• Flux Magazine

"Do You Want to Work for a Startup?" by Dean Hollis Robbins

Are you interested in working in a tech industry startup after graduation? There are countless opportunities for energetic, hard-working, flexible, resourceful, graduates who enjoy teamwork. I'm launching a project called E+--short for Entrepreneur plus--for students who want to learn more.


A startup role isn't right for everyone. You may be working in the founder's garage rather than in an office at first. You may be marketing a product you don't fully understand. You may work long hours doing business development tasks you weren't trained to do. You may be given lead responsibility you're not sure you're ready for. You may have to fill in for someone else's job suddenly or spend all day looking for something that won't be needed at the end of the day. You may have 20 minutes to prepare for a presentation that the future of the product depends on.


For many students, the excitement of a startup--and the possibility of joining the next Uber or Honey at the ground floor--is compelling.


The first thing students should understand is the mismatch between what you learn at college and what a startup needs. Yes, many firms need people who can code. But growing startups often want commitment and attitude more than specific skills. Disposition is as important as knowledge. "Find me a graduate that will show up early, work until 10:00 if needed, and never send a sarcastic email, and I'll hire them tomorrow," one founder told me last month. "The last few hires I made became flaky within weeks and stopped showing up," another founder said last week. "Maybe one in ten has the right attitude."


Universities don't teach behavior or alertness, though they grade it. They don't teach you *how* to show up early, work until tasks are done, pay attention, and always be professional. Music students are trained in performance behavior (dressing appropriately, bowing) and serious athletes and are taught sportsmanship and how to talk to the press, but specific modes of polite self-presentation are generally left to community groups (Boys Scouts, Girl Scouts), churches, parents, grandparents, and the military.


The combination of a "can do" attitude, energy, professionalism, resourcefulness, consistency, and courtesy is hard to find in college graduates, and if you have it, startups will pay for it.


Many courses in the School of Arts & Humanities teach ways of interacting with ideas and others that prepare graduates for startup team culture. The small seminars of the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies teach how to listen, to articulate diverse points of view, to engage productively with fellow students, to think critically and ethically, to reevaluate their own position, and to be simultaneously intellectually engaged and kind. Upper-level Art Studio courses require group critiques, where student work is evaluated by faculty and classmates openly and productively with candor, rigor, and thoughtfulness. Creative Writing students workshop their stories and poems and learn to take feedback graciously. Communications majors learn the craft of swift writing while working on teams in media outlets. Music, Theatre Arts, and Dance majors are required to participate in ensembles.


Over the course of each semester, it's pretty obvious who plays well with others and who does not. Dedication may go up and down from one semester to the next as students balance the burdens of course work with competing pressures from family, work, and life in general, but everyone recognizes a team player.


Every day I see headlines that claim the tech world needs humanities and arts majors but I see few specifics about what that means exactly or how to deliver graduates to where they're needed. I keep hearing that early growth startups need graduates trained to be professional, kind, and supportive while working long hours in a fast-paced, collaborative, and goal-driven environment. So, over the past month, I've asked Arts & Humanities alumni, faculty, and students to recommend individuals who might have these qualities. Good writers who understand data and are curious about new products and new markets are especially valuable.


For every entrepreneur who founds a company, there is a need for 5-10 individuals to provide key supporting talent to bring products to market and grow a company. Are you an E+? If so, drop me an email at robbinsh@sonoma.edu and I'll be convening an information session in Spring 2020 for you to speak to tech founders about startup opportunities.

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