Draper: Venture University could be Iowa’s game changer

January is when even a football novice would sit up and take note if Bill Belichick and John Madden walked into a room to break down the current state and strategies of the NFL. As someone who had to Google John Madden to make sure he was still alive, my 2019 Super Bowl moment was a little different. Mine started on January 14th when I walked into an unassuming office in San Francisco to start a Venture Capital Investor apprenticeship with J. Skyler Fernandes and Andrew Zalasin as part of Venture University’s Third Cohort. For the next three months, this column is where I will share this experience and the nuggets of knowledge I plan to pick up along the way.

For those who are less familiar with these two, Googling them will show that Google is nearly the only modern, transformative tech company in which neither of them invested. From Facebook to Beyond Meat, Twitter to Tesla, generations have already been shaped by the bets they have made – and many more will be transformed by the bet they are taking now: rethinking professional education.

The premise of the Venture University program I joined this month is deceivingly simple: prepare a new generation of VCs. Despite it’s growing influence as an asset class, Venture Capital remains rather opaque. Even more difficult to see is a path into the industry for the intellectually and experientially diverse individuals who thrive as VCs. This confusion and ambiguity remains even as colleges everywhere provide an endless onslaught of new degrees, short courses and seminars on Venture Capital. So Skyler and Andrew decided to do something different by doing what they do best: raising a fund.

Venture University is the essence of experiential learning for the Venture Capital industry. After an intense 80 hour week that goes over all the basics of venture math, fund management and deal selection, the test is to invest. Cohort Three is divided into five deal teams that are projected to look at between 1,500 and 2,000 deals in 3 months from startups trying to do anything from streamlining invoicing to leveraging space-based manufacturing. Every team can bring two deals to the Partners Meeting each Tuesday, where the hopes and dreams of each startup are in the hands of VC Investor apprentices like myself pitching my cohort members as we compete to deploy $20,000 to $1,000,000 in three to six startups across the cohort. And your grade at the end of the cohort? Your returns. Cohorts One and Two are already up 6x. So no pressure.

Which brings me to my personal Super Bowl. After nearly 20 years working with advanced technologies and innovative organizations, it is an invigorating challenge to be the “seasoned” member of the FrontierTech deal team. Over the next three months, I’ll be part of a team searching, validating, and advocating for cutting edge technology startups from Chicago and the broader Midwest who have what it takes to impress a West Coast fund. And then I’ll need to manage anything I find through a gauntlet of the brightest future leaders in the Venture Capital industry in order to even earn an opportunity for the free market to validate or repudiate my picks.

Over the course of my time in Venture University’s Third Cohort, please follow my journey here in Clay & Milk, help me connect with local startups that need visibility or funding from outside of the Midwest, and grab a coffee if you have ideas for how we make the future of Venture better for Iowa and the Midwest. Venture University doesn’t make anyone an overnight expert, and it will take years before my efforts will prove to be fruitful or failures. Regardless of my final “grade,” though, I am confident that this experience will help us open more doors for more of us from our local ecosystem to build and thrive. This confidence that the pathways available through Venture University will provide our local startup ecosystem a route to another level of success is rooted in one final football parallel:

In the same way Belichick and Madden build ballers, Fernandes and Zalasin build VCs.


Chris Draper is the Managing Director of Trokt, and has been selected as one of 25 VC Investor Apprentices from around the world to join Venture University’s Third Cohort. Draper has been a part of the Iowa startup ecosystem since moving back to Des Moines in 2010.