Internships at startup companies offer mentorship from CEOs and less formality than corporate jobs
While it might not have the same prestige as interning at one of the “Big Four” accounting firms or Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers, some college students are choosing to pursue internships at small startup companies instead.
The only “big three” that University of Michigan sophomore Brittany Schulte sees at her internship are the three people who work for the company.
Rex Larsen | Grand Rapids Press
“I actually feel like I’m doing something and I’m part of the business instead of just another intern.”
Schulte recently started her internship at M Prep, an Ann Arbor-based startup offering preparatory assistance to pre-medical school students.
“Right now I’m working a lot with the social media aspects at the company,” she said.
“In fact I just posted the Facebook and Twitter blasts of the day out to all of our followers.”
While there is a wide variety of pay level for internships, those who choose to work for startups do so knowing that money is tight and that their primary compensation will be in the experiences they gain.
“I wanted to feel like the work I was doing was actually meaningful,” Schulte, who is not being paid for the internship, said.
“I can talk to the creators of the business, the owners, and feel like what I’m doing is important and that they’re really listening to what I’m saying.”
Co-founder Alec Lee said that having an intern is invaluable for the company because it couldn’t currently afford to bring on another full-time employee.“I want to build into our relationship that as we grow over the next four months we can transition her to a role where she is compensated the way she should be for the work she’s doing,” he said.
“It just didn’t make financial sense to add another person to our payroll right now.”
Inner Circle Media co-founder Carrie Hensel’s company is a small marketing firm at only seven full-time employees. Hensel said she looks for interns who are self-motivated. “I tell them that if they think they’ll come in and I’ll manage them every day, they have the wrong idea,” she said.
“They’re going to come in and participate with our team and learn from all of us. We also expect that they’ll teach us a thing or two and have some ideas for things we can do better.”
Caroline Dobbins interned for Hensel the past two summers and said the opportunity to work closely with the firm’s founders helped draw her to the company.
“I wasn’t interested in interning for the big marketing or branding firms,” she said.
“With my personality I knew it was important for me to have a smaller environment and consistent contact with my mentors.”
Dobbins said her experience at Inner Circle Media was different and more impactful than many of her friends who interned at large corporations.
“A lot of it had to do with the trust I felt like they put in me,” she said.
“She told me to feel free to ask questions but that I’d have to figure things out for myself as well. It was a very comforting message that she trusted me enough for me to figure things out and make my own decisions.”
In addition to trust, both Dobbins and Schulte said the lack of bureaucracy and strict hierarchy allowed them to build stronger relationships with the companies' founders.
“During the first few meetings we were exchanging emails and he [Lee] asked me if it was OK for him to just say ‘hey, what’s up?’” Schulte said.
“It’s very informal, I don’t have to call anyone sir.”
Hensel said that informality is not just a part of the internship, but a crucial part of what it means to work in a smaller company.
“It’s a team of seven where everyone pulls their weight and if they don’t the team feels it,” she said. “But we certainly have a good time, both after work and in the office.”
Dobbins considered taking an offer from Inner Circle Media for a full-time position after graduating from Albion College. Instead, she is currently in the middle of a one-year revitalization fellowship in Detroit.
“I can’t quite get out of the small business realm though,” she said. “I’m working for a tech startup in Detroit while I’m doing the fellowship.”
Ben Freed covers business for AnnArbor.com. You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2