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Job fair seeks to bring top talent to Baltimore startups

Columbia University Student Karissa Austin, right, is interviewed by Samantha Bodenstine and Justin Franklin, digital marketing managers with the Baltimore-Based Response Labs at a job fair hosted by Venture For America in Baltimore April 29, 2016. (The Daily Record / Dan Leaderman)

Columbia University Student Karissa Austin, right, is interviewed by Samantha Bodenstine and Justin Franklin, digital marketing managers with the Baltimore-Based Response Labs at a job fair hosted by Venture For America in Baltimore April 29, 2016. (The Daily Record / Dan Leaderman)

Running a startup company keeps a person pretty busy, so conducting a thorough search for top talent to expand your staff is a luxury many emerging companies don’t have.

Enter Venture for America, a nonprofit that connects startups in cities with growing entrepreneurship scenes – such as Baltimore – with recent college graduates who are also aspiring entrepreneurs and have been specially coached on the unique challenges growing companies face.

“By placing top talent in the companies that are most capable of creating jobs and growing quickly, were hoping to help [the companies] achieve that growth,” Barrie Grinberg, development manager for VFA, said Friday at a job fair the organization hosted at the American Visionary Art Museum.

In the past three years, VFA has placed 35 fellows in Baltimore companies, and is hoping to place another 15 or 20 this year, she said.

Participants in the program — which is modeled on the Teach for America program — begin their two-year fellowships with a five-week training session this summer that is a crash course in skills such as business plan analysis and product development, giving them a familiarity with the issues their new employers are likely to be wrestling with, Grinberg said.

 Data Engineer Alexander Baca and Director of Engineering Chris Jeschke, both of the Baltimore-based company Protenus, interview Barnard College student Alice Rottersman at a job fair hosted by Venture For America in Baltimore April 29, 2016. (The Daily Record / Dan Leaderman)

Data Engineer Alexander Baca and Director of Engineering Chris Jeschke, both of the Baltimore-based company Protenus, interview Barnard College student Alice Rottersman at a job fair hosted by Venture For America in Baltimore April 29, 2016. (The Daily Record / Dan Leaderman)

“Hopefully, we can take that a step further by helping them start their own companies eventually,” she said.

Fifty-five companies interviewed potential employees from a pool of about 100 VFA fellows Friday. Twenty-eight of those companies came from Baltimore, 14 came from Philadelphia, and others came from farther away.

Once hired, VFA fellows commit to two years with their companies – but can stay on indefinitely if things work out. That’s the plan for Alexander Baca, who joined the Baltimore-based health data security company Protenus as a data engineer last fall.

TEDCO President John Wasilisin addresses a crowd of employers and potential employees at a job fair hosted by Venture For America in Baltimore April 29, 2016. (The Daily Record /  Dan Leaderman)

TEDCO President John Wasilisin addresses a crowd of employers and potential employees at a job fair hosted by Venture For America in Baltimore April 29, 2016. (The Daily Record / Dan Leaderman)

“I sit around and code most of my day, but since it’s a startup I also help with the business strategy, I help with recruiting,” Baca said as he prepared to interview a series of potential new recruits at the job fair.

A native of Northern Virginia who was initially wary of Baltimore, Baca said he’s come to appreciate the city’s eclectic neighborhoods.

“When I do my interviews, I don’t see myself as selling Protenus so much as selling Baltimore and then trying to see if they’re a good fit for Protenus,” he said. “I would love to see all these fellows come to Baltimore because I think that they could do a lot for the city, and I think the people here would be very receptive of their efforts.”

Columbia University senior Karissa Austin, who was scheduled to interview with several Baltimore companies, said she saw the program as a way to develop the diverse set of skills, such as product development and raising capital, that entrepreneurs need – skills she’d like to put to use at a nonprofit or social venture someday.

“It’s a good way to find companies where you feel like you’re actually contributing something to the larger community, as opposed to just you getting yours,” Austin said.

The job fair was a great opportunity for the companies in attendance, said John Wasilisin, president of the Maryland Technology Development Corp., or TEDCO. The state-created organization, which provides funding for early-stage companies, was a sponsor of Friday’s job fair.

Wasilisin has seen the results of the program in action. One of the seven fellows in the inaugural Baltimore VFA cohort in 2013 was hired by TEDCO and is now a valued member of the team, he said.

“I continue to give [him] increasing responsibilities, and he has gobbled them up,” Wasilisin said. “If I have anything to say about it, he’s never leaving.”