So You Want To Be An Entrepreneur

By Patricia Rose, Director of Penn Career Services

Over the decades that I’ve spent in career services, I’ve had countless students ask me for the best way to pursue an entrepreneurial career. The answer, of course, is there isn’t one right way: the path of an entrepreneur is notoriously full of twists and turns, and rarely looks the same for any two individuals. But there are a few suggestions I make to Penn students who dream of starting their own businesses.

  1. opportunity next exitTake a risk. The early years are frequently the best time to take a career risk.  If you decide to do so, remember that it is not hard in these first few years to pivot to another employer or another industry.  The Penn or Wharton degree on your resume makes it even easier, and the services the University provides to alumni provide a kind of safety net.  So don’t be afraid to forge your own path.
  2. Use your student years to develop and launch a business. Participate in the Wharton Business Plan Competition, the Venture Initiation Program or other activities at Wharton Entrepreneurship.  Penn students are truly fortunate to have so many opportunities to gain valuable advice and funding right on campus. Try PennApps or PennVention, or look into gaining backing from First Round Capital’s Dorm Room Fund. Using your student years to develop and launch a business is happening more and more here.
  3. Timing is important.  Large employers tend to make offers to seniors during the fall semester, if not before.  It is hard for students to resist the siren song of prestigious employers, lucrative compensation, and attractive sign-on bonuses, even if they have a business plan for an entrepreneurial venture all set to go.  That is why it is important for those who want to start their own venture or join a start-up to lay the ground work.  Devote the summer after junior year to building a business, or doing an internship at a start-up.  An early look at our survey of last summer’s interns reveals that over 9% of students who worked did so at a start-up. These students are more likely to stay in the start-up ecosystem or pursue an entrepreneurial idea after graduation.
  4. Go to work for a startup. Rapidly growing companies can provide great training for someone who wishes to become an entrepreneur.  While some late stage start-ups may not pay as much as larger companies, they are increasingly providing excellent compensation.  In addition, start-ups can offer stock options that could, when exercised, provide the needed funding in the early, boot-strapping days of these graduates’ own ventures down the road.  Finally, these organizations are filled with like-minded co-workers who could become co-founders or business partners in the future.   This path is also becoming more common with Penn students, especially as more new ventures participate in our career fairs, on-campus recruiting, and our spring Start-Up Fair.  At that event last year we had 70 start-ups hiring interns and/or full-time staff.  We should easily top 80 this year.
  5. Don’t be afraid to fail. What if you take the start-up path and it doesn’t work out?  Don’t worry.  In some quarters, such a failure is actually a rite of passage, and a demonstration of your willingness to take a risk.  You will have learned lessons that can be applied in other settings, particularly (but not only) other high-growth businesses.

There is no one pathway to success in any field, and that is particularly true for entrepreneurial careers.  You absolutely do not have to begin your working life at someone else’s company, large or small.  But it’s fine if you do.  The important thing is to think carefully about the options, and choose the way that’s right for you. Those of us in Career Services are here to assist.

PatRose_resizeBio: As Director of Career Services, Pat Rose oversees career counseling and programming, graduate/professional school advising, employer outreach and recruiting for all Penn undergraduates and graduate students in nine schools.   She has a particular interest in the use of technology, social media and data analytics in career management  and the job search process.  She is a huge proponent of start-up careers for Penn students.