PROVIDENCE -- When Andrew Yang returned to Providence in 2012, he noticed that parts of the city had blossomed while others had withered since his graduation from Brown University in 1996.
On one hand, downtown had come alive with the addition of Providence Place mall and other shiny new developments, but other neighborhoods seemed to be struggling even more, he said.
“When I was in school in the 1990s, it was less extreme on both ends,” Yang said. “I don’t remember Providence being as nice -- or as beleaguered. There was more inequality. And that pattern has played out in many communities.”
Now, as Yang makes a long-shot bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, the lessons he drew from his days studying at Brown and from his return trips to Providence are shaping his candidacy. Drawing on what he learned in Rhode Island, he is emphasizing the need to offer opportunities at all ends of the economic spectrum in a rapidly changing economy. Indeed, his ties to Brown, and the friendships he made as an undergraduate here, are laced throughout his career as an entrepreneur and political candidate.
In 2012, Yang had just launched Venture for America, a nonprofit aimed at bolstering cities such as Providence by training newly minted college graduates to work for startups.
Today, he has catapulted from a political unknown to one of the seven Democratic presidential candidates to qualify for the most recent debate. He is receiving national attention as he warns about the toll of automation and a winner-take-all economy while making the case for a universal basic income that would pay $1,000 a month to every American over age 18.
But his story begins in Schenectady, N.Y., where Yang was born in 1975 to Taiwanese immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s and met in graduate school. Growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., he was one of the only Asian students in his school.
“I felt myself to be an underdog growing up as a skinny Asian kid,” Yang told the Globe.
In his second book, “The War on Normal People,” he described himself as being “like one of the kids from ‘Stranger Things’ but nerdier and with few friends,” and he recalled being the target of racial slurs and insults.
When he arrived at Brown University in 1992, he took part in the Third World Transition Program, which “welcomes new students to Brown with three days of workshops and community-building programs that center the student of color experience.”
Yang said the program isn’t accurately named, but, “It certainly made me understand how different people and different groups experience life in America, and that perspective helped me a great deal. It’s one reason I’m grateful for Brown.”
In his first book, “Smart People Should Build Things,” Yang said he chose Brown over Stanford in part because his family lived on the East Coast, and at first, he planned to pursue an English degree. “But after a semester of reading ‘Moll Flanders’ I switched to economics and political science,” he wrote.
Political science Professor Ross Cheit recalled having Yang in his Introduction to Public Policy class. He said Yang was “very engaged with the material and energetic in class,” and “interested in problem solving.”
Yang said the semester he spent in Hong Kong during his junior year “gives me perspective on what’s going on now.” Hong Kong has seen months of anti-government protests, touched off by a proposal to allow extradition to mainland China.
“I have family in Hong Kong, and it just makes you feel for the people there all the more because I have seen Hong Kong in peaceful and prosperous times,” Yang said. “To see it wracked by violence is difficult.”
In “Smart People Should Build Things,” Yang said he spent his spare time at Brown working out, training in taekwondo, and playing video games such as “Street Fighter II.” He said his proudest accomplishment was bench-pressing 225 pounds eight times in a row. “If the above description makes me sound like a fairly unremarkable student at Brown, that’s about right,” he wrote.
Sophia Ruan Gushée met Yang during their senior year at Brown, and they remained friends afterward when they both ended up in Manhattan. She said Yang was not the type of classmate who seemed determined to run for president some day.
“He was never a guy who you would have imagined would be interested in politics. He wasn’t an extrovert,” she said. “So it’s just beautiful to see how much he has evolved to become so connected with so many people because he cares so much about the issues.”
Ruan Gushée, who was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States when she was 9 months old, said she and Yang often talked about how they wanted to make their Taiwanese-born parents proud but also wanted to pursue different career paths than their parents envisioned.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about life -- about what we do now in our early 20s,” she said. “We very much honored our parents, our heritage, how hard our parents worked to give us these educational opportunities. We loved our parents, but at the same time we were in touch with our souls and listening to what is going to make our souls sing.”
After graduating from Brown, Yang earned a law degree at Columbia University and worked for five months as a corporate lawyer. But then he left to cofound an Internet company at age 25. And after it folded, he helped a friend launch a test preparation company, Manhattan GMAT, which ended up being acquired by test prep giant Kaplan Inc. for millions.
Ruan Gushée, meanwhile, worked in private equity before having children and becoming interested in toxic exposures from common household products. In 2015, she published her first book, “A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Our Toxic Exposures.”
Ruan Gushée said it would be “pivotal” if Yang became the nation’s first Asian-American president. “I can’t even imagine the ripple effect it would have," she said. "But it would be positive.”
In 2008, Yang returned to Brown for an alumni panel on entrepreneurship and met Charlie Kroll, a fellow Brown alumnus who had started a website development company in Providence called Andera, which employed about 100 people.
Yang said Kroll inspired him to launch Venture for America, a nonprofit that was like Teach for America, only for entrepreneurs.
“I thought if you had enough young people starting 100-person companies in Providence and Cleveland and Detroit and New Orleans, it would give those communities a boost,” Yang said. “In the wake of the (2008) financial crisis, I saw devastation in so many communities, and I thought: We need more people to do what Charlie Kroll did, instead of just going to Wall Street.”
With Kroll on the board of directors, Venture for America launched in 2011, and Yang ended up spending six summers in Providence, running Venture for America training camps at Brown from 2012 to 2017.
Yang said he and his wife grew to love Rhode Island. “It has a lot of both creativity and grit,” he said. “It has a lot of great assets -- but it also has significant challenges.”
He said Venture for America worked with Providence-based companies such as Splitwise, which makes it easy to split bills with friends and family.
And in a 2016 Forbes article titled “Rhode Island: The Startup State,” Yang noted that Ethan Carlson worked at a Providence company during his Venture for America fellowship and later started a successful business called Escape Rhode Island, in which people solve puzzles to escape from rooms.
Carlson, who is now pursuing a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Yang’s presidential campaign flows naturally from his work with Venture for America. “In both cases, he’s looking at the concentration of wealth, power, and talent in a few locations in the country,” he said.
With Venture for America, Yang aimed to inject “fresh talent” into cities with relatively high unemployment, helping to create tech jobs along with the service-sector jobs that go along with them, he said.
“But Venture for America wasn’t working fast enough,” Carlson said. “Even if it achieved its nameplate goal of 100,000 jobs by 2025, it wouldn’t make a dent in the technological shift with automation.”
So now, Yang is running for president, focusing attention on the impact of automation and identifying potential solutions.
“In my opinion, he has already achieved an immense amount by getting universal basic income into the national conversation,” Carlson said. “He has strengths and weaknesses, but he is fundamentally correct about the where the economy is headed and the need for powerful solutions.”
Danny Warshay, executive director of the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship at Brown University, said Venture for America has succeeded in providing struggling American cities with a fresh infusion of educated entrepreneurs, but it has not grown to the scale that Yang desired.
“Part of the reason for that is that there is a fundamental shift in how work is going to be done in this country,” he said. “The old form economic development is not sustainable, and that is part of the impetus for why he is running for president.”
In a phone interview, Yang was talking about how he used to spend time on Thayer Street, a strip of shops and restaurants on the Brown campus, when he suddenly said he had to go. “I have to call a donor,” he explained.
It was far from his only donor call.
Last week, Yang’s campaign announced that he raised $16.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2019 -- up from $10 million in the third quarter and $2.8 million in the second quarter -- placing him among the quarter’s top five fund-raisers in the Democratic field.
But Yang has not yet qualified for the next debate, set for Jan. 14 in Iowa, and The New York Times places Yang in seventh place in the Democratic primary race, with a national polling average of 3 percent.
So, while he’s come a long way from Thayer Street, Yang still has miles to go to make it to Pennsylvania Avenue.