year fellowship established a network and learned what makes a startup successful, these young entrepreneurs will in turn create companies to help resuscitate struggling cities with new products and technologies.

UC Berkeley students are underrepresented among the VFA fellows, something Yang would like to see change. He believes there may be a misconception among students that startup work is exclusively for those studying computer science, engineering or business. Yang argues that, while most tech jobs do require a background in computer or data science, people with diverse interests and skill sets are being welcomed into the startup world.

“Startups need smart people from every area, from marketing to operations to community management to content creation,” says Yang. “Venture For America takes anthropology majors, humanities of all kinds, creative writers — and they’re getting snapped up by startups in the same way as the engineers. We’re of the opinion that, if you are smart and adaptable and can learn, there is a company that you’ll be able to contribute to in terms of the company’s growth and success.”

According to Max Eisenberg, a 2012 VFA fellow and project manager at Autodesk, VFA is “a phenomenal way to get a taste of the business world” because, “even if you don’t necessarily want to be an entrepreneur long-term, to be so close to where the decisions are made, it is impossible to not get exposed to everything. If you have any desire to work for a small company, or any sense of wanting to be in business … it opens a lot of doors.”

“You get to have a lot of influence in these small companies as far as professional development and social impact,” adds Sean Pennino, a 2012 fellow. “You’re working in cities that most graduates from elite universities aren’t going to, fostering job growth where it counts. Throughout the whole process, you have an incredible support.”

Venture For America will begin accepting fellowship applications for its class of 2015 on August 1.

Mia Shaw is a UC Berkeley junior studying political economy. She previously served as the assistant opinion editor for The Daily Californian in summer 2013.