Venture for America

Fellows bring fresh ideas to NEO startup community

Venture for America (VFA), established in 2011, is modeled on the Teach for America concept — place enterprising recent graduates in challenging situations and watch them thrive. For VFA, those strategic placements are inside high-potential startups and entrepreneurial support organizations.

VFA creates “economic opportunity in American cities by mobilizing the next generation of entrepreneurs and equipping them with the skills and resources they need to create jobs.” It has been operating in Northeast Ohio since 2013, and has thus far placed over 130 fellows in Ohio cities. Fellowships are two years, and often fellows become so embedded in their communities that they remain after their VFA tenure concludes.

Taher Hassonjee served as a 2014 VFA fellow and is among the more than 50 percent who remain in the region where they were placed. In March 2018, he joined Akron-based RVshare, where he serves as director of business development. In this role, he explores partnerships that can help grow the platform and expand the business. Previously, he was an investment associate at JumpStart, serving as a member of the investment team for tech businesses.

“VFA has allowed me to pivot away from more traditional career paths into the exciting world of startups,” he says. “Being in Northeast Ohio has meant being able to take part in new and exciting opportunities that were not previously available to me, including serving on the advisory board of ideastream.”

Sam Summer, a 2017 fellow, currently serves as user interface and experience designer at Cleveland-based Wisr.

“Through VFA, I found a job at Wisr, an education-tech company that makes software that connects college students with alumni who work in fields they’re interested in,” he says. “Basically, our goal is to help college students — especially those from underserved backgrounds — start working toward careers as early as possible.”

He described the many ways VFA fellows connect to the community.

“VFA fellows are a wildly eclectic bunch,” he says. “Almost everyone is involved with volunteering, politics, sports leagues, the art community, or some random hobby. One of us volunteers time to teach computer science to local middle schoolers. Another spends a few hours every week working on an urban farm that supports refugees in Ohio. Personally, I’ve been able to keep up with hobbies I’ve always loved — Cuyahoga Valley has some solid rock climbing and hiking.”

While VFA fellows are often placed in challenging work environments that require them to think on their feet, the learning that flows from these experiences is invaluable.

“VFA excels in providing two things I missed out on at previous jobs: ownership and breadth of experience,” Summer says. “My work doesn’t go through five different departments to get approved. When I finish a project, it gets a quick proofread and goes out to customers. Having that level of control over our final product has been the fastest way I could imagine to sharpen the skills I’m using.”

VFA fellows view the experience as life-changing and the communities where they are placed reap the benefits of their energy, passion and many talents.

Deborah D. Hoover is president and CEO of The Burton D. Morgan Foundation, which champions the entrepreneurial spirit, contributes to a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem and serves as a leader in the field of entrepreneurship education.