For its first 15 years, the Orr Fellowship operated without an executive director. Volunteer board members and recent college grads effectively ran the not-for-profit, a two-year program that connects high-caliber graduates with high-growth companies.
But the Indianapolis-based program, which has yielded local tech stars like TechPoint CEO Mike Langellier and Geofeedia Vice President RJ Talyor, has gotten so big that the old model had to go. In March, the organization tapped Indiana native Karyn Smitson as its first employee and executive director, and she’s been working to formalize and enhance the high-demand program.
Since its founding in 2001, the Orr Fellowship had been run on a relatively ad hoc basis, board members and past fellows said, meeting many host company and fellow requests as needed. But Smitson is taking a more pre-emptive approach, and she’s aiming specifically at bolstering curriculum and communication.
“It was more reactionary,” Smitson, 53, said about the fellowship’s past operational model. “We are very deliberate in what we are doing now.”
Despite not having a full-time head honcho in the past, the Orr Fellowship has emerged as one of the pre-eminent talent-cultivation and placement engines in the region, and its alumni have senior roles at companies including Salesforce.com and Lesson.ly.
The program expects to have nearly 50 fellows in its 2016 class who will work for 33 host companies, including publicly traded Interactive Intelligence Group Inc. and fast-growing sales technology firm TinderBox. Orr already has a record 45 fellows in its 2015 class.
Some of the fellows have turned down job offers from Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Google and Apple, officials said.
The program works like this: Every year, the organization skims about two dozen colleges, mostly in Indiana, for seniors who have proven academic and leadership chops.
The students go through a rigorous application process, and roughly 5 percent get placed at Indianapolis host companies that pay the fellows, many of whom aren’t from Indiana, $47,000 a year for two years.
Outside of work, the fellows engage in a speaker series, business-idea competitions and more. Smitson said the program can be demanding, but it’s worth it.
“Our sole purpose is to develop the next generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs, and we think the best way to do that is through curriculum that we’re providing,” said Smitson, who most recently spent about a decade in various lay roles at Second Presbyterian Church. “They’re not going to benefit unless they’re there, so we do ask a lot of them.”
The Orr Fellowship was founded by Angie’s List Chief Marketing Officer Angie Hicks, along with Bill Oesterle, who was the company’s CEO at the time, and Scott Brenton, then the chief operating officer. It’s named after former Indiana Gov. Robert Orr, whom Oesterle worked for in 1987. There were eight fellows in its first class.
Brenton said the program was basically “run out of the trunk of the Angie’s List car” until 2009, when its board expanded and he became chairman. Brenton has since been the point person, but only on a part-time, volunteer basis.
Orr’s curriculum and programming under his watch haven’t been “contemplative or orchestrated the way a business school professor would plan their syllabus,” Brenton said.
That’s already changing under Smitson. The incoming cohort will be the first class to receive a credential upon completion, including certificates in project management or software produced by Salesforce.com, officials said. Fellows also will have access to a variety of professional-development workshops paid for by the fellowship, on topics such as coding, negotiating and sales.
“We’re trying to give them stuff you won’t get if you’re not an Orr fellow,” Smitson said.
She’s also trying to bring structure and consistency to communication with applicants, fellows and host companies. In the past, for instance, host companies mostly had to correspond with an elected fellow who would change every year.
Smitson said she’s also been proactive in reaching out to fellows and host companies about potential needs. For example, in October, she held the first-ever host-company forum to discuss expectations about the program.
Smitson is Orr’s official coach, promoter, organizer visionary and archivist. She said it’s invaluable for the organization to have someone “in the trenches saying, ‘You know, we tried that. It didn’t work.’”
It was last fall that the board decided the fellowship needed an executive director to manage its growth, which was fueled partly by the success of some the area’s technology firms. These firms include marketing tech company ExactTarget and banking-software producer Baker Hill, whose sales created windfalls that helped spawn a number of startups. Those startups have looked to tap Orr for talent that’s difficult to land otherwise.
“We’re looking for young, fresh ideas, and you’re going to get that with kids coming out of school,” said Jon Gilman of Zionsville-based tech upstart Clear Software, which is taking on its first Orr fellow this year. “But if you’re a smaller startup, they’re not going to know about you.”
The number of fellows has swelled as well, as many students covet the access to executives and the instant network of like-minded fellows. Nearly 820 students applied for the 2016 class, including Chris Shelor, a 22-year-old Taylor University computer engineering graduate from Quincy, Illinois.
“Just coding all day and looking at a screen is not all that interesting,” Shelor said about why he applied for Orr. “But designing a system solution for a customer ... sounds very interesting.”
Fellows often kindle interest in students at their alma maters. That’s what happened with TechPoint’s Langellier, an Illinois native who heard about Orr from a friend at DePauw University.
Langellier did his Orr stint with Baker Hill from 2004 to 2006 and stayed on with the company until launching his own startup, MyJibe, in 2010, which he sold about 18 months later. He was asked to lead TechPoint, a tech advocacy not-for-profit, in 2012.
“It surrounded me with, and gave me access to, this really special group of accomplished executives that had already been there, done that,” Langellier said.
The Orr Fellowship draws revenue solely from host companies, which pay $1,000 per quarter for each fellow they host, in addition to each fellow’s salary.
Smitson said there were no cost increases associated with her hiring. The organization is covering her salary and curriculum goals by shifting funds away from an annual international trip, she said.
Smitson was born and raised in Columbus, Indiana, and went into marketing after graduating from Indiana University in 1984. She worked for an ad agency in Milwaukee and moved to Indianapolis around 1990 for a similar job.
She held marketing and communications roles at organizations including The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis before working for Second Presbyterian Church.
Orr board members were tapping their networks for a full-time leader when Orr fellow Eric Murphy, a family friend of Smitson’s, recommended Smitson.
“We got really lucky,” Brenton said. “What we loved about Karyn was just her effervescence and enthusiasm. We could tell that the things she committed to got all of her.”
Smitson has been not only professional but also personable, current fellows said, sharing advice like she’s a longtime mentor.
“Karyn walked in and was just doling out hugs, which was a great start to the day,” said Brooke Gallagher, a second-year fellow, at Orr’s annual job placement event.
Joe Rust, also a second-year fellow, was elected chief of staff by his peers. He described Smitson as “compassionate, dedicated and lively.”
“We were still working without her, and we knew it’d be helpful to have someone like Karyn,” Rust said. “But now that we have her, I don’t think we could survive if we lost her.”•