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VFA Training Camp: Week 1

Where you work and hang with your 120+ new friends.

Four months ago I received my offer letter from Venture for America. One month ago I received my job placement at The Indigo Project in Boulder. This week I finally moved past the planning phase and into action: training camp finally arrived. I'm in Providence, the journey has begun, and I finally got my VFA website headshot. Success.

Part of the VFA experience is five weeks of intensive training located at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island—it creates a baseline standard for all the VFA fellows who are about to go out and start working at startup companies across the nation. The picture above makes it look like all fun and games, but make no mistake—I put in about 60 hours of work this week. The pace is fast, and the work load is heavy.

A few opening words from U.S. Senator Whitehouse.
E.Q./Diversity Training from Dr. Jarik Conrad.

Here is what a typical week at camp looks like: Monday, we receive a team challenge. The rest of the week VFA brings in trainers and speakers that teach either A) skills directly related to the challenge or B) general skills they want all fellows to possess. Then the week ends with presentations as teams compete to be the best at whatever the challenge is. Then they debrief, recoup, and prep to do it all over again the next week.

That meant that this week when teams received the challenge to re-brand, re-design and create a fully functional website for a startup company, VFA brought in UI/UX trainers from American Design Institute, back-end/front-end coding workshops from Flatiron Coding and Wordpress/Squarespace training from Compass. All this in addition to emotional and diversity training, meeting 120 new people, and exploring the hiking trails in Providence means work is heavy and sleep is light.

This is the front page of the website that we built for a pasta alternative company called Banza. Not bad for only 92 hours between the project starting and the final presentation.

The VFA experience is hard to describe. Everyone comes off as a top 5% performer from their respective schools: achievement, hustle and ambition runs thick. But there’s also a strong sense of quirk here—like top 1% level of quirk. Everyone has their own brand of crazy in VFA, and when coupled with so much raw intelligence it means the room is always alive.

My fellow Fellows roll in the quirkiness.

It really is hard to concisely describe the students in the room. They all came to a similar conclusion—entrepreneurship is a more fulfilling path than a corporate road—but they all came to it by a different route. Some are Ivy League graduates who burned out on the idea of consulting and investment banking. Some are first generation Americans who are looking to make their impact on the nation. Some people majored in liberal arts and never thought they would have their hands dirtied by the filthy wheels of commerce. But here we all are.

It is a group of young people quite unlike anything I have seen. Bilinguals are common. Multi-year business owners are common. Casual conversation is focused around wild topics spanning from the economic development of the oil and gas industry in Iraq to why Trello boards are the solution for all organizational issues in and outside the world of coding. Everyone here is used to being a top player in their schools, and now they have been aggregated into one building.

And it’s intimidating.

When you are sitting between two Ivy League students who are casually talking about their internships at Goldman Sachs and mutual friends that went to Bain, there is very little common ground to share with an Oklahoman from a state school. People sometimes openly react to my liberal usage of the word “Y’all" (Particularly if I deliver a double hitter with "All y'all"). But the people are still generally good and are interested in who you are and from where you came. It works. It’s intimidating, but it works.

All spare time left between late night meetings and long hours of camp is spent running, hiking and exploring any and all areas of Providence possible. From the state capitol to downtown, hiking trails and freaking Brown University, the northeast has a lot to see that is new. I’ve never been this far north in my life, and I fully intend to hunt out the local and nearby attractions.

What did I learn in week 1? I learned the basics of coding and everything I need to know about Squarespace. I learned a few new, really interesting ways to approach the diversity and E.Q. conversation at work. Most importantly, I learned how to work with wildly smart and wildly quirky people.

It’s already been an intellectual and emotional roller coaster of meeting fascinating people, going through a crazy accelerated website project, and being inundated in a culture where startups are the norm—but this is only week 1. With a month left, who knows how things will develop before the end?

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