I graduated from the Kauffman Fellows Program back in July, and I’m still coming off of the high of my final class sessions, my classmates’ field study presentations, and time spent bonding with the most accomplished group of professional peers I’ve ever been fortunate enough to call my good friends.
All of this has inspired me to write a series of posts on the Fellows Program. In this post, I’m going to focus on the basics of the application process and the background on the program that will (hopefully) help you write a better application. In the future, I’ll cover other aspects of the process, like the interview and how to approach affiliation.
This is quite a long post. If you’d like to get some of the same information visually, take a look at this recruiting deck below, which was made by the Center for Venture Education (the non-profit that organizes and administers the program).
One note of caution: What follows is one person’s perspective. It doesn’t represent the views of the Center for Venture Education, its staff, its board, or anyone else in the Fellows community. Any errors or omissions are my own.
Around 20 years ago, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation decided to start a training program for venture capital investors modeled on the many successful initiatives it was running for startup founders. The Foundation had several goals in mind, including: i) creating a pipeline for talented professionals into the venture industry; ii) formalizing the way venture capital firms recruit new talent; and iii) promoting gender, racial, and ethnic diversity in the industry. 
The overarching goal was (and still is) to make better venture capital investors – people who are passionately committed to supporting founders and to delivering outsize returns to investors. In fact, one of the key insights Fellows learn by going through program is how those two concepts – outsize returns and a founder-first investor orientation – are actually part of the same recipe for success. Much of the program curriculum focuses on helping Fellows align these concepts in the various settings in which they find themselves.
Around 2006, the Palo-Alto based Center for Venture Education (CVE) was created to house the Fellows Program. CVE is a non-profit and independent organization that operates the Fellows Program today. The CVE also runs a number of initiatives around community formation (Kauffman Fellows Society), online education (Kauffman Fellows Academy), media (Kauffman Fellows Press), and capital engagement (Kauffman Fellows Capital).
For the Fellows Program, CVE actually runs two different application processes in parallel that converge on the day in July when a new class of Fellows meets in Palo Alto to begin its Fellowship.
The first process is known as the Finalist process, which is for candidates who are currently working outside venture capital or whose career doesn’t involve actively investing in startups in some way. If you’re graduating from an MBA or PhD program and job-hunting with aspirations to land in venture, the Finalist application is for you. If you’re in consulting, banking, law, or something else tangential to venture capital and new venture formation, and you want to transition into venture capital, then the Finalist process is likely the best route for you. 
There are three phases of the Finalist process: i) written application (essays, transcripts, letters of reference); ii) the interview; and iii) affiliation. Applicants are invited to interview on the strength of their written applications. If the interview goes well, the applicant is invited into the program provided that he or she can secure an appropriate affiliation with a venture capital firm or other organization that puts time, money, and advice into startups. (More on that below.) People who are given this conditional offer to join the Fellows Program are called Kauffman Finalists. They become Kauffman Fellows when they secure an affiliation with a venture capital firm or other appropriate organization and the CVE approves of the would-be Fellow’s plans.
In the past, the Kauffman Finalist designation has been valid for two years, so that if a Finalist does not find an affiliation by the time the new class starts, he or she can keep looking with the aim of affiliating in time to join the class that starts the following year. There is a least one Fellow in every class who became a Finalist in one year and who found an affiliation the following year. I don’t know if the CVE is still running the Finalist process this way, so you should contact the staff to find out the most accurate information.
If you’re already working in venture or in one of the other non-venture capital roles represented in the Fellows community today, then the Affiliate process is for you. Compared to the Finalist process, the Affiliate process can be more straightforward. You submit a written application, and you interview. If your interview goes well and your employer and the CVE sign off, you’re in the Fellows Program. An important aspect of the Affiliate application process is persuading your employer to give you the time away from the office and (sometimes) the financial support required to enroll. 
It’s important to note that unlike academic fellowships, the Kauffman program is tuition-based. Tuition is currently $72,500 (total, over two years). When you consider tuition, completing the Fellows program requires an investment akin to the ones you’ve already made in your undergraduate and graduate/professional degrees. Consider your investment wisely.
The Program has operated continuously since its founding, and, with my batch, has graduated 16 classes of Kauffman Fellows. In the beginning, the Program organized a sort of “match-day” in which applicants were invited to interview with brand name, mostly Sand Hill Road, venture capital firms. From the applicant’s perspective, the bulk of the work of becoming a Kauffman Fellows was front-loaded. Admissions used a highly stringent filter to determine which applicants would be invited to the match-day. As you might expect, those applicants who were invited had a very good chance of landing a job at a top venture capital firm. Merely being invited was a signal that the person was a high potential candidate for venture. It was like the NBA Draft, but even more selective. It was great for applicants who made it through the filter, and GPs loved it because it made recruiting fresh talent highly efficient.
Today, the Program still uses a very selective, if not more selective, filter on the front end, but it no longer organizes a match day. This is due in part to the shrinking number of open positions available annually in the venture capital industry. But the main reason match day doesn’t make sense anymore is because the Program now draws from a pool of applicants who are coming from a much more diverse set of functional roles than principal investor at a brand name U.S. venture capital firm. Given the broad demand for admission into the program along sector, stage, size, and geography, it would be difficult to organize a match day that could provide the same efficiencies today.
However, matching is still part of the Program’s DNA. If you’re applying through the Finalist program, or even if you’re an Affiliate candidate who has to persuade her boss or partner to green-light her participation in the program, getting someone else’s support is going to be a critical part of becoming a Kauffman Fellow for most candidates.
What happens once I’m in?
The short answer is that you go through an intense training program in venture capital and startup creation that involves class work, independent study, mentorship, networking, and leadership development. The curriculum is delivered through seven modules that CVE organizes over the course of two years. The modules are held in Palo Alto in March, July, and October.
It’s very hard to generalize the impact that these modules have on Fellows, mainly because what one gets out of them is a function of where a Fellow works and what she is trying to accomplish in her career. Also, much of the content is not open to people outside of the Fellows community, especially when it involves the comments and views that top VC practitioners choose to share with the community when they visit. If you’re eager to learn more about what actually happens during the sessions and how it can impact your career, and you should be if you’re applying, then you should definitely connect with Fellows in your ecosystem in order to learn more.
Think locally, Invest Globally.
As I get to the end of this marathon post, I realize that I’ve completely buried the lede.
That’s because I’m only now talking about people; classmates, mentors, speakers, founders, and staff who you will meet along the way and who make the Fellows program the very unique educational experience that it is.
Check out this Twitter list of Fellows to get a sense of who’s in the program (at least on Twitter). It’s pretty amazing to see in real time how each one is actively investing in his community and building a startup ecosystem.
Each class that enters the Fellowship these days brings into the community people who are leaders in their fields around the planet. Whether they’re running economic ministries, angel groups, accelerator programs, or serving as investment professionals in brand-name venture capital firms, they are all highly accomplished and driven to become even better at what they do. It’s not uncommon for Fellows, many of whom have attended the top universities in their countries, sold companies, or who have already distinguished themselves as investors, to wonder how they met the high bar of admissions.
You might think that such a group would be full of arrogant and competitive people. While Fellows can get pretty competitive (poker, anyone?) the CVE has an unusual knack for selecting candidates who optimize IQ as well as EQ. They’re smart, but coachable; self-aware, but humble; confident, yet vulnerable. People like that are unique and hard to describe with words. So, once again, if you have any interest in what actually happens at the modules, you should meet the CVE staff and get to know the members of the Fellows community who live and work where you live.
This post is a primer on the basics of applying to the Fellows program, and it’s intended as a jumping-off point for Q&A in the comments or elsewhere. I hope you’ve found the information useful as you put together your application, or at least, that you’ve had your interest piqued. In either case, I encourage you to learn more.
 I’m sure I’ve left out a lot of important objectives and history. If you can fill in the gaps, please let me know or speak up in the comments.
 I say “likely,” because, for some, it may make more sense to land in venture before considering the Kauffman Fellows Program. Depending on how much experience you have, what you want to do, and your life stage, the best route into venture may not be to apply to the Fellows program right away. It might make more sense to do the Fellows program after you’ve spent a couple of years in venture or in another field in which you work intimately with startups. It’s a personal decision, and there is no “right way” to navigate these issues.
 I applied through the Finalist process, so I’m not that familiar with the intricacies of the Affiliate process. If you can add some color, please do so in the comments or message me and I’ll update this post.
Franklin B Thompson (Some History)
timtom.ch (Two Paths)
Aidan Jones (Affiliation)
pwoodleywonderworks (Think Locally, Invest Globally.)