How we “hacked” the VFA hiring process (pt. 1)

(Check out our Venture for America Experience)

For starters we did not “hack” anything, at least not in the general sense of the word. But we did use our skill set and understanding of the environment to optimize a strategy to achieve our goals. So that is why I use the term “hack”. Well, that and because it drives attention — which seems to have worked if you are reading this :)

In our last post, we spoke a bit about our VFA experience as a whole. This post (Part 1 of two parts) focuses on the overarching idea behind our hiring philosophy. Part 2 will talk about how we adapted that philosophy to the VFA hiring process to successfully hire four incredibly talented Fellows.


It is no secret how important a team is to a company’s success — but almost as important as the general make up of the team is the culture that team builds together. The first 10 team members of any company are the ones who truly shape the culture to attract and retain the next 50–100+ employees. So we knew that it was crucial to do our due diligence and make every effort to hire the right people who can mesh well together and set the company up for future growth.

When we approached the VFA hiring process, we took some time to think about the image we wanted to project to enable us to attract the kind of individual who would fit in with our team. At the end of that discussion, we came up with three main points, which have turned into our guiding principles for all hiring moving forward.

  1. Be yourself
  2. Be respectful/mindful
  3. Practice empathy

1. Be Yourself

The first point you would think is pretty straight forward, but it turns out this is not always the case. After speaking with Fellows about their experience interacting with us vs. other companies, one thing really stood out to them — from email and phone conversations to in-person meetings and on-site visits, we were the same. By that I mean our tone, personality, and “coolness” factor never changed regardless of the communication channel. (Yes, the term “cool” was used many times by Fellows in describing what they liked about speaking with us).

  1. We made sure our emails did not sound automated, instead we had personalized emails with mentions of their relevant experiences that made them good candidates for certain positions.
  2. We were very responsive to emails received from Fellows and made sure to talk to them in a friendly tone and not come off as terse or “corporate”.
  3. On phone interviews we were ourselves, friendly, easy going and inviting — knowing that each Fellow was probably anxious. We made it a point to explain what the conversation was going to be about and remind them to not be nervous.
  4. In-person meetings were much of the same. We sat around a conference table with the whole team, talked about the Fellow and what they cared about (personally and professionally), discussed the position and answered any questions they may have had — it was all very casual by design.

Practicing this is one thing, but hearing feedback from Fellows that echoed our approach was very important to us. If people responded to us being ourselves, being the people we are on a daily basis in/out of the office, then we should have no problem working together — and that is Step 1.

2. Be respectful/mindful

The second point is a no-brainer but, to our surprise, it is often overlooked. VFA Fellows, as soon-to-be graduates, are going through the final hectic days of their college careers while simultaneously working to secure a fellowship. That means they are pretty busy. As a company looking to bring on new talent, we needed to be mindful of that — otherwise it would be (and proved to be) a turn-off for Fellows. We didn’t want to overly complicate their lives while they were studying for finals or completing end of the year projects. They had already proven to be worthy of a Fellowship and we as a company needed to be mindful of that. That meant:

  1. Being flexible with scheduling interviews
  2. Not asking them to complete lengthy assignments to prove to us their skills — yes, we did give them problems to solve but we made sure the assignment was limited to an hour and gave them plenty of flexibility to complete it according to their schedule. In contrast, we heard through the grapevine that other companies doled out challenging problem sets that could monopolize an entire weekend to complete.
  3. Giving Fellows extended deadlines on accepting an offer so they can take their time and make an informed decision — giving them weeks vs. days to make a decision. You have to remember that the Fellows have a HUGE decision to make, rushing them through the process or making them feel as if the opportunity will be gone in 3 days if they don’t accept is ludicrous and unfair.
  4. Finally, realizing at the end of the day that we, as a company are just as lucky to have a Fellow select us as a Fellow would feel about a company selecting them.

3. Practice Empathy

This all leads me to our final point, which may be the most important. Empathy — I sometimes like to think of this as an underrated superpower because of how important and effective it can be. It is also key ingredient that many people/companies do not possess or practice.

Taking the time to really learn about potential hires and finding out what is important to them in their job choice and future careers really helped us relate to them. It provided the right context to create a mutually beneficial relationship and opportunity to work together. Too many companies fail to focus on it.

What a lot of people don’t understand about empathy is that it’s not just about being caring, but it’s also the ability to understand people on a higher level. — Gary Vaynerchuk

Learning about these recent graduates and understanding their situation, what they want to achieve in life (not just in a career), what motivates them, taking interest in the things they care about — and then building a culture that encourages and backs up that level of caring is something you cannot fake.

Whether you’re a salesperson, an operator, or a businessperson, if you can understand what the other person is thinking and what their goals are, you can reverse engineer those aims and map it back to your goals too. That knowledge sets you up to win. You’ll both win. — GV

These Fellows are bright. They will read right through you if you try to fake it. You have to be genuine. If it’s not in your DNA then you need to find a different way to connect (you can start by learning that listening is a key driver in being able to be empathetic — so start there). Lucky for us it’s what we believe in and practice every day — and it is what I truly believe was (and will continue to be) an important ingredient in our on-boarding process.

So I hope by sharing the ideas behind our hiring philosophy you will realize how important it is to set up a process where “you’ll both win.” Because at the end of the day, that is the ultimate goal and the only way to create a culture people want to be a part of.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of “How we hacked the VFA Hiring Process”)


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