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Three years ago, in the Arkansas Times' Big Ideas issue, entrepreneur Kristian Andersen, of Indiana and Arkansas, wrote about a way to keep Arkansas brains in Arkansas. Modeled after Indianapolis' Orr Entrepreneurial Fellowship, Andersen's program would solicit mentor companies to offer two-year fellowships, worth $40,000 a year, to graduating college seniors. It would offer them monthly programming, a speaker series and networking. After their two-year experience working and mixing it up with other young creative types and local business leaders, these bright minds would be more likely to stay in Arkansas, creating their own companies or rising in their careers.
It's 2014 and the Arkansas Fellowship program is real. On Monday, the nonprofit Arkansas Fellowship's board of directors chose 25 finalists from among 80 applicants from Arkansas universities and colleges to seek the fellowships; 12 will be selected by the end of the month.
Warwick Sabin, head of the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub and director of the Arkansas Fellowship, said the number of applicants and participating companies — 12 — was "fantastic for the first year."
The applicants — 57 men and 23 women — got one-on-one interviews with the seven members of the board. Sabin said they came from schools all over Arkansas, with a high number from John Brown University, which Sabin said has an "outstanding" business program. "The idea was to try to look for entrepreneurial potential," Sabin said, for applicants with "initiative and drive" to eventually develop their own projects. The finalists include 16 men and nine women.
This week, host companies are reviewing the finalists and next Monday will inform the board which of the finalists they wish to interview. On April 21, Finalist Day, each host company will interview each of the finalists they choose for 30 minutes. At the end of the interview process, the companies will rank the students they wish to employ and the students will rank the companies they'd like to work for — much like Match Day for medical school graduates going on to residencies.
Fellows will consider their job offers and by the end of April, Sabin said, all will know where they'll be working. The process will start again in the fall, so that each new year will produce a new class of fellows.
The program's startup funding comes from Fifty for the Future, a Greater Little Rock Chamber of Commerce group; the Northwest Arkansas Council, and Winrock International.
Andersen, who lives in Conway and commutes to Indianapolis, where his company KA+A is headquartered, first promoted the idea of the Arkansas Fellowship with Innovate Arkansas advisors Ted Dickey and Michael Smith and Director Tom Dalton. "I knew they had an appetite for big ideas around economic development," Andersen said. KA+A is a mentor company for the hugely successful Orr Fellowship, which has 59 current fellows, an estimated 80 percent of which will stay in Indiana.
At Monday's board meeting, in which Andersen participated by phone, "We looked and said, 'Wow.' I knew we were going to have some success, but the fact that 25 kids were willing to take a — gamble's not the right word — take a flyer and companies would do the same. ... We're asking companies to commit to hiring somebody for two years for a job that doesn't exist. For the kids we're saying we want you to forgo an interview with other companies and we'll slightly underpay you ... with no raises and no bonuses, no nothing for two years. ... The quality of folks that lined up is so cool and a testament to the thread of entrepreneurial DNA that runs through the fabric of Arkansas."
Andersen, and later Sabin, met with college and university presidents, deans, career placement offices and CEOs of potential host companies all over Arkansas to publicize the Arkansas Fellowship. One of the companies Sabin approached: Treatsie, a start-up artisan sweets delivery company started by Jamie Walden and Keith Hoelzeman a year ago, now valued at $1.2 million. "One of our four investors helped start [the fellowship] and when he told us about it we were immediately interested," Walden said.
"A lot of these candidates could get a high-paying job out of college," Walden said; they are sacrificing that to be able to show local companies what they can do. What sort of student is Treatsie hoping to find? Like any start-up, he said, "We could use creative problem solvers." As an online company (it boxes artisanal chocolates and other confections from small makers all over the country for one-time or monthly customers, similar to the Harry & David fruit company), someone with a software development background would be valuable as well, Walden said.
Andersen added: "Arkansas has plenty of shortcomings, but one thing it consistently outperforms its peers in is chutzpah."
The basic thesis of the fellowship, Andersen said, is this: "Talent is the atomic unit of success."
"Ask Portland or Austin or Boulder — those cities aren't great merely because of the abundance of ethnic eateries, but because the smartest people in the world want to live there." It's important, he said, to give talented Arkansans a reason to stay home.
Other mentor companies include Acumen Brands, Bourbon & Boots, CFO Network, Circumference Group, Collective Bias, Datarank, Dillard's, Moxy Ox, Perks, Stone Ward and Sumotext. Board members include Andersen, Innovate Arkansas adviser Jeff Amerine, startup lawyer Jamie Fugitt, Burt Hicks of Winrock International, CPA Ryan Holder, Heather Nelson of the SEAL Corp. and Michael Steely of the Arkansas Venture Center.