2012-2013 Startup Internship Award Winner, supported by the Wharton Entrepreneurship Advisory Board
How did you find the position?
I think if you can find a way to really learn about a sector that matters to you, while also working on some of your own ideas, then you will have more perspective and you find opportunities for an ideal summer experience. I ended up at my job through a combination of two forces – my focus on early stage education technology companies through the Wharton Social Venture Fund and my research into voice recognition technology through a business venture idea. I leveraged the wonderful Maria Halpern (Wharton MBA Career Management) to get organized for a search in January, but didn’t use MBACM at all for my search (not sure I even went on the site besides to post my resume in August).
I became interested in education as I soul searched in school for my ideal next job. I wanted to work in an area where new technology had the potential for major impact on critical a social issue in the U.S., and found this nexus in educational technology. I pursued this interest through a part-time consulting role for venture fund looking into edtech. I also co-led the investment process for the Wharton Social Venture Fund (WSVF), and as part of the diligence process I looked at 40+ edtech companies from the investor perspective. This forced me to “come up to speed” on the sector, focus on a few companies I’d like to work for, and helped me gain credibility in interviews later in the spring. We eventually made WSVF’s first investment of $50K to Goalbook, a company that built an amazing technology platform for the special education market.
Also over winter break, I was working with my friend from MIT on a venture idea for the MIT 100K competition. The concept required use of voice recognition technologies, and I had been in early discussions with the ventures lab of SRI International (birthplace of Siri before Apple Sale). When my venture didn’t have the momentum I wanted heading into the summer, I interviewed for several edtech companies. It turned out the most interesting company I met – Kuato Studios – I was connected with through this lab, as a former Siri investor and entrepreneur in residence at SRI was spinning out an education venture using similar technologies.
What was your motivation for working at a start-up this summer?
Before school I helped launch an impact investing organization from the Rockefeller Foundation. When I started we were two people, and when I left we were 15. That process – including the excitement and the bumps –was an amazing professional experience and convinced me that I wanted to work early stage.
I wanted to work with a company that was just starting to test, validate, iterate, and improve their first (or new) product. I wanted to have input on product development, but also work in a business development role to see if that is something I would like to do after graduation. I thought if I could spend three months in a company understanding the product and product pipeline, and focus on strategic partnerships that could improve the product, better serve customers, and make the company stronger, that would be an ideal summer experience.
What advice would you give to students interested in working at a start-up this summer?
Go for it! Most likely it will be fun, you will learn a lot, and you will actually be “needed” each day. I can’t stress that last point enough. At an early stage with Kuato, I knew that my work wasn’t going to culminate in an end-of-summer intern presentation that gets put in a folder that no one ever sees. I knew if I screwed up, it would actually matter for the company, and if I did well it would make a meaningful difference. I was the only person at the firm besides the CEO working on anything close to business development, so I was able to secure the company’s first partnerships and really feel like my work was of importance.
I also think it is important to try out a new “work environment” where you are working with people with different types of skills from you. The Kuato team was a combination of engineers, natural language PhD’s, animators, graphic designers, UI experts, and teachers! Pretty much 100% new for me. It was an amazing learning experience to see how those different skills sets are used to create a product – in our case a 3D iPad game to teach science and computer science to middle school age kids.
How did this experience influence my future career plans?
Spending time in San Francisco, I felt the passion this community has for transforming and improving education. I learned a ton about how to think about designing products to leverage the digital lives of kids, and also how games work as learning systems. More broadly, I learned that good education products do two things: 1) engage students in learning, and 2) enhance teacher effectiveness. The wholly grail of adoption is when teachers feel empowered and kids feel engaged. There are amazing entrepreneurs working on these issues, and the next five years will be a really interesting time to be working in this sector. I am confident this is an industry full of opportunity and important problems to work on in the next few years.
I also learned to understand the role of business development, and see how mutually beneficial technology/content/marketing partnerships come to be. I also think there is a ton I have to learn in the category of “entrepreneurial marketing” that I’d like to explore next year to prepare myself for a startup role after graduation.