My VFA Experience — Yitaek
It seems that the spotlight on entrepreneurship nowadays almost compels people to have this newfound conviction or aspiration to join the startup world. I would be lying if I were to say that I knew I was destined to join a startup. My plan initially, like most incoming Duke engineers, was to study biomedical engineering and perhaps pursue a graduate degree in engineering. Perhaps I am just riding the fad of the era — stem cells of the early 2010s to now IoT in the mid 2010s — but Venture for America, or anything startup-related, was never part of my original plan.
My first encounter with entrepreneurship was rather unconventional. I was volunteering at a small hospital in Tanzania when an incoming Duke medical student contacted me for a potential partnership involving the use of 3D printers, as I was actively involved with the maker club on campus. After a couple of email exchanges, I gladly accepted a position with ViFlex, a social venture working to provide eyeglasses to more than 700 million people in developing countries without access to proper eye care. My focus and interest at the time, however, was more on the social impact, rather than the startup experience I would be getting. But as I became more involved, I increasingly grew enamored with the process of building a company as well as restoring vision to those who needed it.
My involvement with ViFlex did not directly translate to my interest in VFA. During my junior year, I had accepted a summer internship position at GE Healthcare and was considering high-tech companies in typical “Duke” cities (Silicon Valley, DC, New York, Seattle) after graduation. But at this point, I had no clue what I wanted to do. I was interested in medical devices, maker movement, computer architecture, and increasingly “entrepreneurship.” I wanted to get a taste of everything to figure out what I truly enjoyed doing and tentatively settled on working at a startup to be a Jack of All Trades. Then rather fortuitously I happened to walk by the VFA booth at a job fair as I was scouting out companies in Silicon Valley to apply for the year after and was intrigued by the concept. I didn’t consider myself the prototypical programmer in a hoodie working at Uber or AirBnB, and the fact that I would be with other likeminded fellows as I headed into the risky world of startups really appealed to me. So I applied at the end of my junior year and accepted the fellowship position, patiently awaiting for the match process to open up in March to start my career as a entrepreneur.
VFA Match Process
One thing that I wanted to emphasize in this section is that, as the name suggests, this is a match process: this means that it’s about finding a mutual fit. I want to share my experience with the process, and provide a fellow’s perspective to help bridge the gap between the Partner Companies, VFA, and the Fellows.
The first thing that the companies must understand is that everyone’s experience with VFA is extremely different. Some, like me, applied at the end of junior year, and had been preparing and waiting for nearly a year before the match portal opened up. Others only have a month or so, after deciding on VFA in January. Also, while I might be studying for finals and preparing for graduation, some fellows attending schools on the West Coast for example, may just be taking midterms. This means that the process will inevitably be different for everyone.
Stemming from this fact, while some of us may have the time to parse through 300+ opportunities on match, others might only have time to check out a couple of companies each week. This is not meant to be an excuse, but just as much as fellows must prepare to stand out, it can only benefit the companies to have a more complete profile and a working website or some link for more information. Lastly, this may be fixed next year, but currently the portal only highlights new opportunities, not new companies added or revised profiles. So to grab the fellow’s attention and to stand out amongst hundreds of companies, it will be best for the company to have an overall profile complete before the match portal opens and add opportunities as soon as possible. I can’t speak for every fellow, but I was more inclined to reach out to companies that listed opportunities, so I wouldn’t waste time applying to a company looking to fill a sales position when I was only interested in an engineering position.
Here are some other things that I appreciated:
- Personalization: I understand that everyone is busy, but a personalized message means so much more than a general one. It’s nice to know that the recruiter at least skimmed my resume past what I majored in. Also, before getting the offers, I appreciated the founders calling me to explain the offer and expectations instead of sending a cold-email through a third party service.
- Prompt and frequent engagement: Since the initial communication is handled by VFA, it’s confusing for the fellows when the companies don’t accept an invitation for a long time, accept an invitation but don’t reach out, or don’t reply to our messages without saying the company is either not interested or in a position to hire at the moment. A simple note or a general timeline given to the fellows help us stay engaged.
- Understanding that we are busy as well: As I mentioned before, some of us are finishing up our senior theses or design projects, studying for finals, and preparing our final goodbyes. While it’s important to get to know the team, I didn’t like having to repeat the same information over and over to other members of the team who hold similar roles as if I was starting the entire interview process over from the beginning. Also, for technical positions, I was personally discouraged from continuing with the process when given lengthy programming assignments that would take multiple days to finish.
- Reasonable expectations for making a decision: Again, since every fellow’s match experience differs significantly, it is hard to establish a reasonable timeline. I definitely appreciated the companies wanting to move the process along quickly. But more so than that, I appreciated the companies that allowed me to wait until after the VFA job fairs to not only explore my options, but to also ensure that the said company would be the best fit for me. Even if that is not possible, I didn’t appreciate companies trying to pressure me to make a decision within a couple of days. Most of the fellows took a huge leap of faith to join VFA, and we can definitely use at least a week to talk to our families and mentors before finalizing our decision.
- Equity: It’s not critical, but I believe it’s a matter of attitude. I want to work for a team who wants to make the pie bigger, not hold onto a bigger piece of the pie. Obviously, the amount of equity available will be dependent on the stage of the company, but considering that many of the VFA companies are in the early stage, I viewed this as a sign of commitment to its employees. Yes, VFA is only a two-year commitment, but I am more likely to stay if I have a higher stake in the company.
Why I chose Leverege
Going into the VFA Match process, my initial top choices were companies that either Duke alumni worked at or related to biomedical engineering/healthcare IT. As a new company partner, Leverege fits none of these descriptions, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the company profile and decided to send a connection request. Honestly, I didn’t even know what IoT stood for at the time. I had some experience with machine learning and big data, so I just thought IoT was something related — and cool.
Early in the match process, I was also reaching out to whatever company sounded interesting, regardless of field, role, location, or company size. However, as the process went on, I found myself needing to narrow down my search. After talking to many of my mentors whom I have met through ViFlex, I decided to focus on two things: the founder’s prior experience and team chemistry. I have been told over and over again that an A-level team with a B-level idea will always beat out a B-level team with an A-level idea. Using these criteria, I cut down my options to a handful of VFA companies with founders who have successfully built a company before and with the team that I envisioned myself working with happily.
Personally, I wanted to work at a laid-back yet productive company that reflects the culture that I was accustomed to at Duke. With no wrong choices to make, I focused on getting to know the team and see how I would get along. One of the things that I appreciated from Leverege was that they not only focused on getting to know my ability as a programmer, but also getting to know me as a person. We talked about my interests, hobbies, and my passion for Duke basketball, which helped me see these talented people as not only my co-workers, but also friends.
As much as VFA and the company partners were interviewing me, I conducted my own set of “interviews” to finalize my decision. I would find First Round Review or TechCrunch articles related to the industry of interest and ask the team members there what they thought about it. I wasn’t looking for a particular response, but I appreciated the depth of thought, prompt engagement, and the follow up questions to continue the conversation rather than stating what they thought.
At the end of the process, I had met a few of great companies en route to establishing an excellent company culture and many others who had yet had the time or resources to dedicate to it. Nonetheless, I appreciate the time and effort that all of the VFA company partners dedicated to learn more about me and explore our fit. While my experience is just one of many different ones amongst all the VFA fellows, I hope that my story helps both the future fellows and company partners to help make this chaotic process bit more manageable.