Amy Nelson

Chief Executive Officer, Venture For America

How old is your organization? Eight years
What sector do you work in? Entrepreneurship & Economic Development
How long have you been working in this sector? 13 years
How long have you been with your current organization? Six years

If you have worked with CRE in some capacity, what impact did it have?
CRE led our Strategic Planning process, which was hugely meaningful for our organization. After six years of rapid growth, Venture For America had expanded into a large number of geographies and programs. Working with CRE helped us focus in on our core competencies in order to achieve greater impact. We use these strategic priorities to center ourselves on a daily basis.

What has been the most significant development in your sector over the last 40 years?
The cost to start a tech company has reduced dramatically, and more and more people are finishing college. This should lower the barriers to entrepreneurship in the long-term. We have all of the raw ingredients that we need to build a new generation of entrepreneurs and job creators.

What has been the greatest challenge during this same period?
Entrepreneurship is experiencing a 40-year low right now. Millennials are on track to be the least entrepreneurial generation in modern American history. It has become increasingly more difficult for people to access capital and markets in order to build businesses. Student debt is the number one most cited reason why young people aren’t starting businesses. We envision a country in which anyone who wants to be an entrepreneur has a path to achieving that goal.

How has the conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion shaped your organization over the past 40 years (or since it was founded during this time until now)?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have increasingly become central to our work. We aim to be an onramp to entrepreneurship for historically excluded communities. It’s both a moral imperative and competitive necessity. The business challenges of the future aren’t going to be homogenous; so we need a diverse group of entrepreneurs to tackle them. And we need to use entrepreneurship as a means to creating wealth across communities – asset ownership matters.

What leadership qualities are necessary to succeed as a nonprofit executive today?
We all need to be entrepreneurial – whether it’s creating new lines of business for earned revenue or taking a human-centered design approach to developing programs. There are fewer boundaries between industries which is why we all need to work across sectors and innovating. There is so much stigma around nonprofits not being innovative or business-minded enough, but I’ve never found that to be actually true. We have some of the best talent in the world working for our organizations.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing today that will impact your nonprofit and your sector in the future?
I think more philanthropists and investors are taking a long-term perspective to creating change. People are realizing that there are no quick fixes to multi-generational challenges, and many individuals and institutions are lengthening the terms of their commitment while adopting a more data-driven approach to measuring change.

What was your breakthrough moment in becoming a leader? What did it take for you to break through to become a leader?
I was incredibly fortunate to take over the mantle of VFA from our Founder, Andrew Yang. Andrew was a tremendous leader and teacher for me, and gave me his full endorsement as CEO. He and I had multiple conversations prior to and during our leadership transition, and the trust that he showed in me made all the difference.

What are your organization’s values, and specifically leadership values, and how do you ensure everyone who is part of your team embraces them?
We have a set of five credo statements that outline the standards for everyone in the Venture For America community. Two of my favorites are “I will create opportunities for myself and others.” and “Value creation is how I measure achievement.” To me, this means that our lives and careers are about so much more than building a shiny resumé. It’s about reorienting our ambitions around creating impact and helping others, changing the standards by which we as a culture measure accomplishment.

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