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Demystifying startup life

Plenty of students are interested in entrepreneurship at MIT. But there aren’t a lot of opportunities to work at startups because of their small size and limited resources. That can make startups feel like a black box to students unsure if they would like the environment.

Since 2016, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship has given undergraduate students the opportunity to work at early-stage startups during paid summer internships as part of the Pozen Fellowship program.

The 10-week program includes training, mentorship, and funding so that students can maximize their learning and get the most out of their experience.

The program uses students’ interests to match them with companies — many of which were founded by MIT alumni. Students typically take ownership of specific projects through the program, such as putting together marketing campaigns, designing websites, and writing code for software products.

“Working for a startup, especially a lean one, requires you to think for yourself,” junior Jake Jones says. “The startup gives you the opportunity to act with maximum authority but also requires you to work within incredibly restricted resources. I learned [through the Pozen Fellowships] that I have the capability to thrive in a startup environment.”

The program also serves as a counterweight to the internships offered by big tech companies, giving students a chance to see their work make a more tangible impact.

“This experience is so different than working at big tech,” junior Tinah Hong says. “The contrast will really enlighten you as to what type of work you might want to do after graduation. I quickly realized that I was able to take on any work that I wanted and that I could suggest projects, take ownership of them, and voice my own opinions on company decisions.”

Learning by doing

The Trust Center has built up a vast network of startups over the years, but it wasn’t until 2016 that leadership including Senior Lecturer Bob Pozen and Trust Center Managing Director Bill Aulet decided to start a pilot program to give students an inside look at working at new companies.

“It’s really adding an aspect to the Trust Center we didn’t have before,” Pozen says. “Most of the students in the program have never worked at a startup.”

After getting positive feedback from students over the first two summers, Pozen formally funded the program with an endowment in 2018. Now the program gets around 100 applications from students every year.

“We’re looking for students with an interest in startups and entrepreneurship and a willingness to be flexible and learn,” Pozen says.

Each spring, the Trust Center begins training selected students to work in a company environment. Companies also assign students a mentor to ensure they’re getting the most out of the experience.

“The most important thing is that companies have someone that can be a dedicated mentor,” Pozen explains. “We don’t want students to go to the company and not have someone who’s looking out for them and helping them learn.”

The Trust Center checks in with students periodically throughout the summer, and students also constantly share stories and best practices with their fellow interns.

Last summer, junior Rachel Park helped the MIT spinout Aavia, a hormone health company, build additional software features on its app.

“I was nervous about lacking technical experience, but my mentors and supervisors worked really closely with me, they were quick to answer my questions,” Park says. “It ended up being a great experience.”

The companies, for which the program is free, also say they get value out of the fellowships.

“Working with [Pozen Fellow] David was excellent because he was able to take a lot of initiative, and also MIT provided a good framework for how to work with people and how to set up projects,” says John Peurifoy ’18, whose company Floating Point Group helps institutions buy and sell cryptocurrency. “MIT really sets up all the scaffolding to take on interns.”

At the end of every summer, students also write a paper reflecting on their experience.

“Every year they’ve been wildly enthusiastic,” Pozen says. “They say they got a chance to really learn about startups and to put together a new product, so they get great satisfaction from their projects. They really feel they make a difference in the company’s success.”

More than an internship

Many of the companies that participate in the program were founded by MIT alumni that worked in the Trust Center themselves as students. The arrangement means that founders and early employees are just a few years removed from being in the students’ shoes, making it easy for students to see themselves in those positions.

“We kind of treat entrepreneurship as this amazing thing, but students think it’s really hard and are nervous about it, so I think just seeing it in the wild helps,” Peurifoy says. “They think, ‘If these idiots are able to do it, I can too!’”

It also teaches students about the unique working environment of small companies.

“I learned how important culture and community are to startups,” Park says. “With Aavia, there were less than 20 people, and I was just inspired by how close everyone was. It was exciting to see because everyone was virtual. Despite having a diverse and spread-out team, they were still able to hold a strong sense of community.”

Perhaps the most common feedback the Trust Center gets from students is a sense of fulfillment that their work made a tangible difference for the company.

“Each day, I felt I was making a real, immediate impact,” sophomore Reece Yang says. “The company’s development cycle was fast: Code I wrote at the start of the week often made it onto production before the end of the week. Now I’m hoping to continue working in the startup space, or even found my own company in the future.”


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