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Blog

A Different Kind of Training

Cooper Zelnick

At around seven o’clock last night, Jason Black and I were pulled into a conference room to meet an entrepreneur seeking seed-stage funding for his new venture. Raju Rishi (our boss) introduced the entrepreneur, who shared an overview of his idea. Then Raju asked the two of us a simple question: “Do you believe in this?” So started our final meeting of the day. 

My name is Cooper. I’m a (relatively) new Analyst at RRE Ventures, a New York City-based venture capital firm. And despite being a 23-year-old kid with basically no work experience or marketable skills, I get paid to think creatively, to have informed opinions, and to argue with people who have been working in this industry longer than I’ve been walking this earth. 

If that seems odd or incongruous, then I’ve made my point. Its an old cliché that my peers—ambitious, talented recent graduates of relatively fancy colleges and universities—are lured into traditional “Analyst” programs only to spend years staring at screens, suffering through eighteen-hour workdays, building spreadsheets, and warming swivel chairs. 

Ostensibly, these programs offer formal training, invaluable work experience, and handsome pay. But what do they actually teach? To be clear, my issue is not that many of our generation’s best and brightest minds go into such roles. My issue is that high-paying, prestigious institutions spend huge amounts of time, energy, and money turning smart, passionate, and engaged young people into glorified calculators and copy editors. My issue is that the enterprises that recruit our generation’s best thinkers all too often seem to favor conformity over creativity, and that those who want to be successful in traditional terms have no choice but to acquiesce. 

No industry is perfect (VC is no exception) but this is an industry that must by definition be open to new ideas. Innovation, agility, and a forward-looking mentality are the keys to a firm’s success, and young people have fresh and valuable perspectives. So it’s not all that shocking that VC Analysts are recruited to do more than demonstrate proficiency in Excel and run on low levels of sleep. 

What I can’t understand is why our industry seems to be relatively unusual in this respect. It’s no secret that technology is changing the world. Even the stodgiest of incumbents now acknowledge the threat of disruption, and hardly a day goes by without another major corporation initiating a startup accelerator, licensing a new technology, or buying an innovative, year-old competitor outright. 

Yet for all the ways that these companies espouse progress and innovation publicly, they stifle innovative thinking within their ranks by demanding conformity and limiting opportunities for expression among their own young employees. Too many firms forego an opportunity to innovate from within, failing to tap a deep well of new ideas backed by intelligence and enthusiasm.  

Perhaps they don’t want to indulge youthful idealism.  Perhaps they are afraid of impinging a culture of seniority.  Perhaps innovation isn’t really that important to them after all.  Whatever the reasons, the truth is that while bleary-eyed Analysts across the country sit idly behind their desks hoping to be observed “applying themselves”  by Managing Directors, I am being asked a simple, direct question: “Do you believe in this?” And I am asked to answer.