Interview with Jacob Eichengreen ’13 and Final VFA Deadline

2012-2013-venture-for-america-class

If you’ve missed your favorite late-night Espwesso barista, you’ll be happy to hear that he’s now making waves as a Venture for America Fellow in downtown Las Vegas. Since the final VFA deadline (Monday, March 24th) is approaching rapidly, Jacob Eichengreen ’13 agreed to an interview about his post-graduation experiences, and the takeaway is honest and encouraging: “Life after graduation is uncomfortable,” but there’s great personal and professional growth to be found in taking risks and embracing discomfort.

For more information on risk-taking and growth with VFA, contact Jacob at jacob.eichengreen[at]gmail[dot]com or the campus ambassador at scapron[at]wesleyan[dot]edu.

What sparked your interest in VFA and what led you to choose the fellowship over other options you had during your senior year?

I chose VFA early on. I did the second Selection Day and it was one of those things where the more I went through the process, the more I started focusing on VFA and the less I was focusing on everything else. Lauren Gill actually gave me a cold call at some point senior year and I was a huge jerk and hung up on her. She then emailed me and said that Josh Levine ’12 had put my name down as someone who would find the program interesting. We ended up having a good conversation and I said okay, I really respect Josh, let’s just see what happens. 

I went through the application and the questions were really interesting. Then in the phone interview I had a really good conversation, and when I ended up at Selection Day I was just so impressed with the other people and the way VFA handled itself. Everyone got a little one-on-one time with Andrew Yang. In every step of the process I was like, “this feels right, this feels definitely right.” It wasn’t one specific thing, like wanting to be an entrepreneur, but I really wanted to do this. The organization and the application experience is about figuring out how to solve problems and how to build the skills that you need to go do whatever it is that you want to do. Obviously the focus is entrepreneurship and that may or may not be where I end up, but from the beginning I just thought it was an awesome experience that would allow me to grow in a professional capacity and in a way I didn’t think I would be able to in another situation. Selection Day is probably the least comfortable day ever, and some of the most traumatizing moments in my professional career happened there. But that is also good, and there really are no smoke and mirrors to it; they put you in an uncomfortable situation and you figure out how to handle yourself. It’s pretty obvious what they’re doing there. It’s very genuine.

Could you talk a little about the work you’re doing with the Downtown Project and VegasTechFund?

I am actually transitioning from VegasTechFund to Project 100 right after my visit. VegasTechFund is the $50 million of the Downtown Project’s $350 million overhaul that has been put aside for investing in tech firms. Our piece of the Downtown Project mission is to really populate the community with tech firms and other entrepreneurs building upwardly mobile opportunities for community members. We’re trying to invest in the next climate of employees in the region, so it’s a mix of active recruitment efforts where we get in touch with teams that are a good fit and for whom we see a lot of opportunities in Vegas and help them move, and also facilitating the growth of local entrepreneurs. The easiest way to look at it is as a VC firm. We are an investment firm but our portfolio and our processes work very different than in most VC firms because, at the end of the day, we are really trying to catalyze the ecosystem of start-ups here in Vegas as opposed to just maximizing our bottom line.

What will you be doing with Project 100?

We are trying to redefine transportation in the city. In a place like New York City, you have so many transportation options available to you and you can take the appropriate one based on your type of trip. If you’re going somewhere, you can take the subway, you can take a bike, you can take a bus, you can walk, whatever is more appropriate for whatever you are going to do. But for a city like Las Vegas, you can take the car and that’s your only option.

This project will take car sharing to the next level by combining it with a livery service. The idea is that there will be a variety of different vehicles at your disposal, anything from a bike to a neighborhood electrical vehicle for trips to the store or other places where you would normally drive a car but don’t need really need one, and then full-size cars for when you actually do need one. They’ll all be stationed around the city where you can pick the car up, and eventually there will be a service where the car will be dropped off to you within five minutes. So it becomes this way of getting the benefits of a share fleet but with the efficiency of having the most appropriate vehicle options for you. Ultimately it’ll save you money and also be better for the planet. The real innovative piece is that the software is being built out to predict the route you’ll take and the vehicle that will be most appropriate.

What does a typical day look like for you?

If you had asked me that two months ago, I would have given you a completely different answer than now. I didn’t have an office and we actually worked out of a bar. It’s a bar that we own and it’s a really great bar / co-working hangout spot, but we now we have an office that has sterilized itself just a bit. We no longer have those spontaneous lunchtime bar escapades, but one of the best things about Vegas is flexibility. Most of us show up by nine, but you can sleep in if you really need to. One day I could spend the first couple of hours responding to emails. The number of emails in the professional world is too damn high! Then necessary things, phone calls and conversations, so I’ll spend time on the phone and running across town to meet with a team that’s visiting for awhile. After lunch I’ll spring back over to one of our workspaces, meet with a local team and talk through issues they’re having. Then more time on email and also planning our own company meeting called the Downtown Project Low Down that’s open to the public. It’s a mix between an internal meeting where we talk about things that are happening and what’s next on the table so that the staff knows, and then sort of a press conference so that the community knows what’s happening. From there on, it really depends, so many things can happen on a given day! I probably walk three miles from meeting to meeting and I talk to close to forty companies a week and get 200 emails a day. And then sometimes I still have time to go rock climbing, take a hike, read, and be a normal person.

How often do you interact or communicate with VFA colleagues in Las Vegas or in other cities?

All the time! The other day I walked down the street and passed a VegasTechFund team with three fellows and their managing partner. Now all three of those fellows are transitioning out of VegasTech Fund, but Project 100 is also funded by the Downtown project so we will work at the same office building; it really isn’t like moving to a different company. There are fourteen fellows downtown, and we all live in the same building more or less, so we see each other all the time. One of the downsides of entrepreneurship in general is how busy you stay and how important every single little thing seems. It is really hard to carve yourself out some free time to stay in touch with other people from other cities. So I’ve done an awful job of that, although some of the other folks have done a better job of that than I have.

In a couple weeks a few of the other fellows in Vegas have actually put together a conference for the CEO of the start-up and they managed somehow to get three billionaires to speak, which just blows my mind.  I don’t understand how they did that but it’s really cool. There will be about 60 fellows coming up for that, and the whole VFA team is coming in, so we do get to see them and stay in touch. We also have an active distribution list and there are always three or four emails from other fellows with various books that they have read or tips or some of the databases they have been using for various types of Point of Sale Software.

How have you felt about not being in places like New York, DC, and San Francisco, where many of your classmates likely went after graduation?

The specific culture of downtown Las Vegas is that there is a lot of surface level interaction. There are a lot of opportunities to go out to bars and events to get to know people, but it’s much harder to really get to know people and build those relationships that I valued at school. So the hard part has been being far away from everyone, but Vegas fortunately is super easy for people to visit, and at the end of the day, relationships that matter you end up keeping. Obviously it’s hard not getting to see them all the time, and being in an environment where work supersedes the social piece, the social piece sometimes ends up more superficial than genuine. But relationships take time to build and I’ve only been here for eight or nine months.

The reason I did this fellowship was for the fellowship experience. I saw that I would be at a place without as many people, but I’d be plugged into the VFA network and plugged into the local network and have really good solid friendships and relationships from doing that. It has also been a journey of discovery in the same way that going to Wesleyan was. I was the only one from my high school and from my hometown so I had a little bit of that experience before VFA and I knew the types of growth that would come with that, and they are really important types of growth. A big part of the decision to do this was that it would be a big step on my own and learning how to do that would be really as important from a personal growth standpoint as the types of skills I get are from a professional growth standpoint. It has been perfect for me, though it’s not for everyone. It’s hard.

What kinds of students would you encourage to apply to VFA?

In my ideal world, the kinds of people who should definitely apply – and I still feel this is true, regardless of technical skills – are the people who are just not satisfied with the way things are, whether that would be a job opportunity, whether that would be something in society or the economy. People who are really hungry to do things and solve problems. I don’t want to say “make a difference” – VFA doesn’t want to bill itself as a “social fellowship” because it really is about entrepreneurship – but it’s for the type of person who really wants to get things done and “break shit.” The type of person who wants to hit the ground running and not be held back by bureaucracy and not be held back by being a new employee in an established work force.

I don’t think someone motivated by money is going to go far in this fellowship because entrepreneurship is not really an avenue that is going to get you rich that quick. The number of people who get rich through entrepreneurship is obscenely small, although the people who get rich get obscenely rich. Building things is what really lights people’s fires at the fellowship and those are the people who can excel in an environment of taking a huge step from what you know and being in situations that are often uncomfortable.

Do you have any other advice for graduating seniors?

Just find the thing that feels right. Take the risk and if it’s wrong, you can always do something else. I think the friends I have who I have see the least satisfied with where they are right now are those who never took the risk, the ones with the well-paid jobs with an establish firm. That in itself is a learning experience, but take the risk. This is the time to do it. The older you get, the harder it is to lose what you have built, whether it will be your family or your savings account or something like that. But when you are young and don’t know any better, you might as well do something crazy or do certain things that are crazy because you can always go do another real career.