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How Booth Is Redefining The Pre-MBA Summer

The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Accelerator at Chicago Booth plays a key role in the school's new Startup Summer program. Courtesy photo

The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation Accelerator at Chicago Booth plays a key role in the school’s new Startup Summer program. Courtesy photo

One intern helped a startup find its footing in a crowded market. Another worked on a company’s transition to a mobile platform. And yet another actually helped her fledgling company stay afloat. All three companies had one program to thank: Startup Summer, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business brainchild that’s celebrating its second go-round in 2017.

Startup Summer offers incoming Chicago Booth MBA students who have expressed an interest in entrepreneurship the opportunity to work for a Booth-led startup for six or seven weeks in the summer before they begin their MBA studies. The school acts as match-maker; admits with an entrepreneurial bent are happy to get a ground-floor look at life at the startup level, says Stacey Kole, clinical professor of economics and deputy dean for the Booth full-time MBA program — and young, perhaps struggling, certainly not-yet-surefooted companies are happy to have the help from a group of serious go-getters.

It’s a thoroughly unique program, Kole tells Poets&Quants, that grew from six students last summer to 24 this year — and that may grow even more in 2018. “As far as we know, this is the only program of its kind at a top-tier business school,” says Kole, faculty program lead. “It may be even bigger next year. As long as we find donors we’ll keep going.”

NO ONE SAID, ‘I WISH I HADN’T DONE THIS’

In conjunction with Chicago Booth’s Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Startup Summer’s six participants last year worked at five companies, mostly in Chicago and San Francisco; this year’s crop of 24 are currently working for 16 startups in Boston, Chicago, New York, Houston, San Francisco, even as far afield as Sao Paolo, Brazil. Booth pays the interns’ salaries, which Kole points out are not high — but what they lack in pay they make up in hands-on lessons and mentorship from Booth alumni leaders at the startups, all of which can trace their roots to Booth.

Startup Summer is the product of feedback from a group of Class of 2016 MBAs who shared with the school their thoughts on summer internship preparedness. Among the observations, Kole says, was that they wished they’d done more with their pre-MBA summer — particularly if it meant a chance to explore entrepreneurial opportunities. And Booth being a school that nurtures entrepreneurial inclinations — the school was ranked 14th in the world for entrepreneurship by Financial Times last year — that feedback was taken to heart, Kole says. “Some of them were not sure whether they really were a fit for startup, let alone figure out if the startup they were working at is the right one,” Kole says, “and it was that sentiment that was the catalyst for the creation of this experiment.”

She says the six students who participated last summer split neatly into thirds when offering their thoughts on the program. “Two of them said, ‘I love this. I am so a startup person that when the investment banks and the consulting firms come to interview, I am gonna pass.’ Two people said, ‘You know what, I actually like being part of a big organization — when my computer fritzes, I want someone with expertise to fix it. I want to take advantage of the HR stuff that’s available, the professional development that startups don’t offer, so when I recruit for my internship, I’m going to go to a big firm.’ And two of them said, ‘This is a cool experience, I learned a lot, I’m not sure, but I had fun.’

“So on net, that was extremely positive, and Startup Summer was born. No one said, ‘I wish I hadn’t done this.'”

A SPARK THAT LIGHTS AN ENTREPRENEURSHIP FIRE

Lavanya Anand, an MBA student at Chicago Booth

Lavanya Anand was one of the students who loved the experience. Coming from a corporate background — she did audit and tax work for privately held companies, for three years before spending a year and a half doing corporate financial reporting at Sony Pictures — Anand was excited to do a 180 into the world of startups. And Chicago Booth’s program didn’t disappoint, pairing her with Darby Smart, a San Francisco-based platform for creative craft endeavors and DIY how-to videos founded by Booth MBA Nicole Farb. Anand worked on search engine optimization and driving more traffic to the company website — a hugely important task for a company on the verge of launching a mobile app.

“My work involved social media and other channels, and understanding what’s driving the traffic,” Anand, 27, tells P&Q. “Understanding metrics for what landing pages are doing well, and then if a landing page wasn’t doing well looking at it and understanding why and how to make it better. I also did outreach to organizations as potential partners in the content that Darby Smart provides.

“It definitely piqued my interest in entrepreneurship. Having that initial exposure to a startup was invaluable coming into school, because I didn’t really know what to expect. I had seen a lot of things about entrepreneurship in the media or through workshops I’d been to, but this was my first time really getting my feet wet. So during my first year I’ve been more ready to jump into entrepreneurship classes. There’s definitely a risk component to it but I feel more comfortable taking some of these classes. … Having that startup experience gave me a lot more insight into how to evaluate other startups, how to work with entrepreneurs, what their interests are, that whole ecosystem.”

Among the classes Anand, now 27, took in her just-completed first year at Booth: a social enterprise lab in the winter quarter that involved a consulting project for a social enterprise startup. The class, added to her Startup Summer experience, sparked the direction she’s taken this summer: an internship with an angel investor and consulting with an early-stage nonprofit focused on youth development. Moreover, “From time to time I think about ideas for starting my own company, and I hope in my second year to dig a little deeper into some of the ideas I’ve had and see if there’s any potential for any of them.”