The quarter-life crisis is becoming an increasingly common rite of passage in the lives of millennials. As hard as I sought to have clarity and direction in my life (not for my sake, just to get my parents off my back), I fell into the same trap that ensnared many of my peers once senior year rolled around, the trap of uncertainty. As an environmental science and biology double major, I had a vague desire to go to pursue a MD/MPH joint degree, with the idea of practicing part time and doing something more involved otherwise.
Although this was no easy task, it was obtainable and concrete, two characteristics that were few and far between when it came to future paths. It was a potentially lucrative and safe path. Why wouldn’t I want to continue on it? At the end of the summer, I received some advice that gave me a pretty compelling reason why I might want to avoid the well-traveled road.
I was a counselor for Carolina United, a five day retreat for ninety UNC students to come together and talk about diversity and intersecting identities in an attempt to increase understanding between groups. One of the speakers who came to talk to us there was Christopher Gergen, a life and serial entrepreneur, and founder of Bull City Forward. He talked to us about his own path, starting out as a journalist, which he then left behind to wander South America by himself, where he ended up buying a bar and running it. The piece of advice that stuck with me the longest from his narrative thought, was his description of what people often went through life doing. “We often are so focused on taking the next step up, that we forget to take a look at where we are. We then reach the top of the mountain, and realize that we climbed the wrong mountain … .”
Hearing those words helped me realize that I was following that single-minded path, and I made the conscious decision to step off of it and take the time to make sure I was following what I was most passionate about. I went into senior year intending to take a year or two away from the world of academia and pursue full time service with either AmeriCorps or City Year. I firmly believe that everyone in the US should dedicate at least a year of their life between the ages of 18 and 26 to service, because at no other point in one’s life is someone as able-bodied, energetic, and unencumbered by other obligations. I know that situations are unique to individuals, but by and large I do think the preceding is true for a fairly large number of people.
The month of October rolled around, and I received an informational email telling me that Andrew Yang, the founder of Venture for America, would be coming to UNC’s campus to speak about his fledgling program. I went and stuck around for half an hour after he was supposed to arrive, despite the fact that I had a Biology of Blood Diseases test the next day (parking at UNC can be a challenge). Mr. Yang walked in, took a look at the eight of us that were still in the room, sat down in a chair, and told us his story of how he got to where he was now, instead of going through his slide deck. He was honest about his own shortcomings and failures and did not pull any punches about how difficult it would be to accomplish the program’s goals. This was the first time that someone had presented me with an opportunity without spinning it to accentuate the positives and minimize the negatives. That level of transparency was in some ways more of a draw than the goals of the program itself.
What is Venture for America? It is a non-profit program designed to connect top performing college grads with start-up companies, giving students a chance to connect to a sector that drives job creation. Venture for America’s mission is:
- To revitalize American cities and communities through entrepreneurship.
- To enable our best and brightest to create new opportunities for themselves and others.
- To restore the culture of achievement to include value-creation, risk and reward, and the common good.
It is designed to recruit talent that start-ups want but do not have the resources to recruit, while also doing the background research into companies to give the grads more security. Furthermore, it trains the students for five weeks before sending them off to their partner companies, with the goal of having these budding entrepreneurs add value to both their new companies and adopted communities. Finally, it offers another alternative to young people who are still searching for a way to increase their skills in a way that has so much potential for creating new jobs.
Fast forward nine months, and I am done with the inaugural training camp for Venture for America and settling into my new home, Las Vegas, to start work with the Downtown Project. Coming from a scientific background, entrepreneurship had never really held an appeal to me. It was only after talking to people interested in the field that I realized that there was a lot more to entrepreneurship than being a good salesman, insightful idealist, or child prodigy. I have come to view entrepreneurship as applied problem solving, by addressing flaws that are present in the current system. Entrepreneurs tend to be catalysts for change, and I am thankful that I now have the opportunity to be a part of that.