Enstitute expands its apprenticeship program to St. Louis

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on March 25, 2014

From The News Desk

As student debt skyrockets, the number of college naysayers continues to grow. With this movement comes a number of programs claiming to be better than any university curriculum. I am referring of course to the many MOOCs (massive open online courses) out there, Peter Thiel's $100,000 Thiel Fellowship, and the countless online courses intended to replace MBAs. From all angles there are ways to avoid the astronomical and growing cost of higher education.

Me, I'm happy I went to a private liberal arts college. I received what I consider a solid education, fostered some invaluable personal connections, and all the while learned about myself while snuggled cozily in an ivory tower. But I stand before you a man more than $40,000 in debt. And I'm considered lucky.

Whatever your stance, the debate will rage on.

One program in the vein of college alternatives is Enstitute, a nonprofit that has been around since 2012. The program is a simple apprentice platform meant to provide young adults with paid opportunities to prepare them for the workforce. Today the program is expanding to St Louis, ushering in this announcement by flying nearly a dozen New York VCs to the midwestern city (on a donated private jet, mind you). These VCs represent donors and advisers to the Enstitute program. The intent of this visit is to meet with St. Louis founders participating in the upcoming program, as well as sit in on the upcoming InvestMidwest demo day.

A New York Times article last year looked at Enstitute and the kind of people it attracted, explaining its ideal fellow as a recent high school graduate or college dropout looking for professional avenues. It further explained the appeal to participating companies as "cheap, talented labor for a much longer period than a typical internship." Of course, anyone without a degree is always looking for ways to attain real experience, so from that perspective, it's arguably a win-win.

According to Enstitute's co-founder Kane Sarhan, the plans to expand the program aren't new. It recently launched a program in DC, and was looking for another possible locale. St. Louis, however, never crossed his or his co-founder Shaila Ittycheria's minds. In fact, when first pitched on the idea of launching a startup entrepreneur-focused apprenticeship program in St. Louis, his first thought was, "What the hell is in St Louis?"

Following a quick trip to scope out the city, Sarhan changed his tune. "The city just blew us away," he says. "The ecosystem has completely exploded." Sarhan points to a Forbes article citing St. Louis as having some of the highest startup growth in America.

Additionally, the opportunity seemed unique, not only for the fellows to learn the ropes, but to help invigorate a city on the rise. "This gives us an opportunity to build an ecosystem," Sarhan says. In terms of New York, Enstitute surely added talent to the workforce. But the city's tech sector is quite obviously doing just fine.

With this launch, Sarhan sees opportunity for his fellows to add capital and potentially become founders in a new and exciting place.

Sarhan and Ittycheria hope to bring 100 young soon-to-be professionals to St. Louis where they will be placed alongside thriving businesses. There, they will learn the ropes while receiving living stipends. Sarhan plans to have 500 Enstitute fellows in total by mid-2015.

Starting tomorrow applications will open for all three programs for placement in September. Sarhan is hopeful that his growing operation will continue to attract more students. He views the current state of education as a "massive problem."

And, it's true. Student debt is a massive problem. Whether this is the solution is beside the point. A program meant to inject the workforce is at least a good prospect for this economy. And one my credit score would be appreciating now had I participated.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]