First class of Miami Venture for America Fellows help expand region’s entrepreneurial community

communities / Article

Photo: 2014 and 2015 Miami Venture for America Fellows. Photo courtesy Venture for America 

An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of Alida Gagliuffi.

When Russell Suskind moved his business to Miami, he was unsure if he had made the right choice. “You grow up in South Florida and leave for college, and you don’t typically move back,” he said. “It felt like a leap of faith.”

This month, Suskind and six other young entrepreneurs will celebrate the conclusion of their time as Miami’s inaugural class of Venture for America Fellows. But he almost wasn’t one of them.

A Hollywood, Florida, native and founder of Doze, an online mattress retailer, Suskind was initially skeptical about whether his startup could thrive in Miami. “I always thought most of the business in Miami was in the hospitality and service industries,” he said. 

He was swayed by reports from his Miami-based peers in Venture for America, a two-year fellowship program that funnels aspiring entrepreneurs into mid-sized American cities, and whose Miami efforts have been supported by Knight with more than $360,000 since 2014. “The fellows down here were not only enjoying their jobs, but the growth of entrepreneurship in the city,” Suskind said.

And so, after initially cofounding Doze in Detroit, another Knight community, Suskind relocated to Miami last September, where he joined the six other fellows who for more than a year had been working in various capacities around the city. At the same time, he was joined by a second class — this one 10 fellows strong.

“When I got back [from Detroit], we said, ‘Let’s really do this. Let’s put our foot on the gas pedal and let’s make Miami our home.’”

Just eight months later, Doze is on the verge of closing a $100,000 investment round, sourced mainly from local investors, and is currently in a summer-long stint at Venture for America’s Philadelphia-based company accelerator, where it will vie for additional funding.

Among Miami-based Venture for America fellows, Suskind is not alone in his success. Three others in the inaugural class — Seth Forsgren, Nazli Danis and Leigh Sevin — have started companies of their own. Last year, Forsgren’s Yodel, a video-based messaging platform, raised more than $300,000 in venture funding. Meanwhile, Sevin, Danis and their respective cofounders recently joined Suskind at the accelerator in Philadelphia, another Knight city. The impact of the Miami program is definitely apparent there; three of the eight companies in the current accelerator cohort were co-founded by Miami fellows.

“My only goal I had in mind was to start a company,” said Sevin, who founded Arthur, a personal shopping tool, earlier this year. “Being [in Miami] and being around Russell and Seth, who were doing that, helped me understand I could do it myself.”

Before starting Arthur, Sevin — like fellows Austin Rhodes, director of marketing at digital marketing firm Buena Vista Digital Partners and Ari Fine, director of marketing and business development at coworking space Büro Miami — was able to make a big impact at an existing firm. At Zeel, a company that provides in-home massages, she gained experience in marketing, sales, human resources and operations. “I got to learn every single department firsthand,” she said.

“Hiring a fellow is a no-brainer for a company in the growth stage,” said Alida Gagliuffi, who supervised Sevin at Zeel before leaving to become global director of operations at IronHack. “[You’re getting] smart, hungry kids at a super reasonable price, interested in many aspects of the business.”

Come August, there will be more than 20 Venture for America fellows working in Miami in various roles, including at IronHack, which is hiring its first fellow this summer, Open English and Willing, a Y-Combinator-backed firm that digitizes funeral and estate planning. The new fellows will join the local startup community following a rigorous selection and training process that includes a month-long orientation at Brown University.

“Most of our fellows in Miami hadn’t considered it as a place to launch their careers prior to joining VFA, but are now embedded in the ecosystem, invested in the community, and committed to the long-term success of the city,” said Tom Griffin, company partnerships manager for Venture for America.

Suskind is exhibit A. Even though he grew up in South Florida, he never thought of Miami as a place to launch a business. But buoyed by the support of his peers in Venture for America, Knight Foundation and other local benefactors, including retired Miami Heat forward Shane Battier, his homecoming has paid off.

“We’re really starting to get momentum,” he said.

As Doze grows, he expects to return the community the favor. “Hopefully, we can contribute more to the city over the coming years, whether as mentors, advisors, employers — or if things go really well, as an investor.”

Jesse Golomb is a freelance journalist and a 2015 Venture for America fellow working for Rokk3r Labs. He can be reached at [email protected] or found on Twitter @Jesse_VFA.

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