Start with a Parent-Approved, Sensible Major

Then follow your “thirst to learn new things”
Tequia Burt ’98

When Vivek Venugopal ’01 came to Grinnell, he never anticipated that he would fall in love with everything about the College, the town, and the people. He certainly didn’t anticipate that his sensible computer science degree would lead him down a path that culminated (for now) in a career in improv comedy.

It was the intellectual curiosity that he developed at Grinnell that led Venugopal to the spotlight and performing improv as a part of his job at Speechless, a San Francisco-based company that uses the comedic tool to help train people to become more comfortable with public speaking.

“I just constantly want to learn more,” he says. “That’s what the liberal arts education at Grinnell gave me — this thirst to learn new things. My favorite computer science prof and adviser, Sam Rebelsky, always said I’d learn much more than simply how to code at Grinnell.”

His path to Speechless was not exactly a direct one. In his time at Grinnell he poured himself into everything under the sun — the Student Government Association, Grinnell Singers, Con Brio, KDIC, student affairs, dining hall, intramural sports — everything, it seems, except improv.

Then after graduating, he moved to Chicago and became roommates with fellow Grinnell alum Kumail Nanjiani ’01. “It was right after 9/11 and we were worried we wouldn’t find jobs,” Venugopal says. “We were two brown immigrants, and it was a scary environment to be in.”

But though he was lucky to find a job through Grinnell alumni as a software developer in Chicago, Venugopal says he decided to take his career in a different direction and went into nonprofit fundraising because he wanted a job that had true social impact. That career moved him to San Francisco where he eventually jumped back into tech, into a startup acquired by LinkedIn in 2014.

Now he works as Speechless’ director of revenue, masterminding the company’s sales and marketing strategy. “It’s a tremendously impactful job,” Venugopal says. “We do a lot of work with women, minorities, and underrepresented, marginalized people. We give them the tools to amplify their authentic voices in spaces where they aren’t always listened to.”

Venugopal was initially attracted to the company after attending some of its open-mic sessions, which featured comedians delivering improvised talks based on slides they had never seen. That led to a love of all things improv and that passion led to him working with the company and creating his own musical improv show, American Immigrants.

“I’ve always felt that my superpower is my ability to give a coherent talk about any topic, to any group of people,” he says.

“Now I get paid to use that superpower to help people. I am incredibly lucky.”

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