Getting Venture Capital Experience While Still in School

As a student at the University of Illinois I had the opportunity to gain exposure to Venture Capital (VC) through a number of experiences. These were a major factor in helping me realize I wanted to go into VC after school. Since joining the investment team at Lightbank earlier this summer I’ve received a number of emails from students interested in breaking into VC themselves. For me, the exposure I got and the network I built in the process was a major reason why I was able to get full-time offers. In this post I’ll highlight some of the ways to get exposure to VC while still in school.

One of the most accessible ways to get VC exposure is by getting involved with organizing and running startup programs on campus. At my alma mater these programs didn’t already exist, so I worked with several friends to start them. Although it wasn’t intended, I did many things through these programs that are very similar to my job now. The Startup Bootcamp program we created had me working with dozens of companies in a number of industries, helping them solve their unique problems and challenges as they came up. The Founders Microgrants program we started had us running diligence on startup teams on campus and giving them grants to build their ideas. My involvement with these programs helped me develop connections with founders, VCs and alumni. These opened doors for me to get fellowships and internships at venture firms (more on these below). If your school already has such programs, I would highly recommend getting involved with organizing and planning. If not, you have the opportunity to start these, which is even more exciting. Founders (U Illinois), MPowered (U Michigan), EPIC (Northwestern), Bruin Entrepreneurs (UCLA), and Harvard Ventures are just of the awesome student groups to look at for inspiration when thinking of starting your own.

Many schools also have Venture Capital clubs and courses which organize content and competitions around VC. Although generally something that is geared towards MBA/grad students, some schools have undergrad programs as well. Example clubs include the PE/VC groups at Columbia, Kellogg and Wharton. Many of these groups also compete in VC case competitions, getting to simulate the experience of sourcing or doing diligence on a startup. There are several competitions open for anyone with a team to apply to. The VCIC is the most popular case competition but there are several others — many at the regional or local level. An example is the Chicago VC competition hosted by Midway Ventures at U Chicago.

A great way to get venture experience is by participating in a student fellowship program at a VC firm. Fellowships are created by VCs to target specific geographies or campuses they’re interested in and involve students acting as ambassadors for the firms. The student fellows look for local deals and share them with the firm, generally discussing the deals as a group. This is a great way to learn more about how the firm operates and what they look for when investing. I had the opportunity to be a part of two such fellowship programs — at .406 Ventures and Chicago Ventures. Lightbank (where I currently work) also has a fellows program for MBA students at certain schools (more here).

Student-run VC firms have recently started to gain momentum as some venture firms as well as independent student groups create funds where student partners have the ability to invest in local companies. Roughdraft Ventures (Boston, NYC) and Dorm Room Fund (Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, SF) were two of the first and the most well known. Others include the University Venture Fund (Salt Lake City, Utah), Redhawk Ventures (Oxford, Ohio) and A Level Capital (Baltimore, MD). Niraj Pant wrote a post highlighting many of these here. These programs are a great way to get venture investing exposure, with the ability to write actual checks. Although most of these were started only a few years ago, many alumni from these programs have gone into VC after graduating. You could potentially try to start one of these if there isn’t one in your region already, but there are many issues with trying to invest other’s money as a student. There are creative workarounds however to get the capital. At the University of Illinois, we started a micro-fund investing in student founders using left over sponsorship money we accumulated from other startup events.

Finally — the best way to get VC exposure is by interning at a firm. I left this for last because these are extremely difficult to come by, especially if you aren’t an MBA student at a top university. It’s easier if you live in a city with a large number of venture firms, but even then the competition is tough, opportunities limited, and many aren’t publicly advertised. John Gannon maintains an updated list of VC openings on his blog which is a good place to keep an eye out for internships. However, most students I know who were able to get VC internships already knew investors at the firm through projects or programs they had worked on. They were offered the internship without a public job posting being made. My internship came about this way as well. I had been connected with an investor at General Catalyst Partners because of a side project I had built and ended up staying in touch with him. When the firm decided to bring in an intern I was asked directly if I was interested. I’ve met some people who were able to craft their own roles at firms as well. Generally these start out by reaching out to the firm with a similar investment interest — either the same sector or geography — and figuring out how you can add value. Blake Robbins at Ludlow Ventures had an experience like this, which he detailed in a blog post earlier this year.

Big thanks to Niraj Pant, Jay Bensal, and Wiley Jones for providing feedback and revisions on this post. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Niraj’s post on “Student Venture Capital Programs”.

I love connecting with new people. Found this post helpful or useless? Interested in breaking into VC or learning more about the industry? Or just looking to meet a fellow tech enthusiast? Shoot me a note: ali @