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San Antonio CEOs Rally Support For Entrepreneurship Program

Paul Flahive
Filled to the brim, latecomers look on VFA presentation from outside.

Over a breakfast of chilaquiles, black beans and potatoes a few local corporate executives tried to rally support for a program that places top young talent in their startups. 

More than 50 CEOs attended theVenture For America breakfast Friday at a restaurant near downtown to recruit new companies to get more recent graduates placed in San Antonio.

But like a timeshare pitch, there’s no such thing as a free meal.

After a testimonial from a local coding school, Conor Chamness a current VFA fellow talked about his time with Dura Software. He’s been working with the company as part of his two-year commitment to the program. 

“We want to come help build big, impactful companies,” said Chamness. “There are 9-10 fellows in this room… all nine of us hold a leadership position in companies that we didn’t have when we started.”  

He described the top flight, pre-vetted talent and made the case that this was a no-brainer for the companies. 

VFA is sort of like “Teach for America” except instead of teaching, new graduates who are interested in entrepreneurship will work in small startup companies. The starting wage is $45,000.

For nearly six years San Antonio has been one of VFA’s 14 cities.

If you think you’ve heard of VFA, it’s probably because its founder, Andrew Yang, is running for president. 

“I spent seven years starting and running a nonprofit that helped train young entrepreneurs around the country, including Sean Wen whose here in the audience tonight who left his gilded wall street job to become a food entrepreneur in San Antonio,” he said at the September presidential debate.

VFA fellows like the namechecked Wen are what organizers on Friday want, high performers who can help a San Antonio company thrive and even start their own business.

“This is such an unfair advantage, if you take advantage of if the right way. You can get such good talent from all over the country,” said Michael Girdley, who runs Dura Software and helped organize the breakfast.

Girdley and others wanted to enlist at least 20 local CEOs to commit to taking a fellow. If San Antonio lands 20 fellows, VFA will give them a community director bolstering the program.

“It would help us beat Birmingham, Alabama . It’s embarrassing that Birmingham hires more of these folks than we do. Secondly, these are exactly the type of folks we want to be recruiting into San Antonio.”

Andre Gomes watched the presentation from outside, near the serving line. He had just finished a second serving of bacon and is currently in his second year as a fellow with Go Smart Solar. 

His bosses love him. They said he basically designed their entire software backend. 

And he loves working with a startup like them because the freedom. He can try new things in software as well try out other things at Go Smart Solar, like tell its story through social media, something he didn’t think he could do at a big company.

“You know I wouldn’t have the option to do that — they would be like ‘Yo, that’s another whole department right there.'”

Credit Venture For America
Philosophy major turned software developer, Andre Gomes makes likes the variety of opportunities in startups.

Gomes said he would stay past his fellowship, but wasn’t sure if he would be here long-term. And that is the plan for many of these tech startup guys, to build more capacity in the city. A rising tide, etc. 

San Antonio has seen 30 fellows come to the city. According to Chamness around two-thirds are still here, but that includes current fellows. The more that stay and start their own companies, the more likely that the city reaches critical mass. 

“I think if people have family ties elsewhere…if they moved without any preexisting ties to San Antonio or Texas, it becomes hard,” said Emily Bowe, former VFA fellow, about why people move on. 

Bowe was involved in the first San Antonio VFA class. She stayed in the city for five years, helped start Tech Bloc — the industry advocacy organization. She also worked at a web company and then an architecture firm. She and nearly all her contemporaries moved on. She is currently in a graduate program in New York. 

“I started my company here so I am in San Antonio for the long haul,” said Bethany Stachenfeld, co-founder of Sendspark. 

The company made it easy for businesses to get and use video testimonials from clients. One reason she came and stayed was because San Antonio is a young tech sector she said she could make an impact in.

“It was an opportunity to not just be a part of a company but be part of a city’s development and an early ecosystem,” she said.

Yousef Kassim is considering making the commitment. His company Easy Expunctions helps people clean up their legal record. The young CEO is attracted to the “high-quality” VFA candidates to grow his 5-year-old company.

“As an early stage company, you want to find good utility players,” he said “People who have a technical background. People who can improve our customer experience.”

He wouldn’t mind accessing what some people at the breakfast called a secret weapon.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org