Program for grads gives Pittsburgh huge ‘start’ on success

Program for grads gives Pittsburgh huge ‘start’ on success

Charlie Schwartz says he’s “off to a really good start” and may stay in Pittsburgh permanently. (Photo provided by Charlie Schwarz)
Charlie Schwartz says he’s “off to a really good start” and may stay in Pittsburgh permanently. (Photo provided by Charlie Schwarz)

On the day Charlie Schwartz moved to Pittsburgh just about three months ago, he headed to Home Depot and bought  himself a novelty Steelers key.

“It’s nice to have a team to root for in addition to the Chicago Bears,” said Schwartz, a Deerfield, Ill., native and a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University.

It is Schwartz’s team spirit, which extends beyond football, that has brought him to the Steel City for a two-year stint with Venture for America, a fellowship program for recent college graduates to help launch their careers as entrepreneurs while contributing to the vitality of American cities.

Following five weeks of training over the summer in Providence, R.I., VFA Fellows get sent to work in a startup, where they gain experience in entrepreneurship.

VFA was launched in 2011, but this is the first year that Pittsburgh has been added to the list of cities participating in the program. Other cities include Baltimore, Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio, Denver, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Providence, St. Louis and San Antonio.

So far, two Pittsburgh startups have joined VFA: Thrill Mill, a startup accelerator, and NoWait, a restaurant app.

“VFA attracts some of the brightest and most dedicated young people from across the country,” said City Councilman Dan Gilman in an email. “Adding this talent to Pittsburgh not only supports our local startup community, but also adds talent to our neighborhoods. Statistics show that many VFA fellows will stay in their placement cities and even start their own new businesses. I have had the pleasure of working with VFA nationally and the local Fellows on the ground here in Pittsburgh and have been blown away by their vision.  It is clear to me that Pittsburgh will benefit greatly from this new presence in the city.”

VFA, a nonprofit, recruits talented graduates from all over the country.

“We had applicants from 300 different schools,” said Barrie Grinberg, development manager at VFA, noting that it is a highly competitive process. “We had an 11 percent acceptance rate.”

VFA is also selective in the businesses it chooses for its Fellows, seeking startups across the U.S. that “take management seriously,” Grinberg said, in order to provide the most valuable experiences for their graduates.

“We aim to fuel job growth and empower our best and our brightest, like Charlie, to contribute value to their community,” Grinberg said.

Since the launch of the program, two thirds of the Fellows — who are not interns, but full-time employees — choose to stay in their new city following the conclusion of their two-year fellowship, Grinberg noted.

“We find that they learn more at a startup than they would at a big company like Facebook or Amazon or Google,” she said.

Schwartz, who is a Fellow at NoWait, said he loves working at the early stage company that provides restaurants with an iPad wait list and seating tool and enables patrons to get in line for a restaurant from their electronic devices.

 “I’m not meant to be at a big company,” said Schwartz, who majored in human and organizational development. “I’d much rather be part of a smaller team, where there is a lot of energy every day.”

Schwartz seems to generate a lot of energy himself and has been working at NoWait as its customer success manager, training restaurants on how to use the technology and “to be the friendly face of NoWait.”

“It’s a great, great position for me,” he said.

He has also been smitten by Pittsburgh.

“To me, it’s a middle ground between Chicago and Nashville,” Schwartz said. “It’s very unique, with its own identity. And it has allowed me to become a new yinzer.”

Raised in a traditional Conservative home, Schwartz found connection in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community with family friends who hosted him for Yom Kippur at Rodef Shalom Congregation.

“I felt very at home in that community,” said the former USYer, who attended the Solomon Schechter Day School in the Chicago suburbs.

Schwartz anticipates connecting with the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh and seeking out opportunities to perform in musical theater while in town. Although it is early in his career at NoWait, he has not dismissed the idea of making Pittsburgh his permanent home.

“I’m off to a really great start,” he said.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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