The Next Generation of VFA
Today is my last day as CEO of Venture for America. I will be succeeded by Amy Nelson, my colleague and partner for the past several years. I’m sure she will take VFA to new heights.
This is the second time I’ve stepped down as the CEO of a company. The first time, I thought that people would miss me. They didn’t. But I felt grave pressure to achieve something and make my departure count. I left a great job and felt like I should only do so if I did something meaningful.
That was in 2011 when I left my education company to start Venture for America. My goal was to enlist hundreds of talented young builders to become entrepreneurs and leaders in growth companies to create new jobs and opportunities around the country.
If you had told me then what the next six years would hold, I wouldn’t have believed you. In the last six years, I’ve visited and worked in each of Venture for America’s eighteen cities, the vast majority of which I’d never been to before. I’ve seen businesses that employ dozens of people and touch thousands of lives started by young entrepreneurs that I’d recruited out of college just a few years before. I’ve seen hundreds of idealistic, mission-driven college graduates evolve into managers, leaders and founders and most importantly stronger, kinder human beings. I became the head of a community that believed in the power of amazing people to change the country and world for the better.
Venture for America has grown beyond anything I could have imagined. And I’ve grown with it.
There have been fun and frivolous experiences too. Speaking on a panel with Will.i.am and Rosario Dawson moderated by Tom Brokaw. Introducing my wife to President Obama at the White House. Attending the movie premiere of the documentary ‘Generation Startup’ about VFA Fellows in Detroit and getting an IMDB credit for playing myself. Standing in line with the cast of Silicon Valley at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit — Ehrlich is a tool in real life too it turns out. The most fun has been becoming friends with people I’d admired from afar only to find that some of them shine in private well beyond their stellar public reputations.
Venture for America has been the mission of my life and the high point of my career. It has made it easier to travel away from my two young children — I believe in my work so strongly. It has transformed my personal life and my sense of place in the world.
And yet, I have to admit that stepping away feels like the right thing.
It feels right because the organization is in such good hands with Amy, whom I’d urge you to follow and read about. She has an incredible background — from a small town outside St. Louis, high school valedictorian, first in her family to go to college, brother in the air force, single mother as a 22-year old, fundraising executive, MBA graduate, wife, mother and leader. She has been the day-to-day head of Venture for America these past months and will make the organization even better and stronger, in part because she lives the mission.
It feels right because the people I’ve met and become friends and allies with will continue to be the people I work alongside in the times ahead. I am changing roles, not planets. There is still much work to do and no better group to do it with.
It feels right because Venture for America is about personal evolution and growth. It’s about tackling the biggest thing that you care deeply about and trying to make it better. The problems I set out to address with Venture for America — regional inequities, a lack of dynamism and entrepreneurship, a need for optimistic high-character builders and new opportunities — are still there. If anything, these issues will only grow with the oncoming automation wave. I find myself so emboldened by VFA’s success that I am doubling down on finding more solutions to problems that seem destined to grow more daunting over time.
Leadership can mean many things. Sometimes it means stepping aside and letting the next generation go to work.
Thank you for your friendship and support. Please do continue to rally around Amy, Venture for America and our Fellows. We must ensure that the mission of Venture for America rings through the ages. A dedicated group of the right people can indeed change the world. I’ve lived it and been the beneficiary of this truth. Making this true for as many people as possible is our best hope for the future.