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December 20, 2014

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Venture for America fellows are working to make their new home a better place

Hsieh, Downtown Project pledge $1 million to the group, which places college graduates with startup businesses

Here’s the weird part of Josh Levine’s first three months into his two-year stint in Las Vegas as a fellow from Venture for America, a group that places new college graduates with startup businesses in cities not used to the startup trend.

Levine likes it here.

He likes it so much that when the 23-year-old is done with his stint working on health issues for the Downtown Project, the Wesleyan University graduate actually wants to stay here.

“I went home for Thanksgiving (to New Haven, Conn.) and found myself a little homesick for Las Vegas,” Levine says. “I never would have expected that. It’s surprising to me.”

More surprising is that Laura Berk, 22, another one of the seven Venture for America fellows hired by the Downtown Project a few months ago, feels much the same.

“I’d like to stay” when her two years is up, said Berk, who is working with the Vegas Tech Fund, a venture capital group set up by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh and others. “Every day, every week here is different.”

Levine and Berk might not know it, but that’s what Hsieh had hoped for all along. Ultimately, he wants these young, smart “kids” brought to Las Vegas through programs such as Venture for America and Teach for America (Hsieh pledged $1.5 million in 2011) to stay long after they’ve completed their respective two-year obligations.

To that end, Hsieh announced this morning that he and the Downtown Project are pledging $1 million to Venture for America, a Peace Corps-like group. Over the next five years, Venture for America plans to send at least 100 college graduates to Las Vegas to support the Downtown Project.

On Friday night, Hsieh was sitting in the back of a double-wide trailer set up as a sort of speakers bureau — another Downtown Project venture that will expand in the coming year — at Seventh and Fremont streets. A former Las Vegan, Kevin Rose, now working for Google Ventures, was addressing a packed house.

Hsieh said the $1 million pledge wasn’t a difficult decision to make.

“They have far exceeded anything we expected from them,” he said of the seven Venture for America fellows who live and work in Las Vegas now.

Andrew Yang, founder and president of Venture for America, which is just more than a year old, called Las Vegas “among the very best” of the numerous cities with Venture for America operations.

“They’re doing great things here,” he said through a press release. “We are looking forward to working with Downtown Project for years to come.”

Jeanne Markel, Zappos’ Downtown Team director, said this “small test” of seven college graduates “really surprised us.”

“It’s been amazing working with them, they are living here, they work hard, they are civic-minded — these are kids who were involved in community long before coming to Las Vegas,” she said.

Berk, who graduated in economics from Williams College, said part of her job is to interview people representing businesses that the Vegas Tech Fund might invest with. Part of the Vegas Tech Fund’s mission is to find companies who have the civic-mindedness that Hsieh used to help build Zappos into a $2 billion company.

“We bring them here, see if they ‘get it,’ see if they are cultural and community fits,” Berk said.

She speaks with the ebullience of a college graduate in a new job but levels it with a perspective that shows she, too, "gets it” and sees the whole picture that is hopefully coming into view.

“Tony says, ‘downtown Vegas makes you smarter,” said Berk, noting that’s the ultimate goal of the Downtown Project. “It feels like that’s what’s happening.”

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  1. Venture for America is an amazing program that needs to be massively expanded.

    Teach for America is an ideologically based organization that ignores poverty as a controlling factor in student success, pushes for-profit education "reforms" that data proves don't work, and is almost exclusively funded by organizations that either get rich from privatizing education or are anti-tax crusaders. If Hsieh doesn't ultimately regret funding them then the rest of us will.