From Columbia Law School graduate to CEO of Manhattan GMAT to founder of a nonprofit organization—none other than Venture for America—Andrew Yang made a profession out of exploring the ways we can impact a world of changes and opportunities. Yang has set the ambitious goal of creating 100,000 new U.S. jobs by sending top college graduates (ahem, Columbz) to work at startups for two years so that they grow as entrepreneurs themselves. He was named a Champion of Change by the White House in 2011. QUIYUN TAN sat down with Andrew Yang to hear his thoughts on having an impact and making career choices.
First published on The Eye.
Part of the vision of Venture for America is “to restore the culture of achievement to include value-creation, risk and reward, and the common good.” You used the word “restore.” Is there any specific time in history that you are referring to?
It’s a good question. What I think of is this American frontier mentality that pervaded the ethos of the nation throughout the entire westward expansion of the 19th century, and possibly 20th, where what you accomplished was very concrete and direct—that you were to go and lay claim to a piece of land and make it productive, and you’d enjoy the rewards. To use myself as an example, I graduated from Columbia Law School when I was 24 years old and I went to work at a large corporate law firm, and they paid me what seemed at that time a good deal of money and I had done virtually nothing to deserve that money except from get good grades and go to a good school. So there’s a disconnect between my rewards and what I had built to deserve them.
So we are looking to reintroduce the values of risk and reward, where you take a risk and accomplish something and you should be rewarded. But if you are simply embedding yourself in a large organization that has very high streams of revenue and trying to get yourself a share of that, that may not be an ideal way to construct a vision for our top students at a place like Columbia.
Do you think founding a startup right after you graduate is the best time to do so?
We have a belief that starting a business is very, very difficult and that most seniors in college—even people at any point of their career—would be hard-pressed to succeed. So the question is, if that’s your goal, how do you equip yourself with the skills and network and operational experience to be able to reach that goal?… In our view, the best way to learn that is to be inside a company that was recently founded and is looking to grow, and you will see what that entrepreneur is doing to help the company succeed.
What do you think drives innovation today?
I think the main thing that drives innovation is human intellectual capital—that if you have brilliant people, working on solving a problem, innovation will resolve it. And you can see that really in any industry where a critical mass of talent has dedicated itself. Historically, it was Detroit, and it was Silicon Valley, and Wall Street—and wherever you gather enough smart people together, you will see innovation as a result.
People generally think of financial capital as the magnet for human capital. In other words, if we pay the most, we will get the smartest people. But the same works in reverse, where if you get the smartest people, the money actually follows them. It’s something that some smart people don’t realize. The money will follow you if you build something of value.
Looking back on your path, what was your largest takeaway from an Ivy League education? What do you think you did not learn?
I think in the best of cases, an Ivy League education makes you genuinely intellectually curious, and adaptable, and willing to push yourself. What I didn’t learn was that most enterprise building is much closer to team sports rather than school. School is essentially a solitary endeavor most of the time—taking a test, writing your paper, and doing your thing. Meanwhile, most businesses involve all the people, involve working together, and interacting, and sometimes persuading and evaluating other people’s strengths and weaknesses, and figuring out how they can work as a team to achieve a goal.
What are your plans for Venture for America in the future?
Our long-term vision is that we become one of the default paths for top college graduates, where it’s as likely and attractive for a young person to say, “I want to learn how to build a business” as it is to say, “I want to learn to become a doctor or management consultant.”
What skill sets do you think are critical for young people to gain today?
I think that building often requires a balance between contact with others and some degree of solitude. To use an allegory of Plato’s cave—which I’m sure all Columbia students remember—sometimes you have to go into the cave and then come out with something you built or found or drew or something along those lines. Often that process is somewhat isolating. I have a sense that the external might come more naturally in this generation because of social media and constant inputs—and sometimes the deepest thoughts are hidden when you aren’t being constantly stimulated.
What was your childhood dream? Where did you see yourself?
I had a series of childhood dreams—none of them involved what I’m doing now. I wanted to be a secret agent at one point. This is going to sound kind of funny, but I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and played a lot of video games as a kid. And the things that I enjoyed were always trying to make something better, like, in a game like Civilization where you put things in place and then you go to an open field to a big set of structures. There was a point in time that I realized that it’s not ideal to be in an imaginary or digital world building things, and in the real world doing something completely dissimilar. It’s an ideal world where you’re actually building in a real world. As soon as I figured this out, I haven’t had time for playing video games.