Venture for America draws best and brightest to Birmingham

Venture for America fellows hold speed interviews with 40 different companies from the Southeast at Innovation Depot. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

More than 40 companies from Birmingham, San Antonio, New Orleans and Nashville were in Birmingham Friday hoping to hire one of 50 Venture for America fellows.

Innovation Depot hosted the VFA regional job fair, making Birmingham the center of innovation attention for at least a couple of days.

“We have screened more than 2,000 young people in the country this year and selected the 200 best and brightest and brought a good cross-section of them here today,” said Amy Nelson, managing director and incoming CEO of New York-based Venture for America.

VFA fellows come from some of the most prestigious universities in the country. For startup companies or companies with a focus on innovation, it can be hard to visit all of those schools on career day, so VFA holds regional events bringing select students to one place.

Fellows vie for a two-year apprenticeship with the companies. Once the two years are up, the company may offer to keep the fellow on or a fellow may look to pursue starting his or her own company.

“We’ve seen an uptick each year in the number of companies wanting to hire VFA fellows,” said Devon Laney, CEO of Innovation Depot. “And from the VFA fellows themselves who have moved to Birmingham, they tell us over and over and over how excited they are about being here, how much they’ve enjoyed their time and the fact that they’re going to stay.”

On Friday, the companies held speed interviews. Fellows had 20 minutes to interview with each of as many as eight companies in hopes of finding a fit and an offer.

Landon Acriche is ending his two-year VFA fellowship with Alabama Power, where he works as an innovation strategist. He was one of eight fellows who were part of the first Birmingham VFA program two years ago.

Acriche was on the other side of the table Friday helping interview potential fellows and telling them about Alabama Power.

Venture for America fellows hold speed interviews with 40 different companies from the Southeast at Innovation Depot. (Michael Tomberlin / Alabama NewsCenter)

“They’re making the decision difficult for us,” Acriche said. “Everyone who comes through VFA is very qualified and so everyone we’re speaking to is very interesting and has a lot of great experience.”

Acriche said he tells them about the opportunities to learn about all aspects of the business at Alabama Power but also how the company supports new ideas and areas of innovation.

And what does he tell them about Birmingham?

“I’m telling them it’s awesome,” he said. “They’re coming to the conclusion that we all love it here.”

Jared Weinstein, a New York venture capitalist who attended Mountain Brook High School, has also been singing the praises of the Magic City. He approached Nelson a couple of years ago and asked if VFA would consider Birmingham among new cities for a regional job fair.

“I was skeptical, to say the least,” Nelson said. “It’s a smaller city. We work in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore – which, they’re a little bigger, a little more established in terms of entrepreneurship.”

But Weinstein encouraged her to visit Birmingham. Alabama Power officials showed her around the city and Innovation Depot companies told of the great things happening in the area.

“Just the welcome and the energy – it was a no-brainer,” Nelson said. “By the end of that day, we were totally sold.”

For the fellows, Nelson said the decision of where to go for their fellowship is not one they take lightly.

“When you’re a young person, you want to be part of a winning team and part of a team that’s growing,” she said. “If you are able to join up with a group of like-minded individuals and see that progress, then your work is meaningful to you and that keeps you coming back.”

Republished with permission of Alabama NewsCenter.