For Business Students, Leaping into an Internship Brings Big Rewards
Published: March 22, 2011
When St. Olaf junior Molly Moon headed to Chicago to participate in ACM's Business, Entrepreneurship, & Society (BES) program last fall, she was looking forward to her internship working on a new website with Genevieve Thiers, the award-winning entrepreneur who founded Sittercity.com. Details about what she would be working on, though, were scarce.
"When I got here, the website was a complete and utter secret," Moon recalled. BES Director Robyne Hart was in the dark as well.
"Genevieve couldn't even tell me what the concept for the website was," Hart said. "So I told Molly, 'It's very esoteric, it's in the formative stages, she can't tell me the name, she can't tell me anything. If you're willing to take a leap of faith, Genevieve's a fabulous person to work with.'"
Moon took the leap. The result? "Just beautiful," said Hart.
An internship is a key part of the curriculum for every student on the Chicago Programs – BES, Chicago Arts, and Urban Studies – and reflects the programs' experiential, interdisciplinary approach that blends theory and practice.
BES participants work at least 18 hours per week at a business or non-profit organization, and often choose to spend more time at their internships. Placements are tailored to each student's interests and cover a wide range of areas.
BES students with Rob Solomon, President of Groupon, during their visit to the company as part of the program's seminar.
Last semester, along with Moon's internship at Contact Karma, students interned at finance-related institutions, a recording company, retail stores, a restaurant, consulting and market research firms, and a neighborhood chamber of commerce.
The students also take the BES seminar, which focuses on meeting and learning from entrepreneurs, a practicum that leads to an independent study project, and the Chicago Programs core course.
Overall, the aim of the program is to help students think and act like entrepreneurs, taking creative approaches to solving complex problems.
Taking a central role at Contact Karma
ContactKarma.com, the brainchild of entrepreneurs Genevieve Theirs and Dan Ratner – the wife-husband team refer to themselves as a "couplepreneur" – went "live" while Moon was doing her internship with them.
Gevevieve Thiers talking with BES students during a visit to SitterCity.com.
The website aims to help people find and evaluate vendors from plumbers to dentists to caterers, with discounts thrown in as a bonus. Thiers described it as combination of a social network, a review site, and a daily deal site "all smooshed together."
Thiers has been a valuable resource for the BES program for the past couple of years, as students have studied her company, Sittercity.com, in the seminar. Hart was intrigued when she heard about the couple's new venture and the chance for a student to do an internship with them.
"I know Genevieve well enough to know that she would make an experience for a student intern amazing, so I trusted her explicitly," said Hart. "With the type of student Molly is, the way she thinks, and how she approached things in this opportunity, it worked really well."
Taking risks – those "leaps of faith" – are just part of the territory for entrepreneurs and for students who want to learn from them, Hart observed. It's in the very nature of the creative process required to start a business.
Moon saw that process firsthand. "A lot of my work was defined while I was here, which was exciting because I got to have a lot of say in what I did," Moon noted in an interview near the end of her internship. "But at the same time, some days I'd walk in having no idea what I was going to do. It's always exciting, in that sense, working with a start-up. It's always different every day, always changing."
Thiers agreed with the day-by-day ups and downs of building Contact Karma. "As Molly will tell you, it's very hard to create something new," she said. "Every day you say 'It's perfect.' And then you rip it down and build it again. Then it's perfect again and you rip it down again. So it's been really fun to watch."
As the only staff member working with Thiers and Ratner, Moon played a central role in the business. "I've been helping with marketing, sales, and PR jobs for the website, getting it off the ground, finding our target market base, and recruiting users for the website," said Moon. "I work one-on-one with both the CEO and the president of the company, and they take me into consideration on just about every decision they make. They really want to hear my opinions. It's been a great experience being able to be involved that much in a business and really know I'm making a difference in what they’re doing."
Project management at InContext Solutions
"I've definitely been getting a lot of experience in the business field I'd like to go into after college," said Brendan O'Brien, a senior at Ripon College, about his internship at InContext Solutions. "We test customer behavior for larger companies to see where they should put their product in stores."
BES participant Brendan O'Brien at his internship site, InContext Solutions.
InContext Solutions takes a high-tech approach to conducting market research for retail and manufacturing clients. The company has developed an online 3D virtual store in which customers "shop" for products to test product placement, packaging, display design, and store layout. It's a small, but growing, company led by CEO Bob Gillespie, a Knox College graduate who majored in computer science and English.
InContext Solutions values liberal arts graduates, according to Gillespie, because much of the company's work involves critical evaluation, synthesis of ideas, and the ability to effectively communicate with clients. For O'Brien, the internship offered opportunities to develop his skills by taking on a variety of tasks.
"I work with the project management team, so we oversee the projects that come in," O’Brien said during a break at the InContext offices. "We work from start to finish, getting the data, making sure the client gets what they need, talking to the client about where we're at in the project. My role is to help the other three project managers. We have a lot of projects at the moment, so I've been bouncing back and forth between different projects, entering stuff into the database, taking pictures of products."
For his independent study project, O’Brien studied the history of outsourcing and conducted research, based on the actual costs of InContext's past projects, to analyze the pros and cons of outsourcing some of the company's work.
The lasting effects of the program, on campus and beyond
O'Brien noted that what he learned in Chicago would directly apply to his Business Management major and activities at Ripon, such as working at the college's Creative Enterprise Center (CEC). "We're a student business consulting firm that's run by students and mentored by professionals and professors," O'Brien explained. "We help people around the Ripon community with the business planning process."
Molly Moon in front of the Merchandise Mart, where her internship with Contact Karma was located.
Ripon's Business Management Program was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Avery, who was an entrepreneur, consultant, and business owner for nearly 20 years before joining the Ripon faculty. The program features an interdisciplinary curriculum and encourages students to use their liberal arts grounding to engage in "real world" business experiences, such as internships and the CEC.
On the BES program, O'Brien said, "I've gotten to see how other people got their business started. I'll be able to take that back next semester to the CEC and share my insights and new knowledge."
Similarly, Moon was already planning her remaining time at St. Olaf, where she's working on an independent major called Business, Management, and Innovation. "Since I designed this major myself, my senior year I will be doing my own independent study project," she said. "A lot of the ideas and things I talked about with [Genevieve Thiers] here in doing my [internship] can start to develop into what will be my senior thesis."
Moon expected that the program's impact would continue beyond her graduation. "The program really made me think, and made me kind of change my perceptions about the business world and what I want to do with my life," she continued. "We've seen so many inspirational entrepreneurs and businesses that it makes you want to do something big and think big. So even knowing that I'm still in college and have a long ways to go, it makes business and entrepreneurship a reality…. I think the things I've seen and done here will stick with me the rest of my life."
Business, Entrepreneurship, & Society
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