MBA Summer Internship: “Traditional” or Entrepreneur?:

by on May 29th, 2014

First year of b-school is in the books! 10 courses, 10 finals, the FIELD experience (including starting a microbusiness and a 2 week trip to India) and all other experiences that go with the first year at HBS are complete. This year has exceeded my expectations in just about every way possible. The student body is more impressive and talented than a class profile on paper does justice. The professors are dedicated and sold-out to facilitating our learning. The cases and curriculum are powerful and relevant. The finance workload, too, was even more than I had expected, though alumni tried to warn me. It is fair to say the experience so far as exceeded expectations in both pleasing and challenging ways. But we came here for transformation, no?

I want to share one of the conflicts raised by my business school experience. It’s an individual, professional and somewhat personal, question previously discussed on this blog: what do you want to do post-HBS? The question is raised early and often, I imagine at all top business schools, as summer internship recruiting starts in early October, about 4–5 weeks into the first semester. Firms representing more traditional pipelines (consulting, finance, general management at large firms, etc.) start the recruiting season. These companies roll-out the red carpet. They are competitors engaged in a battle for perhaps business’s second most limited resource-human capital (time being the most precious resource), and they battle hard. Great information sessions, comfortable dinners, and planned interactions with company leadership can fill your first year fall schedule. The smaller firms and start-ups will usually not recruit or even discuss openings until around Spring Break, as they have real resource constraints and an unclear view of their human capital requirements. And when they do come to recruit, it’s usually in a more muted, fancy food and drinks not included fashion.

So how do you “touch bottom” on your genuine career interests in the face of a myriad of wonderfully marketed, highly attractive options?

We’ll save that discussion for another post, but briefly I’ll say that I was most torn between consulting and entrepreneurship. It’s not an uncommon tension; it’s certainly not unique to veterans, though veterans are uniquely qualified to be entrepreneurs, as most have unwittingly demonstrated entrepreneurial skills while on active duty (including being a joiner at an early-stage firm).

I chose to pursue an entrepreneurship path. Why? I’m a student of the school of thought that says the summer between 1st and 2nd year is a low-risk opportunity. It’s the time to explore and get to the bottom of these large, intractable internal conflicts. My experience in a business plan competition only intensified my desire to have an entrepreneurial summer! There are other schools of thought, and certainly trade-offs; for example if you want to pursue finance post-MBA, you almost certainly need to intern with a financial firm.

That said, I certainly attended information sessions and formed relationships, but I ultimately decided (with the support of my wife) not to apply to more traditional positions. By January, I watched as 55% of my classmates accepted, often lucrative, offers. They appeared have their summers, and their lives, planned out. Note: they don’t really have their lives planned out, but naively, as you watch from the sidelines, one starts to feel the “pressure.” In March, as usual, start-ups started to offer internship roles. And it’s an exciting time. All sorts of high-potential, and some low-potential, start-ups start to post internship openings. These start-ups are engaged in “tip of the spear,” high-flying, tight-rope type activities that appeal to most young people, vets especially. And win, lose, or draw, many of them will leave a dent on the industries they’ve entered, often pushing the industry in a better, more open direction.

MBAs all over the country start to apply and compete for these coveted spots. As a veteran, I felt I had an up-hill battle selling my skill set to a lot of the start-ups I targeted, most specifically in the tech space. But in the end, we are generalists who bring skills suited to navigate foggy, intense, dynamic landscapes, i.e. being a value-add player in a start-up. It admittedly took a few interviews, mostly done by phone, Skype, Google Hangout, to refine my pitch. In retrospect, I could have done much better during fall and winter to prepare for start-up recruiting, which is slightly different than preparing for traditional firm recruiting.

The tension continues. I have a wife and one child. We’ll hopefully have more. We both have some graduate school debt, and are accustomed to a certain standard of living. I’m certainly willing to sacrifice in order to build a company I believe in, but how much should I ask them to sacrifice?Also, suppose the start-up fails. Will I be able to get a more “traditional” job afterward? We’ll all approach this question with our unique set of circumstances.

As for an internship, I’ll be at a tech start-up this summer. More to follow. Semper Fidelis.

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