In anticipation of our Techonomy Detroit conference on September 16, we are profiling Detroit-area tech startups and entrepreneurs that are driving the city’s re-emergence as a center of innovation. (To register for the conference, click here.)
wilner_square (1)_optEntering my senior year of college after a summer working at an investment bank, I had decided that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I had realized that I need to be building something in order to be satisfied with how I’m spending my time.
As I began thinking about how to become an entrepreneur, however, I was faced with the reality that you can’t force yourself. I didn’t have that idea to launch out of college, and even if I did, I had no idea how to go about starting a company. I was an aspiring entrepreneur without experience, mentorship, or an idea. I had a problem.
Then I heard about Venture for America, a fellowship advertised as “for young, talented grads to spend two years in the trenches of a startup with the goal that these graduates will become socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs moving forward.”
It was the perfect solution to my problem. There was no internal dialogue about whether VFA was what I wanted to do; I applied with a full head of steam and no backup plan. Fortunately, it worked out, and I received an offer to become a fellow.
Next, I had to figure out where I was going to work and live. During the matchmaking process, I told VFA that I didn’t care what city I was in—I just wanted to work for a company where I could get the most hands-on experience. I thought experience was the most valuable thing I could get in my two-year fellowship, and I didn’t place any value on where I’d end up or who I’d be with. Experience is what I needed to go from an aspiring entrepreneur to a real entrepreneur.
Then I visited Detroit and I was blown away by the opportunity that existed here. That, in combination with the perplexed looks I got from friends and family when I told them I was considering moving to Detroit after graduation, convinced me. So I moved to Detroit and became the first full-time hire at BoostUp, a platform that helps consumers save for big life purchases. I told my friends and family not to fret, it was only a two-year fellowship.
Now, it’s just over one year later, and when my friends and family ask me, “Just one more year in Detroit, right?” I don’t have the response that they expect. I could absolutely see myself staying in Detroit beyond the two-year fellowship. I wish I could say it was because I fell in love with the city, or that I wanted to be here until Detroit is restored. However, it’s not the city alone that makes me want to stay. It’s the community of VFA Fellows that is growing stronger in the city.
I moved here last year with 15 other 2013 VFA Fellows, joining the 12 original 2012 VFA Fellows. So much of my learning and growth has come from talking through problems with the robust VFA Detroit community. Whether it’s in late-night conversations about how to overcome challenges at work, impromptu brainstorming sessions in the Madison Building, or shared rides to and from the airport, we’ve all supported and propelled each other in this transition to Detroit.
In many ways, we’ve been peer mentors to each other, each of us with extremely different but valuable experiences at Detroit startups. With 15 more VFA Fellows from the class of 2015 moving to the city this month, we now have a 38-person cohort here.
For me, Detroit has become a city where I have 37 peer mentors through VFA, an incredibly supportive native community that wants to see me succeed, an abundance of resources, and low cost of living. For an aspiring entrepreneur, that’s a pretty good place to be. It’s also inspiration to join some of the fellow-founded companies—Banza, Castle, and TernPro—that have started in Detroit.
I joined VFA for the hands-on experience, but its value pales in comparison to what I’ve gotten out of the VFA community, VFA Detroit community, and native Detroit community. I have one more year in the fellowship, but I’m not packing my bags quite yet.
Mike Wilner studied at Washington and Lee University and is now a 2013 Venture for America Fellow in Detroit working for BoostUp, a startup that helps consumers save for big life purchases.