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Think of Yourself as a Startup: Advice for New Grads

By: Evan Marwell

All around the country, college students are graduating and many of them are entering the workforce for the first time. It’s an exciting moment and a pivotal one. It can be daunting to face so many big decisions all at once, figuring out where you want to live and work and who you want to be.

As a parent of college-aged kids and the Founder and CEO of an organization that’s dedicated to creating access to more educational opportunities for students, I’ve been thinking a lot about how new graduates can make decisions to help them succeed in work and life. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned on my career path, shared in hopes that it helps you find fulfillment on yours.

1. Choose the company where you’re going to learn the most, not the one with the biggest name recognition.

I was lucky to have more than one offer when I graduated, but instead of joining one of the big-name companies, I chose a new firm.

Here’s why: I wanted to work where I could learn the most. At big firms, there’s a very clear hierarchy. That meant that I would have been reporting to junior staff and my responsibilities would have been limited. But at the small firm, I had the opportunity to work directly with — and learn from — the partners. They gave me the chance to do work that I wouldn’t have been able to do at a large company that early in my career. For example, I was on a team doing a project for one of the largest pharma companies in the world. I had prepared the presentation that was to be given by one of our partners to the CEO, but he decided that I should give it instead. I was less than a year out of college and worried that they wouldn’t want to listen to me, but he said: they’re going to listen to you because you did great work. Everyone else is going to give their opinion, but you have the data.

That did two incredibly powerful things for me at a young age: it taught me the importance of data and that youth isn’t a barrier to being able to do anything. When it came time for me to start my first company, I felt comfortable walking into the offices of people who were twice my age and way up the pay scale. It gave me the confidence to sit at the table with them.

There are plenty of good reasons to take an offer from a more established company — stability, social proof — but your breadth of responsibility will be narrower. At a small company, you get to take on more responsibility, touch more aspects of the business, and work more closely with people who have more experience than you.

Make learning your number one goal, and the confidence that you earn through doing challenging work will outweigh that which you might get from being associated with a big brand.

2. Nurture your network.

Almost everything good that will happen in your career will happen through the people you know. Just because you already have a job doesn’t mean you should stop doing informational interviews. It’s often easier and more fruitful to develop a relationship with people when you don’t need anything from them.

When you’re newer in your career, prioritize growing your network and make the effort to stay in touch. A quick thank you note and occasional follow up can go a long way — the contacts you make will be more likely to help you out down the line if they know their time and energy was well spent. I send handwritten thank you notes to everyone in my network who donates to the organization I’m on the board for, no matter how much they give. People will remember how you make them feel, and everyone likes to be appreciated.

As you advance in your career, stay open — you’ll find wonderful things that way. In other words, you don’t have to know that there will be a benefit to you to make the time to connect with someone. These days, I say yes as often I can. Recently, someone reached out after hearing me tell the story of EducationSuperHighway on a Without Fail podcast episode because he wanted to learn more about EdTech. I don’t know if or when we’ll cross paths again, but now this person is in my network and his passion is a clear indicator that one way or another he’ll be up to something good.

3. Making small asks of potential mentors opens the door for more.

Mentorship is typically a relationship that’s built over time. It might seem like a big ask for someone you don’t know well, so start small and be specific. People like to be helpful — if the person has an expertise they can apply to a challenge you’re facing, it makes it easier and more likely that you’ll want to continue solving problems together.

For example, when my son was a freshman in college he was working on a project to use data from a game to develop better strategies for how to play that game. It wasn’t part of his coursework, but as a data science major, he had access to a lot of great professors. He reached out to one to ask for help with his project and she was able to give him some ideas, which he implemented to great success. That experience later helped opened the door for him to assist her on other projects.

A mentor is simply someone you can go to for advice or to help you solve problems. If you continue to have meaningful interactions, your relationship with them will deepen.

4. Think of yourself as a startup.

Think of yourself as a startup: you’d rather have more stock than current compensation because ultimately the stock has the potential to be worth significantly more. Choosing a position where you will have more responsibility is like creating more stock in the business of you: the more you learn, the more you are investing in your future success.

Pay attention to the people and projects that strengthen you, and continue to seek them out. Early on in your career, your objective is to find a job you love, do it really well, and in doing it well, create more opportunities for yourself moving forward. I wish you well on your own journey — congratulations and good luck.

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