Venture For America Fellow Experience

Trying, Flailing, Failing, and Learning: Euphoric Highs and Lows

Although I didn't know what I wanted to do out of college (and who really does?), Leverege has enabled me to learn and build hands-on experience so that, when I do have it all figured out, I'll have the necessary skills to get me there.

Alexandra Nichols

In addition to being incredibly awesome, senior year of college is exceedingly stressful. While you’re enjoying copious amounts of free time with friends, all of whom live in a one-mile radius from you, the looming threat of the “real world” brews ominously on the horizon. Many students leave the notoriously preprofessional University of Pennsylvania with a crystal clear vision of what they want to do—what they want their career trajectory to look like, and who they need to network with to get there. I admired those students. I was not one of them.

Let me clarify—it was not for lack of trying. From the moment I stepped foot on Penn’s campus, I dove into new activities. Joining a fashion magazine, planting urban farms, debating international affairs while putting on a Model UN conference and juggling a full bioengineering course load. The term, “jack of all trades, master of none” comes to mind. During a bout of anxiety while watching my friends accept top finance and consulting offers, I too dove headfirst into the healthcare consulting interview abyss. Sure, I thought to myself, consulting is my passion!

It was one firm’s final round case interview that was the last straw. After I suggested a pricing structure for a new drug a couple hundred dollars below market value, I could see the analyst interviewing me was visibly unconvinced. “Are you sure you aren’t leaving any revenue on the table?” She prodded. 

Though I knew it was a test of my perceived competency, it felt more like a test of my morals. How much money can you squeeze from a dying stranger’s pocket? The deadlier the affliction, the higher your price! Perhaps I was being dramatic. Many of my friends: kind, generous, empathetic people, went into healthcare consulting. But it was a feeling I couldn’t shake, and I withdrew my applications that same day.

I have a host of ambitious professional goals: hard work, intelligence, influence. But above them, I also have values that I cannot compromise: empathy, compassion, justice. I knew I had to look elsewhere for a career. 

Chasing the Highs of Entrepreneurship

I stumbled into Venture For America through a podcast interview with the fellowship’s founder and former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang. One foundational point stuck with me: smart people should build things. It seemed so obvious! 

I thought back to one of my favorite classes from the past four years: an engineering-centered entrepreneurship course. Foundational to its theme was the idea that engineers shouldn’t just be the ones building the products—they should be the ones running the company. As a part of that class, we spent an entire semester building a business plan from scratch and concluded by pitching to Philly tech investors. It was by far the most sweat and tears ever induced by a class—and at the same time the most fun and exhilarating. 

One quote from renowned venture capitalist and entrepreneurs Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen seems apt:

Marc: Do you know the best thing about working at startups?

Ben: What?

Marc: You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.

Finding my Perfect Springboard

I knew Venture for America would launch headfirst into the fast-paced learning environment I craved, and I got even lucky enough to learn from the best at Leverege. I had a few boxes I needed checked and Leverege covered them all. 

Among my many qualities is impatience—if there’s a faster way to do something, I’ll find it. I knew working at a startup would skyrocket my learning much faster than any traditional company and Leverege was the perfect place to find my footing. Here’s why:

  • Experienced founders. Leverege’s two co-founders had a successful track record of starting and building companies from the ground up. I knew I didn’t want to be flying behind another recent college grad with similar levels of inexperience—I needed leadership who knew what they were doing.
  • Culture first. Among the many culture articles you might find in this corner of the Leverege site, is an article emphasizing the importance of culture building by Ryan Chacon, our CSO. I knew that a workplace that recognized the importance of their employees and had intentionality behind a supportive and motivating culture would enable me to do my best work.
  • Tech foundation. As a biomedical engineering graduate, I knew that while I didn’t want to build or code a product, I loved being surrounded by and understanding it. Leverege’s IoT focus spans hardware and software and was the perfect place to maintain and sharpen my technical background, while learning about an industry I knew nothing about. In fact, diving into areas I know nothing about is one of my favorite hobbies.

After working here for a few months, a few other items come to mind:

  • Open Debate. Rather than shy away from conflict, Leverege’s culture encourages it. Before I scare you away, let me explain. I’ve learned the best way to build a company isn’t just putting 30 smart people in a room—it’s letting them respectfully but directly debate their way to the best idea. I think one of the reasons this works so well at Leverege is the foundation of empathy—genuinely caring about your coworkers and wanting to understand their perspective.
  • Willingness to Learn. Beyond the innate curiosity almost implicit in working in the emerging and often uncharted IoT industry, Leverage encourages a culture of learning. I’m constantly impressed and motivated by both the intricacy of my colleagues’ side projects (creating a smart tennis racket?!) and their voracious thirst for knowledge (reading 50+ books in 2020). This mentality bleeds into every aspect of the culture and makes taking on new projects in uncharted territory not a chore, but rather a welcome challenge.

I’d be lying to you if I said I had it all figured out since working here. I’m 22, cut me some slack. Luckily, having it figured out is no longer the goal. Leverege enables me to learn (more often than not, by being thrown in the deep end), debate, advocate for myself and others, and get my own taste of the euphoric lack of sleep lifestyle that is working at a startup. And when I do have it figured out, I’ll be equipped with the skills to get there. 

Alexandra Nichols

Technical Project Manager

Alex is a technical project manager at Leverege. She studied bioengineering at UPenn with minors in entrepreneurship and math. Alex is passionate about building a sustainable future, from the clothes we wear down to the food we grow. In her spare time, she surfs, boxes, and iterates toward the perfect focaccia.

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