A Conversation with Eileen Lee, Founding Team Member of Venture for America.
How did you become a founding team member of Venture for America?
I met the founder, Andrew Yang, through his wife, Evelyn, in late 2010. At Columbia, Evelyn and I met while studying abroad in Shanghai, and she had the intuition that Andrew and I would work well together. She and I had both left corporate jobs after 5+ years, and I was in the midst of pivoting my career when I met with him. I was looking to focus on building something that would help people. After hearing about the idea over dinner, Andrew offered me a job. I called him the next day and said I was in.
What made you want to make the move from consulting to building a company?
Not too many people stay past two years in consulting unless they’re interested in a long-term career path there. I wish I could say I had a clear plan or direction, but really didn’t know what I wanted. My traditional first generation immigrant parents raised me to never quit, and I took that too much to heart with my job. I became burnt out and lost after 5+ years traveling full-time 4+ days a week. I finally reached a breaking point where I didn’t see the value all my hard work was adding and wanted more — I wanted to make more of an impact. Quitting without another job was very daunting, especially with my mom in my ear reminding me to never do that. In retrospect, my struggles in finding fulfillment in consulting and the challenge in finding my next career path was all worth it for such a great opportunity and team.
Tell us about Venture for America.
Venture for America is a Fellowship program that places recent graduates into startups, in cities with emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems — forging a community of entrepreneurs committed to building companies that matter. We have 500+ Fellows and alums and the majority stay in entrepreneurship after our 2-year program — many of them go on to start their own companies. I continue to be amazed at how ambitious and impressive the individuals we recruit are.
What was the building process like for you?
We worked backwards. We prioritized fundraising and garnering support, identifying the first cities and companies we wanted to partner with, recruiting college seniors on campuses, and creating a rigorous interview process and 5-week entrepreneurial boot camp to kick off the program. We tackled one thing at a time, worked to solve each problem, and moved on to the next. It was like nothing I had experienced prior as a consultant and really didn’t understand how wonderful of a community we were building until a couple years down the road.
What do you think got you to where you are today?
At VFA’s start, my support system was mainly my boyfriend (now husband) as it still is today. We tell our Fellows how important it is to build a strong support system of people (friends, family, peers, mentors, whoever will be there in your court) when you’re taking risks and managing so much uncertainty. I was very lucky to have had that in Roman as there were many very good and very bad days, and he was my rock through it all — he was there to lend an ear and unwavering support.
What kept you going when things got tough?
There was never a moment, even when we barely had any money in the bank, where I doubted our mission and what we set out to build. The idea and impact was so clear to me as well as the need for it. I hope to have similar conviction and excitement to jump into another idea in the future. I also think my personal story really resonated with our goal to redirect more talent — who aimlessly went into professions like finance, consulting, and law — into building companies and creating jobs.
What kind of advice would you give to other founders?
Ensure you have a solid support system: there will be hard times and challenges, prioritizing self-care and family at the onset, if at all possible, will help you persevere.
Be self-aware: this might be easier said than done, but really take time to reflect on who you are, what you want to build towards, and why. What motivates you, what are your values, expectations, and goals?
Understand your strengths, weaknesses, and your work style: this goes hand-in-hand with self-awareness and enables you to hire people who complement your skillset and personality in order to build strong teams. (The chemistry amongst the first few team members is of paramount importance.)
Are you still involved with Venture for America?
I am currently heading up our board in Atlanta — one of our newest VFA cities. I moved here from New York a few months ago, and it’s been great to live and work alongside the Fellows for the first time (VFA focuses on startup ecosystems outside of New York and Silicon Valley). I will forever be a champion supporter of VFA and am enjoying staying in touch with the team and Fellows across the country.
What are you future plans at this point?
I’m excited to build something again from the ground up, make a positive impact, and to create an awesome culture, team, and experience for people. I’ve been working with two partners on ideas in the health and nutrition space and am particularly interested in helping young children with chronic conditions. We’re still very early on, but I’ve already learned a ton going through ideation, prototyping, and getting feedback with them. The network I’ve built through VFA has been amazing and supportive, and I can’t wait to share next steps when we’ve solidified an idea.
We look forward to hearing about that soon! What role has CVC played in your journey thus far?
CVC has been there since the beginning for VFA: from early supporters and board members — Mark Davis and Alison Lindland were our first cheerleaders who came knocking on our door in 2011 — to events that helped us build awareness and recruit Fellows. Being a part of CVC has been inspiring for me personally, and I continue to be impressed with how active and supportive the community it is.
Thank you so much for sharing with the community Eileen, best of luck to you in your future ventures!