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Driving venture capital into the future

Like the startup companies it fledges, the venture capital industry is adapting to market opportunities.

While most VC firms are based in places such as Silicon Valley, Seattle and New York City, there has been a shift towards the Midwest in recent years to tap into the talent coming out of large universities in the region.

And as e-commerce, artificial intelligence, “smart” devices, mobile apps and social media occupy increasingly more aspects of our lives, these firms are starting to realize they need to utilize software engineers the same way the businesses they invest in do, said Zach Boerger.

“Not only is it atypical for engineering students to intern at venture firms, it’s pretty unusual for venture firms to have any software engineers on staff.”

Columbus-based Drive Capital has both. Drive Capital was founded by Mark Kvamme and Chris Olsen in 2012, after successful stints as partners at renowned Sequoia Capital, a VC firm that has backed many Silicon Valley tech companies including Apple and Google.

(l to r) Alumni Brandon Mills, Zach Boerger and Alisa Noll in Drive Capital's energetic offices
Boerger earned his computer science and engineering degree at The Ohio State University and now is the director of engineering at Drive Capital. For the past few years, Boerger and his small team of engineers have been developing an internal application to help the investment team at Drive “build a market map of companies” in order to analyze and monitor future investment opportunities.

“There’s only so many companies that we can talk to in a given day or week,” Boerger said. “We’re basically just trying to use software and machines for what they are good at and let people focus on what they are good at.”

The software they have been developing allows them to do multiple things, from tracking headcount overtime to monitoring tagged companies and alerting them if any of them have new funding rounds.

Initially, Boerger was the only engineer at Drive, and his primary goal was to develop software to help his Drive colleagues work smarter.

Boerger quickly realized, however, that there was more to be done than he could do alone. He suggested they bring on Brandon Mills, a computer science and engineering student he had met at Ohio State, in an internship role for a few months to help out.

Mills “knocked it out of the park” according to Boerger, and the internship program at Drive Capital was officially launched. After Mills became a full-time engineer at Drive, Alex Tareshawty was hired.

Tareshawty, a fourth-year computer science and engineering student, said he first found out about the internship program from Mills, who used to be his roommate. He invited him to one of Drive’s “hack nights,” where Tareshawty was first able to see the work he could potentially do at the firm.

“They invite some engineering students to their office and … either talk about what a portfolio company is doing or some cool tech they’re working on,” Tareshawty said. “It’s just a chance for people to get together to talk about engineering stuff.”

Apart from his work on the internal tool to make it easier for the partners at Drive to share information about the people and companies they are meeting, Tareshawty said one of the cool things about the job was learning about the venture capital industry in Columbus.

“I got to sit in on some partner meetings and learn a lot about how venture capital works,” he said. “I learned a lot about the startup scene in Columbus and how you can build businesses.”

Tareshawty now interns at Root Insurance, a portfolio company of Drive Capital. He said his work at Root has been different but very interesting, and has signed to work there full-time after graduation in the spring. Mike Letscher, another Ohio State student, filled the intern role after Tareshawty and was hired by Finite State, also a Drive Capital portfolio company.

The current intern at Drive is Alisa Noll, a recent graduate from Ohio State in industrial engineering, who has brought a different skill set to Drive than past computer science major interns. Boerger said she runs circles around him and Mills when it comes to all things stats and actually analyzing them.

“The other interns that they have had have been more development-heavy, meaning that they make the actual software, whereas I am the first intern that they’ve hired that has been data analytics heavy,” Noll said. “My whole role is focused on looking at the data they’ve collected and finding a way to implement it.”

Noll plans on leaving Drive in June to work for Boston Consulting Group, where she said she’ll hopefully be doing a lot of the same work she has been doing since becoming an intern in September.

“I do think that no matter what field I ended up in, I would love to be at the cross between business and data science,” she said.

With Noll’s departure date only a few months away, Boerger said he has begun to work on repopulating the internship. He said that he would love to have at least one intern on staff at all times, and that the multi-dimensional engineering talent coming out of Ohio State is a great fit for the job.

“I think Ohio State is an awesome talent pool,” Boerger said. “If you’re interested in really understanding the kind of weird venture capital startup world that most people don’t get exposed to, then you’ll learn a ton about that just by osmosis from being here.”

Additionally, he said the experience of working at a smaller company like Drive or one of their portfolio companies allows interns to make more of an impact and adapt their internship experience to cater to their specific interests or strengths, similar to how VC firms are adapting too. Noll agreed.

“You’ll have a lot more responsibility if you take a chance on smaller company,” she said. “Drive has been investing in awesome companies all across the Midwest that you’ll probably grow so much in.”

by student writer Zach Konno