Tom Walsh looks at Venture for America for young entrepreneurs

Tom Walsh|Detroit Free Press

Scott Lowe’s story line sounds almost too corny to be true.

A real live Okie from Muskogee, Okla., comes to the gritty Motor City, hoping to make his mark as a young entrepreneur and help breathe new life into a forsaken factory town.

Lowe, 22, does indeed hail from Muskogee, but he’s hardly a hicksville character like those from Merle Haggard’s 1969 redneck anthem “Okie from Muskogee” — “a place where even squares can have a ball … and white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all.”

Lowe is a 2012 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, with a 3.97 grade-point average in engineering physics.

His musical tastes run to Eminem, rap and techno dubstep.

And he is now a member of the inaugural class of Venture for America (VFA), heading to Detroit Aug. 6 for a two-year hitch, following an intense training camp at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

VFA is a program inspired by Teach for America, but deploys top-flight college grads to work at young start-up companies in low-income cities, rather than as schoolteachers.

With a charter class of 40 fellows, nearly one-third of whom will be working in Detroit, VFA is tiny compared with the mature TFA, which launched in 1990 and will send 10,000 teachers to schools in 36 states this fall.

But VFA’s goals are no less lofty: to remake the U.S. economy through entrepreneurship, revitalize America’s cities and create 100,000 jobs by 2025.

Andrew Yang, founder of VFA, is a serial entrepreneur with two Ivy League degrees who saw a troubling disconnect in the U.S. economy. Small, young companies create most of the nation’s jobs, but the brightest young college grads often gravitate to old-line banks or consulting firms in a few big cities.

“There’s a real pressing need to get talent to start-ups in places like Detroit, so we’re trying to build a pipeline,” Yang told me. This year, VFA fellows will also work with companies in New Orleans, Providence, Cincinnati and Las Vegas. Next year, the program will be expanded to 100 graduates and to Cleveland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and New Haven, Conn.

The VFA fellows are paid modest salaries — about $33,000 a year in Detroit, much less than they could command to join bigger established firms.

Metro Detroit firms will employ 12 or 13 of the first 40 VFA fellows. Lowe will work for Digerati, a Detroit-based technology process and software firm with 26 employees headed by Brian Balasia. Several others will work for start-ups funded by Detroit Venture Partners.

“Detroit has a cachet around the country now, though it’s not recognized here as much, as a place of social entrepreneurship, and where the barriers to entry are not as great for a start-up,” Balasia said.

Several VFA fellows hail from the Detroit area, including Charles Watkins of Detroit, a Yale grad; Birmingham native Max Eisenberg, who attended Washington University in St. Louis; Gaibrielle Bryant of Detroit, a Harvard economics major; and Jake L’Ecuyer, a Michigan State grad.

Balasia and Josh Linkner, CEO of Detroit Venture partners, serve on VFA advisory boards, as does a major donor to the program, University of Michigan grad Bernard Sucher, a major operator in Russia’s capital markets.

“If we can get hold of talent like this early in their careers, on the ground floor of building a company, it can change their trajectory,” Linkner said of the VFA fellows. “They can do something more important than finance or lawyering.”

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