Recent College Grads Hope to Acquire Critical Skills in Detroit

Aug 7, 2012

A new program is offering talented college grads the chance to learn entrepreneurialism on the front lines. It also aims to help perk up job creation in some of America’s most economically challenged cities, including Detroit.

Decades of disintegration are wreaking a terrible toll in Michigan’s largest city. In Detroit, government and public school deficits are measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars.  The city’s on track to record around 300 murders this year.  Unemployment hovers near 10%.  Indeed, another of the city’s most persistent struggles is simply to keep its streetlights on. 

But out of the gloom, some people still see a ray of light, a way forward.

Twenty-three year old Jake L’Ecuyer is a recently-minted Michigan State University graduate.  With his new degree in economics, he’s confident he could be starting a job that pays, say, $50,000 a year.

“I could have gone into consulting or banking,” he explains. “I considered law school.  There are a lot of other positions that would have been a lot higher paying.”

Nonetheless, L’Ecuyer is revved about the $33,000 a year gig he starts this week.  The Troy native will be spending the next two years with RazCap—a venture capital start-up in Southfield.  He’ll be assessing the viability of business ideas from Detroit area entrepreneurs, as they search for critical seed money.  It’s front line experience in the real world of start-ups—invaluable for L’Ecuyer since starting his own company is a future goal.

“I really want to see about building a start-up from the ground up--creating revenue models, how to build a great product, how to do, you know, anything in that line,” he continues. “I’m going to be shown an entire world that I’m not familiar with.”

L’Ecuyer’s one of about a dozen recent college grads joining Detroit area start-ups.  RazCap itself opened its doors—uh, door—just a few weeks ago. L’Ecuyer’s job is due to a new initiative called Venture for America.  The program connects promising college graduates with fledgling firms that are short on capital but long on ambition. 

Jeff Smith is an executive at LEAP—the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. He knows Jake L’Ecuyer from “The Hatch”--the East Lansing business incubator for MSU students.  Smith believes these kinds of “experiential” opportunities offer more than conventional jobs for graduates with an entrepreneurial bent.  

“You’re getting to see how an entire organization comes together and starts to melt into what it’s going to be down the road,” he says. “And the learning that they will absorb is just exponential to what they would (learn) normally, if they were coming out and working for a traditional firm.”

L’Ecuyer and about 40 other VFA fellows from around the country are heading to jobs in economically troubled cities like New Orleans and Las Vegas. Jeff Smith feels the program will help participants understand a key feature of our economy—that amid wreckage, there are opportunities for renewal.

“When you have a forest fire, you have sprouts that spring up all over the place in that new growth,” he says. “It’s not like the infrastructure went away.  There’s buildings, there’s water, there’s sewer, there’s internet, there’s all the things you need to do to grow a company.  And the dividends are incredible because you’re talking about the decay being for so long that if you invest just a little, you can make a huge impact.”

Venture for America has an ambitious goal—to create 100,000 new jobs by 2025.  Founder/CEO Andrew Yang says it can be done because of how America’s tech sector has unfolded, with numerous smaller companies as opposed to fewer large ones.

“If you can imagine how many promising growth companies there are in Detroit and other cities around the country—if all of those companies got the talent that they needed to expand and be able to hire more and more people, that’s how we believe you can create 100,000 new jobs over the next 13 years,” he explains.

The way Jake L’Ecuyer sees it, Venture for America offers two energizing opportunities.  The first is to move closer to his own dream of business creation.  The second satisfies a selfless urge.

“It’s incredible to think that if you launch a successful company, you’re literally creating jobs for other people, creating opportunities for other people,” he says. “And that just sounds incredible to me.  It’s really what I want to do.”

Some say MSU-educated grads like L’Ecuyer enjoy an advantage given the school’s proximity to Detroit’s sometimes hidden opportunities.