When Sam Stites ’12 starts his first post-Vassar job at young tech company TurboSquid in New Orleans later this summer, he’ll do so under special auspices: as a fellow with the inaugural class of Venture for America (VFA).
Founded last year, VFA is similar to Teach for America or the Peace Corps—it involves a two-year commitment, and typically recruits talented, recent college graduates. VFA puts them to work in start-up and early-stage companies in lower-cost cities such as Detroit, Providence, and New Orleans. The organization’s stated goal is to generate 100,000 new U.S. jobs by the year 2025 by helping young companies grow . . . and by building future business leaders in the process.
Stites was chatting with a friend who mentioned VFA, and the discussion shifted to talking about working in start-ups. He’d never really considered the prospect before, but “a seed was planted,” Stites says. Then, in February 2012, VFA held an on-campus information session.
That VFA was on campus at all can be credited to Alison Albeck Lindland ’00. She first attended VFA’s 2011 Summer Celebration, a fundraising event, and later became a member of VFA’s Executive Board. She’s no stranger to entrepreneurship and start-ups herself. Today, she’s the director of business development and marketing at Kohort, a venture-backed group management platform. Previously, she’d been with American Express and, in August 2011, was one of several people profiled in the Wall Street Journal’s article “Jumping the Corporate Ship,” about young corporate managers stepping out to join start-up tech outfits.
“I asked VFA to come to Vassar to recruit because I hoped we could tell students why entrepreneurship is essential to any career path,” she explains. “Creative thinking and problem solving and the ability to be agile and work quickly in a cross-functional team are critical to success.”
On Vassar’s campus, VFA founder and president Andrew Yang facilitated a discussion with some 25 students in attendance. Stites was one of them.
“In his talk, I realized that the picture he painted of someone who pursues entrepreneurship was the image of someone I aspire to be,” Stites said in an interview posted on the VFA website. “The person is a problem solver, makes a positive impact on those around him, and is not afraid to take a risk to help others.” It’s a perspective Stites already embodied. As an Eagle Scout, he spearheaded a project addressing the decline of English standards in public schools across Hong Kong, one of many places he lived as the son of a State Department Foreign Service Officer. Stites says Yang’s final words of advice especially resonated with him, that “regardless of what kind of job I was thinking of applying to, I should always keep in mind what kinds of people inspire me and try to work closely with one of them.”
Taken with the mission of VFA, Stites applied for the fellowship, which included completing a personal essay. “As a math and physics double major, I didn’t get too much writing in,” Stites says, “but it turned out to be a great self-exploration piece.” Other application questions prompted him to think about his values and life goals. “I put everything else on hold and got so absorbed in the application that I submitted it only ten minutes before the deadline,” he says. Stites later had to pass two rounds of intense interviews, recalls Stacy Bingham, acting director of Vassar’s Career Development Office.
Stites measured up and became one of 40 inaugural VFA Fellows. VFA paired him with TurboSquid in New Orleans. Founded in 2000, TurboSquid is a digital 3-D products clearinghouse, basically an online warehouse for digital 3-D models of people, buildings, furniture, vehicles, electronics, and surface textures. It’s a promising young company whose customers have included Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios (where Eben Ostby ’77 serves as vice president of software).
The fellowship kicks off on June 15 with a five-week intensive summer boot camp at Brown University. Stites will then move to New Orleans to begin his work at TurboSquid on August 6. He’ll be helping to analyze the flow of sales and products.
Stites approaches the fellowship with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution. “I’m excited about the people I’m going to meet, and the chance to be part of a team that’s trying to build something new,” he says. “But since it’s my first job out of college and my first full-time job—not counting summers—I’m sure the first year will have many challenges and adjustments. I feel a little something like an astronaut just about to be shot into space, sitting in the shuttle thinking, Please, don’t screw this up.”
Vassar’s involvement with VFA reflects a growing interest among Vassar alumnae/i and students in applying their liberal arts educations to entrepreneurial settings. Alumnae/i recently formed VC Squared—the Vassar College Venture Co-op—an organization for entrepreneurs. Lindland also founded Vassar in Tech, a LinkedIn alumnae/i group for graduates working in technology. A parallel student entrepreneurship organization also recently formed: Vassar Venturers, founded by dual math and economics major Charlotte Yang ’15.
“These initiatives reflect the strong base that Vassar has in entrepreneurship and tech, and it’s a reflection of a shift in the American economy overall,” Lindland says, adding that entrepreneurship—and the skills it demands—have “permeated every career field and function . . . from health care to nonprofit fundraising to finance to teaching in higher education, and especially consumer tech. All of these fields now require entrepreneurial skills to succeed, and I think we’re only going to see more Vassar grads unite around these themes.”
She concludes: “I don’t think it’s a story that a lot of liberal arts majors hear, and it’s incumbent on the alumnae/i working in these industries to reach out and help connect the dots and tell the story so that students can begin to envision their career potential in these industries.”
To that end, Vassar Venturers is currently launching a monthly newsletter targeted at students and alums. Each issue includes an “Entrepreneur of the Month” focusing on alumnae/i such as Michael Reiss ’80, managing partner at Landover Associates, an IT staffing agency. (To subscribe to the new newsletter, click here.)