Start-up connections

Alfonso_GilletteODI Scholar alumnus Alfonso Gillette would be the first to admit that since he graduated from The Ohio State University in 2015, his career path has been anything but linear.

Armed with a bachelors in strategic communications and a minor in economics, after graduation, Alfonso completed two years of service with City Year, an organization that helps to close gaps in high-need schools by supporting students' academic and social-emotional development. He first worked at South High School in Columbus, and his second year was at Livingston Elementary on Columbus’ south side.

In his second year, Alfonso asked City Year if he could do a summer fellowship to explore different career paths. He was offered a public policy fellowship in Denver for seven weeks working for State Senator Michael Johnston, who was planning on running for governor.

Alfonso first worked for a start-up when he was in Denver for his public policy fellowship. A few months later, he found out about Venture for America (VFA), a two-year fellowship program for recent graduates who want to work at a startup. Once admitted to the fellowship, applicants can apply for jobs within VFA’s vetted company network. After a five-week training camp in the summer, applicants work for two years as full-time, salaried employees in one of 15 U.S. cities.

While at City Year, Alfonso enjoyed working with corporate partners to fundraise for school events, and he saw VFA as a gateway to other opportunities outside of the classroom. “I knew that technology and startups were buzzing, but I thought that you needed to be a coder, or really keen at data science to work at one. VFA sounded like an amazing opportunity to find out about other kinds of start-ups.”

One of the benefits of a VFA fellowship is their five week training camp. Each week, Alfonso and the other 180 fellows had a different business challenge provided by either a local entrepreneur or someone starting a business through the fellowship. During those challenges, the fellows learned new skills while lending a hand to companies that didn’t always have the resources to hire somebody.

Alfonso’s career path then took a different turn than expected. After his training camp, he started his VFA fellowship in Providence, Rhode Island with National Academy of Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE), an education non-profit providing professional development for teachers and school leaders. His work involved traveling and updating NAATE partners on the company’s work and impact, supporting the participants on their journey to and through the in-residence component of the NAATE program, and pitching new funders on supporting NAATE financially. NAATE relied heavily on fundraising from key donors who decided not to renew certain funds, and Alfonso was laid off.

Once his position ended, Alfonso was hired by an education technology start-up in Miami, Florida called Nearpod. Nearpod is a for-profit venture learning platform for schools and districts that provides one tool to deliver digital content, increase student engagement, and use formative assessments.

Despite having little sales background, Alfonso is an outreach specialist, responsible for creating new opportunities and leads for Nearpod: “Sometimes, you just have to take a risk and go out there and do something that you never thought you’d be doing. Just knowing that the path is not linear and that as long as you are taking steps forward and not taking steps back, sometimes you just have to be comfortable with that.”

As for what happens at the end of his fellowship, ideally, Alfonso would like to work in a brand partnerships role, pitching collaborations that create value for both sides. “Business development and corporate social responsibility work is something I could see myself getting into after the fellowship.”

Connecting with others – and having others connect with him – is something that Alfonso has been doing since he first arrived at The Ohio State University as an Evans Scholar and a Young Scholar from Cincinnati. Both scholarships, he says, “played a significant role” in his attending, thriving, and graduating debt-free from Ohio State. In 2011, during the Bell National Resource Center’s (BNRC) Early Arrival Program, Alfonso was able to connect to other students, faculty and staff. “My sophomore year, I loved the experience and connections that I had. I wanted to become a BRNC Ambassador to welcome other people into that same wisdom, community and brotherhood. To let them know that a university like Ohio State has limitless possibilities and experiences that you just can’t fathom.” Alfonso was an ambassador for three years at Ohio State and also a work-study student in the Bell Center, managing social media accounts, and providing assistance at events.

For all his involvement with the Bell Center, Alfonso was honored with two BNRC awards his senior year: the Spirit Award, named after Dennis Alexander, and the Undergraduate Student Services Award.

The way Alfonso sees it, all interactions provide not only an opportunity to see how someone can be helped, but also an opportunity to discover how they can help you. “I like to think that there is value in every interaction that you have, that those people will go on to start their own businesses, be leaders in their own right and might need something you can offer.” And talking to others and making connections can help guide a career: “People you meet might present you with a totally different career path that you never thought about as a possibility.”