By Mike Tomberlin
For the second time in three years, Birmingham played host to the regional job fair that matches Venture for America (VFA) fellows with startup and innovation companies.
Innovation Depot was the site of the event April 5, which has more in common with speed dating than a job fair.
“We have 30 different Venture for America fellows from our incoming class of 2019 here today,” VFA CEO Amy Nelson said. “They’ve come from all across the country – Stanford, Princeton – but also Tuscaloosa, and they’re interviewing with companies who want to bring them on to help grow their teams.”
Companies looking to hire VFA fellows had only a few minutes to conduct interviews.
“Today they are ‘speed-dating,’” Nelson said. “We’ve got 20-minute interviews, eight interview slots, so they are going around trying to put their best foot forward.”
VFA fellows have been putting their best feet forward in Birmingham since the program brought its fellowships to the Magic City four years ago. Innovation Depot hosted the job fair in 2017 and has become a favorite spot on the New York-based organization’s rotation.
“We came here to Birmingham about four years ago and since then have more than doubled the size of the classes that we’ve brought to Birmingham,” said Abby Guerin, Birmingham director of VFA.
Although the talented fellows come for the fellowship, many decide to stay and continue to work in cities like Birmingham.
“We’ve brought about 50 fellows to Birmingham since 2015 and we’re really excited that some of those fellows in their very first class are still here building the companies where they started,” Nelson said. “Michael Harrison joined Fleetio – he’s still there. Landon Acriche joined the Innovation Team at Alabama Power – still there. Maggie Belshé is still working at Pack Health but also building her own business on the side that’s going through the Velocity Accelerator.”
Nelson said that’s how the fellowship program was meant to work.
“It’s exactly what we want to see,” she said. “We want to see fellows digging deeper into the cities – building careers here, building lives here, buying houses here, getting married here and then starting businesses and becoming those engines for job creation and growth and economic resiliency that we so deeply need across our country.”
Two of the VFA fellows from last year’s class are digging in to Birmingham’s innovation economy.
Reagan Cline is a product analyst at Fleetio and Daisy Homolka is a business analyst at the Alabama Capital Network. Both are 2018 VFA Fellows.
Cline is a Birmingham native and saw VFA as an opportunity to return to her hometown and get involved in the startup community.
“It was a great opportunity to connect with people who are just excited about what they’re doing,” she said.
Homolka found VFA and Birmingham by Googling cool places for a young person to work. She moved to Birmingham from New York for her VFA fellowship.
“It provided me that opportunity to move to a great city like Birmingham that I maybe wouldn’t have thought of otherwise and the opportunity to connect with some really awesome organizations and startups here,” Homolka said. “I was very sold on Birmingham after just two days here.”
Cline and Homolka said their fellowships with their companies give them a front-row seat to the growing innovation economy in Birmingham.
“I work at Fleetio and it’s been rapidly growing since I started about eight months ago,” Cline said. “We’re just one of the many companies in the city that’s just growing and rapidly expanding now.”
Homolka’s job puts her in direct contact with entrepreneurs.
“We work with startups and helping them with their investments, mentorships, customer acquisition, so I really get to see the whole range of the companies we have available,” she said. “We meet a new startup at least once a week, sometimes two or three a week. You might think, ‘How can there be that many new companies?’ but there are. It’s awesome to really see it growing.”
That energy is what brought Guerin back to Birmingham after being away for several years.
“Fellows are incredibly surprised and excited by the amount of innovation that we have here and the creative folks that we have here,” she said. “The opportunities are impressive.”
Nelson said she has certainly noticed that something special is happening in Birmingham’s innovation economy.
“One of the things that I’m always heartened by in Birmingham is that everyone here is rowing together – whether it’s the corporate, civic and government, nonprofit community and the for-profit business startup, large and small – you see that everyone is super-invested in the same set of priorities,” she said. “They want capital, they want talent, they want innovation and they want it to be home-grown right here in Birmingham because they know that in order to be competitive and resilient in the future, there has to be investment now.”
Guerin noted the buy-in is across the spectrum in Birmingham.
“I think for Birmingham we have so many companies like Alabama Power, Protective Life, Regions that are cornerstones and they have all come to the table and said, ‘We want to help grow this innovation economy here,’” Guerin said.
Charlotte, St. Louis, New Orleans and Birmingham companies were among those participating in the VFA job fair at Innovation Depot. The VFA gets more than 2,500 applications for the 200 fellowships each year.
Devon Laney, CEO of Innovation Depot, said it’s a feather in Birmingham’s cap to host the VFA event.
“Venture for America is such an important opportunity for Birmingham, for our community to bring in great, young talent – to have them come in and be immersed in our community of startups, work with our startups and some of our best companies,” he said. “It provides a real talent pipeline. I’m thrilled Birmingham can play host and that Innovation Depot can be a part of it.”
To have some of the best and brightest young people experience the best of Birmingham’s business community can open some eyes, Laney said.
“It’s a fantastic image enhancement for the city,” Laney said. “What it does is it really changes a lot of people’s perceptions about the city when they come to Innovation Depot, they come to see all of the young startups, the energy, the vibrancy.”
Like Nelson, Laney said he knows something special is happening in Birmingham and it’s helping lure young talent here.
“What we’ve realized is if we can change that perception to get those young people here, they will stay.”
This story originally appeared on the Alabama NewsCenter website.