Four Reasons to Consider a Startup MBA Internship
by Kathleen McGuirk, Kellogg MBA ’18
This summer, I interned at CommonBond, a fintech startup tackling higher education financing. CommonBond was the second fintech company I worked at, and one of the reasons I chose to return to work in a startup was because I thrive off the energy that defines startup cultures. In particular, I enjoy the ability to take quick, calculated actions to make an impact on business metrics.
Now, as I head back to Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management to start my second year, I have been reflecting on my summer internship search, which began at this time last year. This time of year is traditionally when first-year MBA students begin to explore how they want to spend their summers. Why should MBA students consider a summer role at a startup, instead of a larger company? And, how can they make the most out of their experience? Here are four pieces of advice I would share with any incoming MBA students considering spending their summer at a startup.
Adaptability is key.
It’s been said before, but it’s 100 percent true: In a startup, you’re often doing the work of an analyst and an executive, which means you can get a wide range of responsibilities—and you have to get excited about rolling up your sleeves and getting work done, no matter what it may be. Be prepared to work on many different levels!
For example, during my internship at CommonBond, in the span of two days I worked on a presentation for the company’s board of directors and compiled mailing addresses for a mass mailing. I felt completely comfortable switching gears between projects and pitching in for the team at both levels, but it isn’t for everyone.
At a startup, you’ll be able to take on management projects and responsibilities that you wouldn’t receive at a larger company, but you also may not have a more junior employee to help you with more tedious assignments. The ability to pitch in at all levels is one of the hallmarks of what makes someone the right fit for a startup environment, versus a big company environment. So if you’re considering applying for a startup MBA internship, make sure you’re comfortable working across levels. It will be the norm at a startup, not the exception.
Set personal goals and track what you do.
The combination of a fast-paced startup environment coupled with a 10-week internship program means you really have to drive the experience to make sure you get what you need out of it. That’s why it is immensely important to set personal goals and track your progress against those goals throughout the summer. This enables you to be proactive about what you want to learn, allowing you to ask for projects that will help you achieve your goals.
I had three main goals:
- Making measurable improvements in my Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint skills
- Improving my public speaking abilities
- Developing strong relationships that could turn into meaningful mentors and contacts
I wrote my goals three weeks prior to the start of my internship, refined them after the first week, and then revisited them at the close of every week. I reviewed what I had been doing each week and kept track of my progress to understand what I had accomplished and what I still needed to work on. Doing this provided a continuing reminder of what I wanted out of my internship and helped keep me on track to meet my goals.
Meaningful connections count.
As MBA students, one of the most valuable aspects of two-year experience is making meaningful connections with people. Treat your summer internship as an extension of that opportunity. The people you meet and work with can not only teach you new skills. If you form meaningful connections, they can also serve as future sounding boards and mentors.
Take the time over the summer to make meaningful connections throughout the company—with your intern peers, leaders throughout the company, and the executive team. CommonBond proactively created opportunities for interns to network and work directly with the company’s executive team. And a good part of both my first and last weeks at CommonBond was spent going to one-on-one coffee chats with different team members. Ideally, this openness is ingrained in a company’s culture. But if not, proactively take the time to make meaningful connections so you can build relationships you can rely on in the future.
Consider what your background can bring to your role—and use it.
Startups rely on making the most of each team member’s prior work experience, and they need all kinds of expertise. Figure out what you know, and figure out how to use it to help the company.
My prior experiences included investments and wealth management, managing education accounts, customer experience, and operations. These were all immensely transferable skills I brought to this internship that helped me succeed at my projects.
For example, I had previously worked for a robo-advisor, so I started my internship at CommonBond already knowing the ins and outs of different college savings accounts. I used my subject-matter knowledge and experience to help educate members of the CommonBond team about the other side of lending for higher education: the saving side. Additionally, I was able to apply concepts learned at Kellogg to projects I was producing for CommonBond. I came to realize how my unique work experiences contributed to the overall team, which in turn helped instill in me the confidence to own some pretty senior projects, including leading weekly product meetings and making a final presentation in front of the entire company.
If you’re already embarking on the summer MBA internship job search, don’t discount working at a startup. This past summer, I was able to build out my subject-matter knowledge in fintech, refine some hard skills, and make valuable and interesting connections.
You may find that startup recruiting in business school is not only much later in the recruiting cycle but also almost entirely off campus and self guided. I encourage those interested in working for a startup to make use of the summer internship and to be patient as well as persistent. For me, interning at a startup was an incredibly valuable experience because it gave me responsibilities and insights I would never have had otherwise. I’m excited to bring these skills back to my second year at Kellogg and to my post-MBA career.