Venture for America Made This Young Easterner a Detroit Believer

A mockup of an Accio EHD Generator in the field.

A mockup of an Accio EHD Generator in the field.

I found my future on Twitter.

Two weeks into a summer research internship in Singapore that I had already lost interest in, I saw the tweet that would change my life. It linked me to an article describing the kickoff event for Venture For America, a new program dedicated to placing top college graduates in startups in economically troubled cities. I knew right away what I would be doing with my first two post-collegiate years.

The application process started with a written submission followed by a phone interview, and culminated in a day of group and individual interviews by VFA board members and staff. After a few tense days, VFA founder and CEO Andrew Yang called me with an offer.

Over the next few months, VFA arranged interviews for me with several companies. I ended up with a job at Accio Energy, a wind power company in Southeast Michigan. Accio’s bladeless generator uses electrohydrodynamics (EHD) to harness the power of the wind, much in the way a thunderstorm generates lightning. The system sprays charged water droplets into the wind, which carries the droplets away. The separation of charge creates a voltage difference, which results in power generation. (Watch Accio’s CTO explain the technology in this talk from TEDxDetroit 2009.) The focus of the entire nine-person company is on research and development of the EHD generator. All but the CEO have at least one degree in physics or engineering. My job involves computer modeling of virtual prototypes, which allows us to quickly iterate over many possible designs.

At work, the benefits of VFA have been twofold. First, I would not have found my current position. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine the technology behind my company, let alone the job I have there. I also have much more latitude than a typical engineering hire; my supervisor is the COO/CFO, not the CTO, so I see all aspects of the company on a daily basis.

Second, I would not have moved to Detroit. As a Massachusetts native and Brown alum with no connections outside of the Northeast and California, my pre-VFA career path led nowhere near the Midwest, let alone a city like Detroit. Now that I’m here, I have trouble imagining how I could lead the same life anywhere else. Opportunities abound for people who want to commit themselves to the future of the city.

As a staunch urbanist, I find Detroit the ideal setting for my words to become deeds. One way I’m joining the Detroit renaissance is through Rebirth Realty, an initiative I co-founded with two other VFA Fellows. Rebirth Realty will acquire and restore a house in Detroit for future Fellows to live in. We plan to purchase a foreclosed, abandoned house in the tax auction, then spend the next year or two revitalizing the property. Rebirth Realty will strengthen the community with stable, responsible tenants, while creating a shared space for VFA classes to come.

Rebirth Realty isn’t alone in its efforts. The spirit of renewal penetrates every sector of society here, appearing daily in the lives of Detroit residents. Areas like Downtown, Midtown, Corktown, Lafayette Park, and Woodbridge are filling up with young new residents. Organizations like Detroit SOUP, Midtown Detroit Inc, and D:hive are practically mass manufacturing committed citizens. Big companies like Compuware and Quicken Loans have brought their workforces into the city, while startups like the ones hosting VFA Fellows are creating a new class of entrepreneurs. The municipal government may be bankrupt, but many citizens across the rest of the city are firing on all cylinders to bring Detroit back.

I have now completed half of my VFA tenure. Though my VFA Detroit fellowship will conclude in August 2014, I plan to stay. Startups are inherently unpredictable, but I hope to retain my post for the indefinite future. Rebirth Realty has only just begun its work, which might expand to new houses in new communities around the city. Whatever happens to me, VFA will be here, helping to push the Detroit renaissance to great heights. The city’s 200-year-old motto is as apt today as when it was rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1805: “speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,” or, “We hope for better things; It will rise from the ashes.”

Venture for America CEO Andrew Yang will speak at the Sept. 17 Techonomy Detroit event.

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