Ivory Towers and Startup Trenches: On the synergy between academia and business

As a college professor, when I work with students who seem ready for a “typical” internship opportunity, I usually encourage them to apply for programs where companies are advertising openings. These are usually large companies. In the Twin Cities area, there are great opportunities, and I’ve seen Hamline students thrive at 3M, Honeywell, and elsewhere. I can usually step back and watch the progress, intervening only when necessary to keep the student on track or offer my sage (such as it is) advice.

With the RateFast internship that Marten is doing, I had to re-imagine the whole process. For starters, why did RateFast founder John Alchemy, MD, even want me involved? He convinced me that my academic career provides a sense of rigor that might be lacking in other consultants he could hire. He says my contributions come with less risk for outcome bias. Well, since I wasn’t even sure what my contributions might be, I had to agree with that, at least initially. Now I have a clearer picture of the complexity of the project, and where bias might creep in, and the academic foundation becomes even more significant.

As for bringing in an intern, it seemed a natural extension of my involvement for a couple of reasons.

First, because I teach and interact with hundreds of students every year, I have become a reasonable judge of their academic understanding. That’s my job! Who gets an ‘A’? It’s not just a matter of points on exams. My assessments are based on a variety of problem solving factors, critical thinking, accuracy in calculation, persistence at tasks, integrating other disciplinary perspectives, and working in teams. I judge the strongest students based on all of those things, which means I have a pretty clear sense of who might be the best fit for certain projects and programs that require a degree of independence.

Second, I am constantly striving to communicate with students! That is, I’m not in an ivory tower, sending out my polished publications to other specialists in my field. I do my share of communicating with other experts, but I am constantly on the lookout for ways of connecting key concepts with learners who come from a variety of backgrounds. Those students challenge me to abandon assumptions about what they should know, and seek an awareness of their contexts of understanding. And I certainly do not have the perspective of a consultant, who might only try to tell my employers what they want to hear. That’s the academic rigor part again, but in a communication setting.

Third, I have a wonderful opportunity to identify students who are ready to take on a particular project challenge. Sometimes, this means selecting my “best” student for a large challenge, but more often I have several “best” students who excel in distinct ways. I can help sort them into programs or projects that suit their distinctive abilities. In this way, I’m not only directing students into great opportunities — I’m helping the companies and programs to fill out their talent pool in the best possible way. (At least, that’s my hope!)

John has pointed out that educating someone is a big investment in the future, and often with an uncertain return. By me knowing a student’s classroom track record, it really helps to hedge that risk.

I’m happy to report that, so far at least, it seems that Marten and I have been a good investment for RateFast, although time will tell whether we really help them achieve the payoff they hope for in getting the program to succeed.

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