2016 Startup Internship Award Winner Supported by The Dr. William Zucker Entrepreneurship Internship Fund
Sitting at my in-laws’ kitchen table on and off Google Hangouts for hours was not how I pictured my first day on the job. Then again, how could I have known what life at a startup would be like? I spent five years before joining the Wharton community working as an engineer in the petroleum and petrochemical industry for one of the largest publicly traded companies in the world. My former employer had systems for systems and regimented work processes for nearly every task. I painfully remember all too well having eight occurrences of the same “alignment” meeting over the course of ten months leading up to a project with a two-week execution window. “Action-oriented” was not a term heard frequently, let alone embraced. Yet there I was, a year after leaving big oil, diving headfirst into the startup world – albeit from the confines of middle-of-nowhere Connecticut – while the startup I had just kicked off with was relocating offices. The bad news was that I had to spend another day in suburbia. The good news was that the two-year-old startup was moving because it was growing too quickly to stay in its original space any longer. The even better news was that three weeks into my internship with Andela, we would announce our $24M Series B led by Mark Zuckerberg himself as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s very first investment. Now, halfway through my internship, I’ll take a moment to reflect on how I got here in the first place.
Working in oil has its perks. First and foremost, after you spend four years in college living off of dollar slices and ramen, a six-figure starting salary makes you believe in miracles. Second, you get to travel to some incredibly remote places. I remember booking my first flight to Equatorial Guinea and thinking, “Hm, I’ve never heard of this Guinea before.” Third, your work is relevant and is the fuel (quite literally) for the plethora of energy-dependent industries that produce both the common goods and the luxuries that we enjoy every day. I always thought it was funny when a friend would make an offhand comment about the industry as she was applying her makeup (for those that don’t know – where do you think the white oils in your cosmetics come from?) Fourth, you live a very comfortable life with relatively stable job security and a handsome retirement. When I asked my mom what my pension plan was good for, she nearly choked. All in all, for a lot of people, oil is a phenomenal industry to build a career in.
It unfortunately took me four years to realize that I was not one of those people. Leaning on the railing of a construction vessel as it rocked back and forth in the waves off the coast of West Africa, I looked down at the water dotted with rainbow hues from errant oil droplets and up at the glowing platform flare, burning off streams of excess gas. Back onshore, driving from the heliport to the compound, I scanned the roadside and saw the impoverished people bereft of the riches of the industry that were hoarded instead by the government. I felt uneasy about the work I was doing, and on the flight home I started researching the Wharton MBA.
Okay so oil and I were not a great match. But why startup? For starters, I was never good at taking orders. My mom likes to tell the story of how, when I was five, I would go underwater every time my swim instructor would start talking. I went on to be the youngest kid ever to get his high-dive badge at the South Orange public pool (sadly, still my only claim to fame) which won me major points with the six-year-old girls – I never had to work for a Popsicle again. Trying to figure things out on my own became my attack strategy for everything, which didn’t always end well, like the time I tried to make my own projector with a halogen light and Saran wrap – but hey, you never really learn a lesson until you almost burn your house down. I’m not saying that startups don’t have great leaders who inspire you to follow them – I’m in awe of the leadership at Andela – but you’re also more often than not left to your own devices to figure out what to get done and how. The best startup leaders will empower their teams and keep them motivated and bound to a central mission without micromanaging. I’ve come to value and thrive in that type of inspired chaos.
Having spent my entire professional career in a “non-traditional” role, I was also keen to get broad exposure to as many facets of business as possible. Embedded in a startup, I knew I would have my hands on work products that spanned several different functions – and indeed that’s been the case. Instead of focusing on building a brand, competitive analysis, positioning, campaign management or marketing data analytics, I’m neck deep in all of them – and then some. While undeniably exhausting, this bowling ball juggling act is the best way to gather extensive insight – working at a very high level and a very low level all at once enables me to paint the big picture and see all the little brush strokes that make it beautiful.
For me though, it couldn’t be any startup. I wanted to be in the thick of it: early stage enough that I’d be constantly moving at 100 mph, but mature enough to have proven potential and direction. More importantly, it had to have a meaning and a purpose bigger than me, the other employees, and the founders. My experience in the oil industry weighed heavily on my conscience, particularly so when I left it to return to school and had a chance to exhale and reflect. But I’m not some virtuoso. I want to make a good living, and this MBA student loan debt wants me to, too. Luckily for me, we’re in an exciting time where the best new businesses integrate a for-profit model with deep-rooted interests in promoting social good – just look at Toms Shoes, Warby Parker, CommonBond, etc. Why? Well, for one thing it’s morally good – but there’s a key business driver as well. At the end of the day, the scarcest resource for growing companies, the one hardest to find, is us – the talent – and talent nowadays want more than just a paycheck and a challenge – we want a mission, a sense of purpose, an impact. Andela provides just that. Andela is founded on one central belief:
“Brilliance is evenly distributed; opportunity is not.”
By recruiting genius-level software developers in Africa, shaping them into technical leaders, and connecting them with companies searching for talent, Andela unlocks tremendous opportunity for both sides of the talent market. In addition to fixing an instance of global structural unemployment, the timing of this fix is spot on. For every software developer in the U.S. right now, there are five software development jobs, so demand is high. Technology is also primed to help distributed teams work effectively together. The advent of Slack, Trello, Google Hangouts, etc. have all contributed to making remote work that much less remote. And if all those things about Andela weren’t great enough, working for the startup “more elite than Harvard,” as CNN Money dubbed it, was a natural fit for a Wharton guy ;-). So, when I saw the internship listing on Wharton’s CareerPath, I shifted my full focus to securing the position.
So what are the key lessons that I’ve taken away from my transition?
First, find something that can comfortably support your lifestyle that pays supplemental bonuses in an intangible currency, unique to your own passions. I think it’s misguided to advise people vaguely to just follow their dreams and pursue their passions. I’m too logical for that. Instead, identify an opportunity that integrates some aspect of your passion(s) into a relevant, growing industry. Once you find it, bust your ass to get it and keep it. That way you’re diversifying your portfolio of compensation. If you have a low-passion day, at least you made some good cheddar, and if your bonus comes in subpar – hey, at least you had some fun along the way.
Second, pay attention. Be aware of your skills and how transferable they really are, and embrace them. Going from engineering in a Fortune 2 company to marketing in a two-year-old startup, in completely different industries, I thought I’d be starting from square zero. I could not have been more wrong. The analytical approach derived from my engineering background has done wonders for my grasp of digital marketing and the oceans of data that flow in and out of it. I can also treat each new marketing campaign like I did my subsea installations: with plans constructed from past forays’ data, with measurable objectives, and with strategic execution. Thankfully, my colleagues at Andela knew this all along. For proof, they weren’t put off after requesting for applicants to have at least four years of professional marketing experience, only to see the first line of my cover letter read, “I have zero days of professional marketing experience.”
Lastly, selvedge denim beats the hell out of fire-retardant coveralls. #startuplife