While President Donald Trump spent much of last week disparaging Baltimore, one Democratic candidate touted his own efforts to help the city.
During the second night of Democratic presidential debates Wednesday, candidate Andrew Yang said he’s learned about urban issues through his work with a nonprofit that operates in Baltimore and other cities.
In response to a question about how he could “bridge the racial divide” in America, part of Yang’s answer included this statement:
“I spent seven years running a nonprofit that helped create thousands of jobs, including hundreds right here in Detroit, as well as Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans. And I saw that the racial disparities are much, much worse than I had ever imagined.”
So what is Yang talking about? Here’s a look at the nonprofit Yang founded, Venture for America, and its work in Baltimore.
What is Venture for America?
Yang, a lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, founded Venture for America in 2011 to promote entrepreneurship.
Recent college graduates are hired for two-year fellowships in which they work at startup companies and gain skills to become entrepreneurs themselves.
Yang said in his biography on the organization’s website that he struggled on his own to learn how to launch a successful startup. He eventually found success running a test-preparation company in New York that was bought by industry leader Kaplan Inc.
“I realized that if we could give more of our young people a chance to learn the way I did and become entrepreneurs, we’d solve many of our problems,” Yang said.
He stepped down as CEO of Venture for America in 2017.
(The Yang campaign did not respond to an interview request from The Baltimore Sun.)
How does it work?
Venture for America has been compared to Teach For America, which places young people in teaching positions in struggling schools.
Graduating college students and recent graduates apply for the program and those who are selected are matched with startup companies for a two-year term. Venture for America provides several weeks of training for fellows before they are dispatched to their companies, as well as support and networking throughout the fellowship term.
Some fellows remain with the company after the fellowship ends, while others move on to other companies or start their own businesses.
The companies where the fellows work pay them a salary and provide benefits.
Fellowships are offered in 14 cities.
Michael Tucker joined the 2014 class of fellows in his hometown of Baltimore.
Tucker said when he was a student at Emory University in Atlanta, “I felt like I was the only person in the school who was interested in entrepreneurship.”
An adviser pointed him to Venture for America and he was recruited personally by Yang. Tucker ended up working as the first full-time employee for Baltimore Angels, a group of so-called “angel” investors.
Tucker researched and vetted investment opportunities for the Baltimore Angels and ended up building an impressive contact list and developing an idea for his own business. Through Baltimore Angels, he connected startups with media companies to build their websites and social media accounts — and saw an opportunity in that area.
After his fellowship ended, Tucker co-founded Diamond Hook Media, a Baltimore firm that offers an array of media services to businesses. He’s an enthusiastic cheerleader for Venture for America.
“There are a lot of great things about Venture for America. The thing I think I value the most out of it is the network,” Tucker said.
How did Baltimore get involved?
Yang founded Venture for America in 2011, placing fellows in Detroit, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Las Vegas and Providence, R.I. Cities have been added each year, including Baltimore in 2013.
At the time, Venture for America officials said Baltimore was attractive because of its research universities and record of startups that successfully became public companies.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the nonprofit Abell Foundation, said he approached Yang about expanding to Baltimore. He offered financial support and touted the city’s attributes.
“Baltimore needs young talent that are change agents,” Embry said.
The Abell Foundation gave its first $150,000 grant to VFA in 2012, to support the organization’s costs for staffing, recruiting and training fellows. Abell gave $150,000 grants in the following years, increasing the support to $185,000 last year, Embry said.
When Venture for America expanded to Baltimore, the organization planned to send seven to 10 fellows here annually. But that number has increased, as Baltimore has proved a popular destination, said Josh Russakis, the nonprofit’s director in Baltimore.
The Baltimore fellowship class that began in 2018 has 26 fellows and the class of 2019 that is just getting underway has 19, Russakis said.
Since 2013, more than 100 fellows have been placed at more than 50 companies in Baltimore.
“Historically, Baltimore since 2016 has tended to place some of the larger fellow classes,” Russakis said.
Has Venture for America worked in Baltimore?
Baltimore is near the top among VFA cities for attracting fellows and keeping them here, Embry said.
“As far as I know, Baltimore — somewhat surprising to people because of its challenging reputation of recent years — has recruited highly and retained highly,” Embry said.
Russakis has said before that as many as two-thirds of its fellows stayed in the area after their fellowships ended.
He said Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit are the program’s “big alumni gathering cities.” Russakis plans events and programs for VFA fellows so they get to know the city and form connections.
One of the alumni companies touted on the VFA website — a company called What’s Mapnin’ — no longer has an active website or social media accounts.
In an interview with the website Vox this summer, Yang acknowledged that VFA is not on track to meet his goal of creating 100,000 jobs by 2025. VFA officials told Vox that 3,500 jobs have been created.
Yet Yang defended his ambitious goal.
“In order for organizations to have a very high ceiling, you need to set the goal very, very aggressively,” Yang told Vox.
Russakis said VFA doesn’t have data on how many jobs might have been created in Baltimore specifically. But he believes the program’s fellows are making “a lasting impact to the community.”