Goldman Sachs. McKinsey. Google. We may pride ourselves on being the Ivy that sends the highest percentage of graduates to the nonprofit sector, but Fortune 500 names are the ones that make most Brunonians salivate. And with good reason — most of these companies are leaders in their fields, with resources and creativity beyond comparison. Yet when it comes to internships and work experience, bigger isn’t always better.
This might not seem like anything new. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard career advisors, alums and professors rave about the advantages of a startup environment. Many have told me that small firms and startups are like daily adventures. The adjectives “dynamic,” “exhilarating” and “experiential” are often thrown into the mix, too. But, like many of my peers, I didn’t take this advice seriously — until I got a summer internship at an organization with fewer employees than the number of students in my high school math class.
This summer, I got the chance to intern with Girl Rising, a campaign for girls’ education around the world. I knew going in that the organization was small, but it seemed to punch well above its weight: It counts among its supporters Michelle Obama, Meryl Streep and Alicia Keys, and it launched the #62milliongirls campaign with the White House earlier this year. Like many others, I fell into the trap of imagining a nonprofit bureaucratic juggernaut instead of a tightly run social venture. I couldn’t have been more off base.
It wasn’t until I got to the office that I realized that there were fewer than 30 regular staff members on board. In the New York main office, where I was based, there were about 10 full-time employees and eight interns. On some days, there were more interns in the office than actual staff members — and somehow this made for one of the best working experiences of my life.
Yes, startups and small companies can lack structure. Yes, the job description can shift from day to day. And yes, the workload can sometimes feel like you’re on a never-ending ride on the Tower of Terror; on some days you’re impatient and bored while on others you’re practically flying through yards of work. But contrary to popular belief, the major drawbacks of working at a startup can actually contribute to a pretty stellar internship.
In small organizations, it’s normal for everyone to have a hand in everything. With Girl Rising, I was able to do interesting work for different teams and explore different facets of the campaign. I became an armchair expert on responding to campaign inquiries and learnt a lot about the intricacies of the nonprofit sector in the process. I also got to know almost everyone on the team, from the CEO to high school volunteers, and I’m sure some of those connections will last for years.
But the best part? I got to see my work being used in an applied setting every single day. Interns with larger corporations can probably say the same, but I can guarantee that the extent to which you feel useful and needed in a small organization is unparalleled. It can be an absolute adrenaline rush.
It’s time for us Brown students to realize that there isn’t only one path to a bright and fulfilling career. It is perfectly fine, even admirable, to dream of working in a multinational company with a recognizable brand name and clear structure. But we shouldn’t rule out internships with startups as a way to get there. Startups can give you crucial experience and support that lasts a lot longer than simple resume padding ever could. And who knows? Maybe you’ll find a new niche and run with it. I know I did.