An Urban Jobs Plan, No Ideology Attached

Venture for America selects students from the country’s top colleges and then places them as junior employees at start-up companies in cities around the country. Could this program, intended to create new jobs, also help revitalize cities?

Venture for America fellows at a training session.

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This presidential election season, ideology has enveloped the economy. Want to see more job growth in America? It often sounds like you have to choose between “big government” or “tax cuts for the wealthy.” But cooler heads prevail outside Washington, where a different kind of jobs plan is underway.

Last year, Andrew Yang founded Venture for America, a non-profit organization that selects graduating seniors from the country’s top colleges and then places them as junior employees at start-up companies around the country. Modeled in part after Teach for America, VFA encourages entrepreneurship and creates new well-paying jobs. It also provides overachievers with an appealing alternative to heading to grad school, where students will only add to the country’s $1 trillion in student loans, or Wall Street, where about a quarter of Ivy League graduating seniors end up.

But while Venture for America boasts about how it catalyzes entrepreneurship, it’s also primed to have an indirect impact on the cities where its fellows are based. Cluster theory would suggest the smartest graduating seniors should all head to Boston or San Francisco where the salaries tend to be higher and a pre-existing entrepreneurial network is strong, but Yang sees things differently. “If you are a young person who wants to have an opportunity to start a business, these are cities are more fertile. And if you start a company in Cleveland instead of Silicon Valley, you can become quickly visible to leadership and local institutions.” Venture for America’s six host cities in 2012 — Cincinnati, Detroit, Las Vegas, New Haven, New Orleans, Providence — all could use the kind of economic boost that growing, small businesses provide.

But it’s not just the cities that are benefiting. These cities have what Yang calls a high “resources-to-talent ratio.” In other words, young entrepreneurs who might get lost in the shuffle in New York would more likely stand out in Cincinnati. Even without a broad employment base, cities like Detroit and New Orleans have companies and foundations with deep personal and financial resources that can help lift up talent.

Cities participating in Venture for America could stand to gain much-needed population. Venture for America’s ultimate goal is to create 100,000 jobs by 2025. If spread across the country evenly, that number would barely move the needle in any one city. But if Yang continues to focus on cities like Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh — all of which are in the running for VFA’s expansion in 2013 — the program could have a big impact. Indeed, while many cities are now growing faster than their suburbs, that’s not the case in Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati or Detroit.

Yang’s plan is longer-term than the next Census cycle though. “All of this gives rise to a virtuous cycle of long-term economic development,” Yang says. Indeed, by positioning twenty-somethings in these cities at the start of their careers, the rewards of retaining those newcomers could pay cities dividends for decades.

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Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

Tags: jobseconomic developmentdetroitbaltimorepittsburghclevelandcincinnatimillennialsprovidence

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