This blog post was written by Ruchi Patel, one of our Summer 2017 Chicago fellows.
After my sophomore year at the Pennsylvania State University, I was looking for an opportunity to get some work experience and advance my professional development. I came across Sage Corps and decided to apply, taking a leap of faith to have an extremely unconventional internship experience, and it ended up being one of the best decisions I have ever made.
I spent the summer with an amazing company, Coder Inc., based in Chicago. As an engineering student, I found myself straying far away from traditional tasks and dove deep into web/application development, venture development, sales and marketing, Blockchain technology, and everything in between. Upon returning to Penn State after the most amazing experience with Sage Corps, I sat down to reflect on the summer and realized that I had taken away so much more than I had thought. I have grown to be a better learner, employee, and human being. Fully aware of how cliché that sounds, I will attempt to explain the key lessons I’ve learned through my Sage Corps experience in this short recollection.
1. Your degree doesn’t define you.
The biggest misconception that several college students (myself included) fall for is that a degree is like a signed contract to a specific field. Let me clear that up right now — nothing I did this summer was in any way related to the engineering curriculum I study at school — and this was by choice. In the startup world, roles are less strictly defined than in other professional environments, and every person wears as many or as few hats as they want. You will have the freedom to explore new interests. It’s up to you to demonstrate interest and capability to take on projects and tasks that may deviate from your current knowledge. And this will, more often than not, result in a LOT of learning and growth. Restricting yourself to the limitations of one degree field will not only hinder your learning, but may even prevent you from discovering new passions and interests and things you might be really great at. Make yourself as uncomfortable as possible, as you never know what amazing opportunities exist past the traditional field of vision you may trap yourself in. The worst that can happen is that you find out you don’t enjoy something — and even that is an extremely valuable thing to know.
2. Take advantage of every event and opportunity — no exceptions.
Sage Corps will open more doors for you than you can keep track of, and they won’t always be highlighted and underlined. Seek out the opportunities to meet the amazing people that make up the startup community of your city. Go to every event that Sage Corps provides the opportunity to attend, and ask for more recommendations. Each event is carefully picked because Sage Corps HQ believes that we can benefit from them as students, young professionals and people. You will learn a great deal just from attending, and you'll get bonus points for talking to people (more about that later). The city you’re in probably has a reasonably established startup community, and the events that occur within that community are usually attended by important people with important stories. It’s a great way to get involved in “startup life” outside of your work, and there is always something really cool to see and be a part of. Even if you’re inclined to grab dinner with friends instead of going to that networking event HQ told you about, don’t. I guarantee that good friends will appreciate you grasping learning opportunities— and will maybe even join you.
3. Remember everyone you meet.
In the entrepreneurship community, everybody wants to help you get to where you want to be. As students, we are like blank slates. Our thinking isn’t yet confined by industry “norms,” and we typically don’t like to follow rules. We have our whole lives ahead of us to experience as much as we want to, and the people you meet will recognize that and will want to help you take advantage of that. You will have the opportunity to go to more networking events than students normally do, so make sure that you actually NETWORK. Shake hands, get a business card, and make a connection. Make a commitment to send a quick note to anyone you’re interested in continuing a conversation with, and connect with people on LinkedIn. Even if you don’t want to harness connections you make for professional reasons, smart people can serve as invaluable mentors throughout your college experience and the rest of your life.
4. …and you can learn something from everyone.
Tell them everything about you and listen to everything about them. You never know what distant connection you two share, and that may be the starting point of a mutually fruitful relationship. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you; the amount of knowledge you can accumulate from talking to intelligent, experienced people is greater than any textbook you will ever read. I speak not only for Chicago but for anyone in the entrepreneurial community anywhere when I say that nobody got to where they are without the help of people around them, and they will therefore very likely be willing to share as much as they can with you. I’ve met founders who readily disclosed typically confidential information because they believed there was something to learn from the failures they encountered. One thing you will quickly realize is that transparency and humility are very common traits of people in these communities. There will be an answer to every question you have, so ask away. Just be sure to listen and remember everything.
5. Your work will speak for itself, and your humility will take you further than the college seal on your degree.
Be open to criticism, but own your work. It’s yours, be proud of it, and put in everything you have to make sure you are doing your best work. It won’t go unnoticed. People always pay attention to sincere, hard work — so seek tasks that you’re interested in and give them your all. The best thing about working at a startup is that you will be able to see your project through from start to finish. I got to work on important projects and even present my work directly to clients. If there is an “extra mile” potential in what you’re working on, go the extra mile! Doing good work without begging for praise or recognition is the best way to get people to respect and appreciate you. Everybody is paying attention, especially in a work environment like a startup. One thing I am certain about is that your work will speak for itself, so let it. If you want to do more but don’t know how, ask questions, learn and deliver. You won’t get a gold star, but you will get all the right attention— and that will pay off.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help (sorry for being so predictable).
This one is the most commonly given, and under-used, pieces of professional advice I’ve ever heard. Hear me out. Being right all the time and knowing everything isn’t a thing. There will be times when you run into problems that you don’t know how to get out of. Doing stuff, messing up, and doing them again is a surefire way to learn a lot more than playing it safe the entire time. Your superiors know that you’re there to learn as much as you can, and sitting on something you don’t know how to do for too long will result in sub-standard results, a lack of learning, and a lot of wasted time. Ask for help more than you think you need to.
On a related note, don’t be afraid to speak up if you want to try working on something else. It’s like getting a bad haircut. It’s better to speak up and (maybe) make the hairdresser and yourself feel uncomfortable for 30 seconds rather than live with a haircut you’re not happy with. Knowing what you don’t like is as important as knowing what you do like; it helps to shape your interests and hone your strengths.
7. Thinking outside the box is easier than you think it is.
Creativity, imagination and innovation are some of the greatest and most valued professional strengths I’ve witnessed throughout my experiences. No, you don’t have to be “born with it” or be Thomas Edison to think outside of the box. If you have an idea that sounds crazy, it probably is, but it also has the potential to be really good. Taking risks is directly proportional to creativity, and both involve taking a road less traveled. In a small company, chances are that whatever is picking your brain is uncharted territory (to some extent) to the rest of your team, too. Brainstorm, speak your ideas and forget (most of) the rules; it will probably leave you in a better spot. And sometimes it won’t. Sometimes your/your team’s ideas won’t work, and that’s okay. Translating “failure” into “learning opportunity” is hard, but it's the most valuable thing you can do both for yourself and the rest of your team, and that will DEFINITELY leave you in a better spot.
8. Bring everything you have to the table, and believe that it is valued.
Don’t hide behind a laptop screen for the duration of your experience. Be social and play an active role in your startup—it’s the only way to give your work a personality. Make your opinions known and realize that there is a reason you are where you are, and it’s because your startup believes that you had something that they could benefit from. Prove it. Be yourself. Keep reminding yourself that you are where you are to learn and grow. Take advantage of that. Be confident, be deliberate. If you know that you are valuable and important to your startup, you will be more likely to be treated as such. Engage in meaningful conversations, don’t be afraid to voice your opinion, and trust that the learning process will always point you in the right direction.
Immerse yourself completely in this experience in and out of the office, get your hands dirty, mess up, and learn as much as you can. I found a new, exciting career path from my Sage Corps experience that I’m so excited to pursue, I have a ton of great stories and reflections from my time in Chicago, and I’ve made some incredible connections as well. There’s a lot to take away from your experiences, but only if you let yourself take it all in!