Above: Andrew Yang, left, founder and CEO of Venture for America, talks with the Alabama Power Innovation Team with Anthony Oni of Alabama Power. (Billy Brown/Alabama NewsCenter)
Birmingham has all the ingredients necessary to become a hotbed for innovation and entrepreneurship, according to Andrew Yang.
The founder and CEO of Venture for America made his first visit to the Magic City since the organization named Birmingham one of its designated cities for its distinguished fellowship programs in July.
Birmingham joins Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Las Vegas, Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Antonio, St. Louis, Columbus, Ohio, and Providence, Rhode Island.
Venture for America hand-picks bright college graduates who are aspiring entrepreneurs for its fellowship program and pairs them with companies in designated cities. From there the fellows could go on to leadership positions within those companies or go on to start companies of their own in the area.
Yang visited Alabama Power, where one of the first eight Birmingham fellows, Landon Acriche, works as a growth strategist for the company’s Innovation Team. The Yale University graduate has a degree in environmental engineering and a certificate for the completion of Yale’s Energy Studies Program.
More fellows will be introduced in an effort to help Birmingham achieve more of what Venture for America has already found here, Yang said.
“In Birmingham’s case, there was a champion who is a native son of Birmingham, Jared Weinstein, who brought Birmingham to our attention and said, ‘Hey, there are great things going on. You should really look into it,’” Yang said in an interview with Alabama NewsCenter. “And thanks to Jared’s introductions, we realized the opportunities here and we came here to explore a number of months ago and things moved very quickly.”
Yang said there is a checklist Venture for America follows in choosing a city for its fellowship program and there must also a feel for the culture and environment for young people. Birmingham had it all, including the clustering of young startup companies.
“I’m glad to say, thanks to the work at Innovation Depot and a lot of other orgs here in Birmingham, those companies are numerous here in Birmingham,” Yang said. “The second thing is supportive leadership, and we’re grateful for the support of Alabama Power, Goodrich Foundation and others to help bring us here.”
Yang said the plan is to add to the eight fellows already in Birmingham.
“We’re going to bring in a set of people every year and build over the next five to 10 years,” he said. “It’s not any kind of overnight success, it’s really just to grow and support the great work that’s happening here.”
There are already a number of success stories, Yang said. He pointed to a fellow in Detroit who opened a factory with 25 people making Banza pasta.
“There are about 25 fellows like Brian Rudolph, who started that company, around the country doing great things,” Yang said.
Venture for America’s national connections can help fellows find the all-important venture capital capital needed to help make their big ideas a reality.
“We’re able to connect them to early-stage investors located in other parts of the country with the goal that they can help support their growth in Birmingham and other cities,” Yang said.
A popular misconception is that fellows are only interested in high-tech and come from engineering backgrounds. Yang said, in reality, the fellows have diverse backgrounds and experiences and many of them come from creative fields of study. Much of their work in communities is using applied technology and addressing needs within the communities where they locate, Yang said.
“There is no typical fellow at Venture for America,” he said. “We’re looking for someone who is actually quite versatile and adaptive.”
Yang said he believes Birmingham has the potential to become the next hotbed for entrepreneurial growth.
“Birmingham’s been a tremendous environment already for our fellows. They have rave reviews about it,” he said. “What we want to do is we want to have people see all of the possibilities of Birmingham and bring that story around the country. That’s already happening. The fellows have a lot of friends and the various mechanisms our young people use to communicate with each other. So, if we have eight young people here and then 20 and then 30 over time, we think we can really open people’s eyes to what’s possible here in Birmingham.”