I studied Finance and Entrepreneurship at Notre Dame (and Constitutional Studies, which I am still hoping will be relevant to my career one day). Like a lot of my fellow Mendoza classmates, I was in the pipeline to go work in consulting at a Big 4 firm. I never envisioned myself lasting at the company; I envisioned myself as an entrepreneur. However, I was told time and time again that it was a great first step to becoming an entrepreneur. Professional service firms would let me learn how multiple companies operate, I would have time to figure out my “big idea,” and having that big name on my resume wouldn’t hurt either. Then, after I did my time, I could start a company.
I believed them. I went on a spring break trip with the company my sophomore year and got an offer for an internship after my junior year. I accepted right away and felt like I was set. Most people that interned with them seemed to get full-time offers and take them, and at 19 I knew what I would be doing after college. That was easy.
But I was stumped as to why I was not excited about my post-graduate plan. The company was one of the largest recruiters at Notre Dame and they had a great reputation on campus. I knew what I was doing the all important summer between junior and senior year before classes even finished sophomore year. I would get paid well and get to live in San Francisco. Isn’t that what a Mendoza student was supposed to want?
Thankfully, I stumbled upon a relatively new fellowship, Venture for America.
Venture for America (VFA) is a two-year fellowship for recent college grads to launch their careers as entrepreneurs. The program aims to revitalize American cities and communities through entrepreneurship, enable fellows to create new opportunities for themselves and others, and restore the culture of achievement to include value-creation, risk and reward, and the common good.
Fellows spend two years working at a startup in an up-and-coming entrepreneurial hub that needs an influx of entrepreneurial talent (Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, etc). The fellowship starts with five weeks of training camp at Brown University. Throughout the fellowship there is programming, and VFA has resources and a network devoted to helping you launch your own company.
After graduation I went from South Bend to South Beach to work for Rokk3r Labs as a Senior Startup Strategist. What is a Senior Startup Strategist? Great question, and I wish I could tell you. In the seven months since I started, my role has evolved as has the company itself. I have done everything from working with an entrepreneur from Ecuador to create the plan for an accounts receivable factoring platform, to creating financial projections for our portfolio companies and potential portfolio companies, to stuffing goodie bags for events (everyone needs to pitch in at a startup).
Working at a startup is not easy. Day in and day out I am tasked with figuring out how to do something new. I don’t have years of past examples to look at, a specific department to go to when I have a question, multiple people checking in and overseeing me to hold my hand until I get to the right answer, or unlimited resources to tap into. More often then not, it’s just me and Google working to figure out how to handle a new unknown. It’s frustrating. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s exhausting. In the beginning I would sometimes find myself wondering how much easier it could have been if I had just taken the consulting offer. However, there is one thing I can always say–I have never been bored.
I would not trade this experience for anything. At a startup you can carve your own path and make an impact fast. A few months ago I was given the opportunity to do financial projections for an internal platform. Now, I get to do them all the time (something I really enjoy as spreadsheets are a nice sense of order surrounded by the chaos of a startup) and we are now incorporating them more into our process when presenting our findings to entrepreneurs. Could I have done one project that would get noticed by the upper management at a Big 4 firm that would alter all the following projects? Probably not.
Another benefit of VFA is that I am surrounded by people just as interested in starting a company as I am. One of my favorite classes at Notre Dame was Innovation & Design with Wendy Angst. We used the IDEO framework to come up with an idea, test it, and create an actionable plan. While it was my favorite, there were definitely students there that were less passionate about it. Getting people to dive into the process was a struggle. It is not a struggle to get people excited about entrepreneurship with Venture for America fellows.
I stayed with fellows in St. Louis when I was interviewing with companies, and on their wall they had posted the business model canvas they were in the process of filling out for one of their ideas. My “accountabilibuddy” sets a weekly calendar alert so we can set a time once a week to talk about how we can keep improving at our respective startups. One of my roommates and coworker makes sure to get his work done as earlier as possible so he can go home and work on his side project with another fellow the rest of the night. When a fellow was moving back to NYC, her last dinner in Miami wasn’t a huge celebration. Instead, we got up early Saturday morning so we could brainstorm and work all day on our own side project.
Venture for America helped me jumpstart my career as an entrepreneur by giving me an avenue to get involved in the startup ecosystem right after graduation. There was no need to “do my time” at a big firm. Seeing fellows a few years older than me starting companies that have raised millions in investments or gotten into Y Combinator has also made the dream of being an entrepreneur seem like a viable reality. I hope more and more Notre Dame students see entrepreneurship as a viable reality as well.
Mary Cornfield is a 2015 Venture for America Fellow and Senior Startup Strategist at Rokk3r Labs currently residing in Miami Beach, Florida. She graduated from Notre Dame in 2015 and majored in Finance and minored in Entrepreneurship and Constitutional Studies.