Innovation Depot played host last weekend to a regional job fair held by Venture for America (VFA), a New York-based nonprofit organization that shepherds recent college graduates from schools throughout the country to cities very much unlike New York in their size, clout, and name-recognition appeal: cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh — and of course, Birmingham. The idea is that a city like this one gets access to talent that would otherwise pass it by.
Regional competitor cities can rely on their name recognition to a far greater extent than Birmingham, which works, in a counter-intuitive way, to bring very diverse talent to Birmingham. “If you look at our fellows this year, they come from such different backgrounds, and they really looked for the opportunity and ended up in Birmingham,” said Sara Williamson, director of the Southeast Region program at VFA. “So a lot of Nashville and Atlanta is ‘I want to be in Nashville, so I’m going to find a job in Nashville.’ With Birmingham we can sell the city once you get here,” she said.
The organization chooses 200 fellows per year — from an applicant pool of over 2,000 — from prestigious universities, both public and private, and pairs them with an organization in one of its partner cities, serving as a conduit for talent that might instead have ended up elsewhere.
“We’re really, as an organization, we’re looking to allocate talent to Middle America — so outside the “big five” [larger cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, etc.], where it’s very easy for [companies] to recruit and like top talent,” said Williamson. “So what we’d like to do is revitalize cities through entrepreneurship, and our value-add is human capital. And in order to do that, you have to be strategic about the cities in which you’re placing talent and recruiting companies to hire talent, which is what we’re doing today.”
Meghan Saunders, a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, signed on as a 2015 VFA fellow with Fleetio, a fleet-management company in Birmingham. She explained how the whole process works: “When you accept your fellowship, what happens is you spend the summer at Brown [University], doing some very intensive training programs there — six weeks, eight weeks — with some really, really big-name companies like McKinsey, that sort of company. All these places come in, and we do these challenges like building websites in a week and building businesses in a week and things like that, and we have these great mentors that help us along the way. So that’s the first step.
“From there your commitment to VFA is like a program,” continued Saunders, who is now an account executive at Fleetio. “You’re hired by your company separately through a job portal — and that’s what’s happening here [at Innovation Depot]. But you’re an employee of the company, and you‘re a VFA fellow. So you get your job through your fellowship, but you’re an employee just like every other employee they have. … From there your commitment to Venture for America is working for a startup or company in a city in which they [VFA] operate.”
Furthermore, VFA has resources to help its young entrepreneurs after they complete their fellowships, provided they decide to start a business rather than staying on with the company which hired them in their city of choice.
“We have our own accelerator,” Williamson said. “It was in Philadelphia last summer; it will be in Detroit this summer. So it’s got about $2 million in seed money. Last summer we took five fellow-founded companies, and we’re going to look to increase that number. We think it’s a huge value-add to the fellowship outside the two years they spend with their startups.”
One current fellow who was in attendance at Innovation Depot was Kateline Hullar, 23, from San Francisco. She graduated from Yale last year. She heard from friends that VFA was recruiting at Yale, and she ended up becoming a fellow.
Asked about her impressions of Birmingham, she said, “I love the downtown. I like that it’s a city that isn’t too big, but everyone knows each other. It feels like everyone is so excited to be here and be a part of it.”
Dennis Leonard, an innovation team consultant at Alabama Power, is one of VFA’s biggest boosters in Birmingham. He got involved with the program more or less by sheer chance: “In 2014 I was asked to write a recommendation for Alabama’s very first VFA fellow, whose name is Dylan Spencer, and I didn’t know anything about VFA,” Leonard said. “And as I wrote the recommendation and got to understand what VFA is, I quickly realized that this is the brain train back to Birmingham.
“This is a phenomenal program to bring really bright, driven people to our city, who just may fall in love with it,” he continued. “So instead of the [phenomenon of] the brain drain, I look at this as the brain train. So I got involved as a [recommendation] writer, and then fell in love with it, and then obviously being with Alabama Power, we’ve been very, very pleased with the interaction and the partnership.”
Innovation Depot is the locus of all of this buzzing energy and activity, the conduit for young talent from VFA to pass through and into local businesses, whether startups or more established organizations. Still, the whole city is in on the act; Leonard believes the city’s newfound dynamism is real and is the major reason Birmingham is able to retain workers like Saunders who come for a VFA fellowship.
“I was a general manager for FOX 6 here for ten and a half years,” he said. “I transferred to Denver, came back in 2010. And, you know, Venture for America wouldn’t have worked in Birmingham five years ago. … We now have … all kinds of different cuisines and restaurants and great coffee shops and great music venues; you know, we have attractive reasons to come and plant a flag here. We’ve changed and we’ve grown, and we’re going to continue that momentum here.”
Saunders, the Oklahoma graduate who now works as an account executive for Fleetio, thought highly enough of Birmingham (and its citizens) to plant her flag here. “What sold me are the people who live here. So there’s just this insane general belief in the city from the people who work here, live here. … People are so passionate about the city that it almost feels foolish to not be a part of it.
“So part of Venture for America is revitalizing cities, and that part of the mission was very important to me. And Birmingham felt like the picture-perfect Venture for America city, with these people who really believe and are really passionate about this city and what it can do.
“I live here on First Avenue North, a couple of blocks away, across from the Pizitz, and when I first moved in, 18 months ago, the construction was underway. … Once it opened, that felt very symbolic of the experience here. So we’re seeing this revitalization happen right outside of our front window, and that’s very exciting to be around. … There’s a lot of room to make a difference, and you can move here and become a part of it really quickly, and that’s very exciting.”