A job at Goldman Sachs in New York seemed like the logical choice for Daniel Autry, who, after four years of living in Charlottesville, was ready to live in a bigger city and begin paying off student debt.
But Autry’s entrepreneurial spirit – and desire to make a difference in the world – tugged at him.
As a student at the University of Virginia, Autry had explored several exciting new ideas, including one involving an app that could potentially improve people’s mental health.
Still, the Dallas native didn’t think there would be a way to continue the ventures after he graduated, since he would have no way to financially support them – or himself.
However, things changed for Autry and other students like him in March when HackCville – a UVA student entrepreneur organization – launched its Elliewood Fellowship, a yearlong program that enables fresh graduates to pursue careers in entrepreneurship.
“I just jumped at the opportunity,” Autry said. “It was something different that I had never been offered before, and I could make a positive impact on the community.”
This summer, Autry is part of the inaugural 11-member class of Elliewood Fellows. Each fellow receives $1,500 per month for the first six months in the form of employment at HackCville, tech start-up companies in Charlottesville and/or cash.
At the same time, the fellows connect with HackCville’s partners in the business community – including the Charlottesville Business Innovation Council and the Charlottesville Office of Economic Development – and have the opportunity to network with more than 1,000 HackCville alums across the country.
“These resources are designed to give them an on-ramp into an entrepreneurial career,” said Daniel Willson, the director of operations at HackCville, which started in 2012 and is funded through UVA’s Data Science Institute, the McIntire School of Commerce’s Galant Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Quantitative Foundation. “It’s to give them gradual support so that they can feel comfortable and so that whatever they’re working on can begin to make money over the course of the year.”
The driving force behind the fellowship were UVA students themselves. All of the fellows had been HackCville members as undergrads and had expressed a desire to remain in Charlottesville to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors.
“We crafted the fellowship based on the specific needs of these 11 students,” Willson said. “This is our approach to developing new programs at HackCville – we work directly with the students and graduates to design and co-create exactly what they need. This enables us to create programs and initiatives that are laser-focused on solving the real needs of our students.”
Willson said HackCville’s programs differ from the Darden School of Business’ i.Lab incubator in the fact that it takes in people, rather than companies.
“We focus on the individual and helping them with their personal growth skills and development,” he said. “Through that, we help them get whatever project or venture that they have off the ground.”
Autry said HackCville helped him open his eyes.
“I thought that all entrepreneurs were just like the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world,” he said, referring to the Facebook CEO, “but I realized they can be everyday people who are passionate about their projects. Realizing that was huge for me.”
Of course, there were a few eyebrows raised when Autry told his friends and parents he was turning down Goldman Sachs to stay in Charlottesville.
“It took like a month of convincing my mom that I wasn’t just like dropping out to make like the next Facebook or whatever, and that I was trying to make a positive impact,” Autry said, smiling. “But as soon as [my family] saw how serious I was, they were right behind it.”
Willson, a 2016 UVA grad, said there is sometimes a stigma associated with new graduates staying in Charlottesville because of a perceived lack of opportunity when, in fact, Charlottesville is home to hundreds of early-stage start-ups and technology firms.
“Small towns are an easier place to start up, in a lot of cases, because you already have established networks here,” he said. “It’s a town that’s really supportive and collaborative. But I don’t think it’s something students are very aware of.”
Autry is glad he stuck around.
“I can just explore my passions and make a positive impact,” he said, “without actually framing my own mission as someone else’s at a company I’m not really passionate about.”
Fellow Allison Garrett is working on a way to make modern education more accessible. Simultaneously, the Virginia Beach native is giving back through her work at HackCville. “I love teaching kids who don’t have a tech background the skills that made me so much more confident,” she said.
Garrett added, “What I’ve learned at HackCville is that entrepreneurs are really good at mitigating risk and lowering risk – and the fellowship is a way to have a lot lower risk in starting your own thing.”
Willson expects the initiative to become a staple.
“We hope it makes taking an entrepreneurial path right out of college a viable and attractive path for graduating fourth-years,” he said. “And we hope that as the program grows in the future, it can create a big change in Charlottesville where a lot more students stay and start their own ventures – or even just work for exciting start-ups here in town.”