After the flurry of recruitment passes, the reality of your summer internship starts to settle in. There is a moment in every MBA journey when a tiny thought flitters into your mind:
“Am I even qualified to do this job?”
Our core courses teach us how to complete a discounted cash flow analysis, dissect the 4 P’s of Marketing, and understand Porter’s Five Forces in foundational business strategy. For many of us, it’s a bit mystifying how we can actually apply this new knowledge in our future jobs. We wonder if we’ve done enough to prepare for our new career. This can especially be the case in a startup environment. Here, the roles are less formalized; there usually isn’t a defined internship program and you’re expected to hit the ground running.
As a student in the Kellogg School of Management’s MMM Program, a joint-degree in Business and Design Innovation, I entered school planning to transition from a traditional healthcare career into health tech. Through a diligent off-campus recruiting process, I landed a product manager role at a healthcare AI startup in the Bay Area in April. From there, I spent the remainder of the school year anxiously awaiting what summer would bring.
It didn’t take long on the job to realize that so much of what I had learned over the past year was not only relevant for my job but also extremely valued at a startup. Startups are frequently so hyper-focused on rapid product development and customer acquisition that they value employees who can think strategically and independently deliver on new ideas. Often, key concepts from first-year courses, when applied to a startup environment, can lead to valuable discussions and drive decisions across marketing, sales, operations, and new product development.
In the spirit of paying it forward, I’ve compiled my top three takeaways from my summer internship experience. While my experience was at a health tech startup, these lessons can be applicable across industry and company size.
1. Being nimble is required. During my second day on the job, I found myself in a sales prep meeting with my manager and several senior company members. Needing to add ROI numbers to the pitch deck, my manager unexpectedly turned to me and asked: “You’re in business school…you can help with this, right?” I panicked, thinking to myself that I wasn’t hired into a finance role and barely knew the business. However, I quickly realized that we did not need to build a complex financial model. Rather, we simply needed to demonstrate where the cost savings were for the customer and how that set us apart from the industry standard. The final output was repurposed for future meetings and led to my role in redesigning the entire sales deck over the summer. No matter what your specific job title is, in reality, business school provides you a foundation in a variety of functions that empower you to add value across the company’s needs
2. Taking initiative can lead to opportunity. Internships at startups are often less defined and your manager often has less time to oversee your experience. Early into my internship, I was asked to conduct market research on a foreign topic. I dove into the research, setting up calls with potential customers and experts in the field to fully understand the user journey and identify a potential new product opportunity. After meeting with my manager, I noticed that although she had done her own research, she trusted my analysis to make important decisions.
While I had no professional experience developing a product from scratch, let alone an AI product, I knew that my MMM coursework had prepared me to think strategically through this process. During a foundational course titled “Research, Design, Build,” we partnered with a corporate innovation team to get hands-on experience solving business problems through customer research and new product design. Channeling what I had learned in class, I focused on pain-points for potential users and pulled together technical requirements for our data science team to build a machine-learning model. On the last day of my internship, I had the chance to present the final product to a future customer! By showing ownership early on, I was able to design and launch a new product in the span of 10 weeks.
3. In a rapid growth environment, you will have to make decisions without all the “ideal or necessary” data. In the real world – and especially at startups – incomplete information is simply part of the game. I spent part of my summer working with a physician to identify which type of high-cost medical events could be predicted using AI technology. Online information was limited, so we knew we’d have to rely on a mixture of scarce data points and the physician’s clinical knowledge to move forward. As our discussions progressed, it became clear that our true value was in synthesizing physicians’ real-world experiences, online market research, and our own strategic analysis to develop a new product for our customers. Available data was simply a launching point to get us on the right track — critical thinking got us across the finish line.
My internship reminded me, you will always learn the most by doing and learning doesn’t stop when we leave the classroom. From perfecting a client pitch to diving deeper into the world of data science, I learned something new every single day during my internship.
I entered business school interested in direct-to-consumer health tech, but I was open-minded throughout the internship. I left the summer inspired by the impact business-to-business AI is having on health care and empowered as a new product manager in a field driven by analytics. During my last year at Kellogg, I plan to continue growing and learning as an expert in the machine-learning domain.
Being curious on the job will push you into new fields and topics beyond your initial expectations. My final piece of advice is to maintain your student curiosity when you re-enter the workforce. With an open mind and a willingness to make yourself uncomfortable, you just might surprise yourself with how much you’re able to grow in one summer. I’m grateful I did, and I plan to continue to push my own boundaries.
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Lauren is a MMM Joint Degree Candidate, MBA and MS Design Innovation, Kellogg School of Management, Segal Design Institute at the McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University.