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How Interning at a Startup Helped Me Figure Out What I Want To Be When I Grow Up

Marissa-Kaplan“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Even as a young girl, I panicked whenever someone asked me this question.  When eager adults asked, I’d share a default answer, one that transformed as I got older.  At different points as I grew up, that answer would be “movie director”, “stay-at-home mom”, “professor”, or “CFO”, but I never felt certain about or committed to any career path.

Now, as an MBA student, that question has morphed into “What do you want to do after business school?” The question is even more unnerving now as I have admittedly “grown up”, whether I want to face it or not, and my career choice feels even more important. Business school will provide me with a once-in-a-lifetime launching point to break into my industry or field of choice, and it feels critical to make sure my next career move is the right one.

I’ve often wondered, “Am I not passionate enough? Why doesn’t one cause or industry grab me and compel me to put my life’s work into it?” I’ve learned, though, that passion can be hidden — it’s not always right in front of you, but it can be something you seek out and discover.

Given that, I am spending my time during business school solving this daunting puzzle the best way I know how: using the scientific method to run small experiments and test various hypotheses.  My summer internship is a key chance for me to test these hypotheses, and I am lucky to be spending this summer at CommonBond, the startup online lender that focuses on more affordable student lending, as one of four interns working to create a “Startup within a Startup”. Throughout this experience, I’ve been able to successfully test my hypotheses about what I like and don’t like in a role, company, and industry in the hopes that I can figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

The four hypotheses I have tested at CommonBond this summer are:

Hypothesis 1: I work effectively in a startup environment.

Prior to CommonBond, I’d worked at large companies, ranging in size from 500 to 200,000 employees.  Working within the team of just under 100 employees at CommonBond, I’ve learned that a small company suits me for three reasons: access to high-level strategy, trust to lead large projects, and exciting unpredictability.

  1. Access: I’ve been exposed to each department here at CommonBond since teams are tightly linked during this high-growth phase. Though my day-to-day work has focused on the launch of a new product, I have been engaged in and aware of the high level company strategy with exposure to everything from Series C funding to engineering priorities, to hiring plans, to customer service improvements.  This sense of transparency is motivating because I understand the larger strategic purpose behind my work and I can see the impact I’m making on the company.
  2. Trust: CommonBond has entrusted me and the other interns to launch a product that is high-priority and crucial to the company’s growth. This level of accountability is exciting because I know that my time and effort spent here will have a lasting impact on the company’s future.
  3. Unpredictability: When it comes to fending off the mundanity of work life, constant change is welcomed. At CommonBond, projects, roles, and priorities are frequently changing and it has kept me adapting and learning – and anything but bored.

Hypothesis 2: I enjoy being an entrepreneur (or intrapreneur, in this case) and launching a product from scratch.

In addition to thriving within the startup environment, I’ve loved the functional role I’ve held this summer.  My team (four of us interns) developed the product strategy and business case for a new product offering and we are launching later this year. I enjoyed the autonomy and critical thinking that went into creating something from nothing.  Though we had frequent meetings with the CEO, CMO, and Director of Special Projects, the product was ours to independently develop; we determined the product features, user experience, pricing model, go-to-market strategy, and made many other key decisions.

Hypothesis 3: Operations is a functional role that suits my skills and interests.

I love to think about systems and processes and how companies can deliver on a product or service from start to finish.  My work on this product launch confirmed this excitement as I naturally gravitated toward operational aspects of the product: defining how technological systems must integrate, determining cost reductions based on scale, analyzing pricing options, planning partnerships with third-party vendors, and researching and resolving legal issues.

Hypothesis 4: I am most motivated when working for a company with a strong social mission.

I’ve learned that passion for a job comes not only from daily functional responsibilities and company culture but from the larger impact that your day’s work is having on the world.  The CommonBond Social Promise, where for every loan funded by the company they fund the education of a child in need, is core to the business, and it motivated me to work especially hard for this company.

This summer of experimentation has helped me narrow down which career opportunities I will pursue after business school. The learnings from my time at CommonBond will inform the types of roles and companies I target in my career search: operations and strategy roles in smaller, mission-driven companies.  I will continue to use the scientific method throughout my career, testing new roles and environments and seeing whether I fail or succeed. That, and I’ll follow my heart!

Marissa Kaplan, a 2016 MBA summer intern at CommonBond, is about to begin her second year at Harvard Business School.

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