How Venture for America plans to bring more entrepreneurs to Pittsburgh

Meet two fellows who went on to start their own companies here.

Revival Chili's founder, Jordan Robarge is a VFA alumnus.

Revival Chili's founder, Jordan Robarge is a VFA alumnus.

Revival Chili / facebook
MJ Slaby

Updated, 12:16 p.m. Nov. 2

An organization that places college grads in fellowships at startups, is hoping to grow its program in Pittsburgh.

Venture for America recruits college graduates interested in entrepreneurship from across the country. Fellows attend training camp and then work for two years at companies in nearly 20 cities where the startup community is growing. VFA provides resources such as funding, an accelerator program and more, so that when fellows are ready, they can launch their own startup, too.

The program arrived in Pittsburgh in 2015 and currently has 17 fellows and alumni in here, including two who created their own companies, per VFA.

The goal is to send 10 to 15 new fellows to Pittsburgh next year and to hire a local hire a community director, said Leandra Elberger, VFA director of communications and events.

VFA encourages recent college grads, graduating students or those a year or two into careers or graduate school to apply for fellowships. Apply to be a fellow by Nov. 27. VFA will start looking for startups that want to hire fellows in early 2018.

The Incline spoke with the two Pittsburgh VFA entrepreneurs about their experience, the city and what’s next for their companies.

‘An AI hub’

Bill Su is still new to Pittsburgh. He’s been in the city just under two months after deciding to move here to launch his startup.

Humanlytics helps companies interpret digital marketing data with AI, making it a cheaper alternative for companies looking to outsource that work, Su said.

“And Pittsburgh is known as an AI hub,” he said, adding that the top AI work and discussions are happening in the city. “I feel like Pittsburgh elevates my own thinking about my product.”

For his VFA fellowship, Su worked at a company similar to his called DigitalC in Cleveland, but he decided to leave early and take the leap into his own company with Patrick Han, another VFA fellow.

Su met Han at VFA’s training camp before he went to Cleveland, and Han went to Philadelphia, where he still is, for their fellowships. They are currently testing Humanlytics and planning its launch, Su said.

In addition to his co-founder, Su said many of his most important connections and his mentors came from the VFA network. And he plans to help expand that network by hiring at least one VFA fellow next year.

Su said he’s thought about the idea for Humanlytics since he was a student at the University of Virginia.  As he studied data science, he said he learned that a majority of data is controlled by larger companies. And he wanted to make data and analytics more accessible to small companies who didn’t have a data scientist on staff and couldn’t afford to hire or contract one.

“We know the challenge exists and that our solution can solve it,” Su said.

Chili innovation

Jordan Robarge started catering events with chili after graduating college — including one of his biggest gigs for 150 people at VFA training camp.

After training camp, he came to Pittsburgh to do his fellowship at then-Thrill Mill, now Ascender, working on Thrival Innovation + Music Festival. Through his fellowship, he learned about Zero Six Eight, which promotes employment and entrepreneurship of ex-convicts.

Helping people who were incarcerated get jobs and re-enter the workforce is something Robarge said he wanted to do, so he combined that with his love for chili to create Revival Chili. His company hires ex-convicts to work in the food truck before employees to move on and start their own businesses, whether it’s food-related or not.

So like Su, Robarge, also a University of Virginia graduate, decided it was time to jump and left his company early. He said help from VFA was essential.

When he found himself without a partner for funding, Robarge said he wondered if it still made sense. But VFA had a pitch competition for fellows starting social enterprises, so he entered and won money. That, along with fundraising, was enough to get started.

“VFA was the main reason I was able to find all the money,” he said.

Now, he relies on VFA’s entrepreneur in residence, Sergei Revzin, to talk out his vision. As the sole founder of Revival Chili, Robarge said he has a high-level plan for the company, but talks with Revzin to figure out how to get there.

Robarge stayed in Pittsburgh, because of the people, adding that he has “amazing conversations” with people in the tech and restaurant businesses, but also with most people he meets. And that welcome made him want to stay after his fellowship.

“I, along with most yinzers, think that Pittsburgh is on the up and up,” Robarge said.