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Change the Game, Don't Let the Game Change You

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By Shilpi Kumar, 2013 Venture for America Fellow

I distinctly remember the first time I got called out for breaking the rules. I was almost at the goal and my name was being yelled out, I looked up then down to find a ball at my feet. It was my kindergarten soccer team's first match, and I knew the point of the game: I had to get the ball in the goal. And like many bright, promising soccer stars before me, I did just that. I reached down, picked up the ball, and threw it into the goal as hard as I could.

After the penalty was called, I was taken off the field and scolded by the coach. While my parents shrank back in embarrassment, I was just confused about why our score hadn't gone up. It took some practices, but I eventually learned how to play by the rules. Not only on the field, but at school, and home with friends and family.

Fast forward to college. I discovered that there were fewer rules, and an entire campus of individuals to navigate. Between classes on the neurobiology of pain and globalization of markets, I learned that leadership is powered by relationships and that diversity is not just about race. While I have met students with an incredible range of interests, skills, and talents, the number of ways for us to declare success as we approach the end of our time at Duke are few. According to the prevailing rules, the measure of whether I or any of my fellow graduating seniors have "made it" comes down to a handful of choices: admittance to a stellar medical or law school, a brand-name banking or consulting offer, or a stint with Teach for America.

Around interview season-- and about the time Macklemore's hit "Make the Money" released-- I realized I was stuck. In spite of my perceived academic and social freedom, I was still in the game, guided by the pressure to win it. Although none of the conventional options excited me, I was stressed in my pursuit of them. It took an offer from a big consulting firm to fully understand I didn't have to take it.

One lyric from the Macklemore album I had been listening to resonated with me: "Make the money, don't let the money make you. Change the game, don't let the game change you." In the process of striving for a traditional badge of success, I felt as if I was compromising core personal values and losing the momentum that had fueled my ambitions. The little rebel in me started looking around the field for a new ball to pick up.

An internship at LinkedIn had shown me a glimpse of the Bay Area and how entrepreneurs can shape social culture. In October of my senior year, I scored an invite to the Huffington Post panel, "What Is Working," at the Democratic National Convention where thought leaders from all disciplines came together to discuss the unemployment problem. Governor Jack Markell talked about the global war for Talent and musician Will.i.am emphasized the power of youth and disruptive technologies. Scott Case of Startup America explained how start-up communities are the engines behind job creation. Then I heard Andrew Yang speak about Venture for America: a fellowship that brings bright college students to the companies and cities that need them the most and it all fell into place.

The fellowship provides a pipeline for high achieving recent college grads to work for startups without the typical risks involved. By guaranteeing a base salary, engaging community, and creating lasting networks, VFA creates an ideal opportunity for students like me - students that are eager for a fast-paced, high-impact role with supportive relationships and potential for growth.

By repackaging startup jobs in low-cost cities for college grads, Venture for America is changing the game for everyone. For the cities, welcoming VFA encourages the entrepreneurial activity and spirit that will create jobs and rebuild their communities. For the companies, partnering with VFA provides access to top talent that can help them flourish and scale their business. For the Fellows, choosing VFA stimulates our career trajectories and redefines the career options for the students that follow us.

In acknowledging that every industry, from marketing and medicine to education and employment, is in dire need of transformation, I feel the demand on my generation to step up as leaders. Changing culture and institutions might be hard, but it all starts by figuring out which rules to break. For me, by defying the conventional choices and choosing to commit to Venture For America for my first two years out in the world, I am writing my own rule book.

Shilpi Kumar is a recent graduate of Duke University and a member of Venture for America's Class of 2013. In August 2013, Shilpi will join the team at Downtown Project Las Vegas, an urban revitalization project spearheaded by CEO of Zappos Tony Hsieh. To support aspiring entrepreneurs like Shilpi who have chosen the post-grad path less traveled, support Venture for America or find out more about the VFA Summer Celebration.