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Reality check: Entrepreneurship program gives Kellogg interns real look at challenges facing those who launch their own ventures

By Chris Serb

Most full-time Kellogg students spend the summer between their first and second years interning at a large corporation, a prominent consulting firm or an influential NGO.

Each year, though, some adventuresome students pursue another kind of experience, one that puts them at the center of small, energetic, sometimes chaotic startups. These learning opportunities come through the Kellogg Entrepreneurship Internship Program.

Julia Stamberger '02  
Julia Stamberger '02  Photo © Nathan Mandell  

The eight-week internships are designed to be a hands-on "immersion" that reveals the practicalities behind successful entrepreneurship. Projects can range from developing a marketing plan to redesigning workflows for a range of host organizations such as the nonprofit One Acre Fund, which makes targeted investments aimed at reducing hunger in Africa; private equity fund manager Smith Whiley & Company; brand acquirer and developer River West Brands; and replacement window installer Feldco.

"It becomes an extreme exposure," says Scott Whitaker '97, a former entrepreneurial intern who is now associate director of the Kellogg School's Larry and Carol Levy Center for Entrepreneurial Practice, which sponsors the internships. He works alongside Steven Rogers, the Gordon and Llura Gund Family Professor of Entrepreneurship and the center's director. "Whatever the students initially thought entrepreneurs do," says Whitaker, "the reality winds up being far more intense than anything they ever expected."

More than 100 companies have participated in the internships since the program began in 1996. Each has different motivations for hiring Kellogg interns, but Kellogg connections first introduced most of the firms to the program. Many of the hosts are Kellogg alumni themselves, hailing from both the MBA curriculum and the Kellogg Management Institute (KMI), the nondegree general management program.

"My whole company relied upon the Kellogg support network," says Guillermo Trias, a 2004 MBA who founded his company, Spanish food importer Solex Partners, during his second year at Kellogg. "We developed our business plan in an entrepreneurship class, we developed our marketing plan in a marketing class, we got our lawyers through the Northwestern Law School. So it was very natural for us to host a Kellogg intern."

To offer a competitive wage, host companies pay half of each intern's stipend, while the Levy Center covers the rest. That arrangement helped Julia Stamberger '02, president and CEO of GoPicnic, acquire high-level Kellogg talent at a reasonable price.

"In the early years, you can't afford lots of resources, so the half-and-half arrangement made this affordable," says Stamberger, whose company creates and packages ready-to-eat boxed meals. "It's great for us, and it's great for them — there's no guidebook for becoming an entrepreneur other than experience."

  Guillermo Trias '04
  Guillermo Trias '04

Once on board, Kellogg interns focus on a specific project for their companies. At GoPicnic, Stamberger placed Trupti Darji in charge of implementing and customizing an enterprise resource planning system. At entertainment promoter Jeff McClusky & Associates (JMA), Carlos Cortez '09 was part of a team that developed a strategic business plan against the framework of a challenging industry undergoing rapid change. And at Solex Partners, Javier Figar created a marketing and sales plan, aimed at doubling revenues within two years.

"My background is in investment banking, so this really was a new thing for me," says Figar '08. "But it did fit with my analytic mind, my structured approach to problems and the knowledge and skills gathered during my first year at Kellogg. I brought a fresh perspective to the management team."

Host companies note that those fresh perspectives are exceptionally valuable. "You get an opportunity to work with enthusiastic, young MBA students who are not encumbered by years of bad habits and pre-formed opinions," says Jeff McClusky, 2006 KMI graduate and president and CEO of JMA, a longtime premier brand in entertainment promotions. "The music industry is undergoing dramatic change — disruptive technology, changing business models, consumers taking control of content — and Carlos came in with a really good understanding of how to do a competitive analysis of that market."

In return for their hard work on these projects, entrepreneurship interns gain valuable firsthand insights. Like other Kellogg interns, they learn unique lessons about how the finance, operations or marketing functions work at a real company. But the entrepreneurial nature of these internships adds something extra to the experience.

"Working at a big corporation would have developed me professionally, but I would have missed so much," says Cortez, who interned for JMA last summer and will graduate in 2009. "It's a better learning process in a smaller company, where you're involved every day. Instead of hearing stories about the company's challenges and sacrifices and successes, you get to see them and experience them yourself."

Interns universally note that the path from the "idea" stage to "success" is much more difficult at entrepreneurial ventures than at larger companies.

"The most valuable lesson I learned was how strategic and disciplined entrepreneurs need to be, more so than in bigger companies," says Darji '08. "A great idea won't work without execution in any business — but when you're an entrepreneur, you're responsible for the idea and the execution. You have to have a good operational setup, you have to be ready to meet demand, otherwise you will fail."

Jeff McClusky  
Jeff McClusky  Photo © Nathan Mandell  

The interns aren't the only ones learning. Their hosts benefit from the interactions too, as the students bring the best ideas and theories from the Kellogg classroom.

"Javier gave us a thorough analysis from a consultant's perspective," Trias says. "He was able to tell me, 'This is what I see, this is how you compare to others, this is what might work.' He was able to show us some very valuable things."

That Kellogg-instilled focus on detail proves critical in the challenging environments that entrepreneurs often face.

"Entrepreneurs tend to be idea guys, visionaries who have 100 things going on at the same time," Cortez says. "Kellogg focuses on structure, so I was able to help Jeff put some more structure into his thinking. For a person like Jeff who has so many good ideas, that's a good counterweight."

Not all entrepreneurial interns become entrepreneurs themselves — at least, not right away. Figar now works for a major retailer in his native Madrid, and Darji is a finance manager at Baxter International. Yet the interns insist that the experience proves valuable, no matter what type of business they enter.

"I knew I was going to do healthcare finance after I graduated, but this was an opportunity to venture out and experience something I might be interested in down the road," Darji says. "And even if I don't, it's been eye opening to learn how to build a company from the ground up, from idea through implementation."

Cortez is more certain about his entrepreneurial career path. He intends to launch a start-up biotech firm in his native Tijuana by the time he graduates. For him, the JMA internship gave him valuable experience, along with a dose of reality.

"Now I'm more aware of the challenges and potential pitfalls that entrepreneurs face," Cortez says. "My internship also helped me see some of the areas where I need to improve, things like finance and strategy that I can focus on in my second year here."

Trias, who completed a traditional internship at a private equity firm while a Kellogg student, believes that the entrepreneurial internships hold value for any Kellogg student.

"If you've only worked with the 'big guys,' then you might not know how to be effective and efficient with extremely limited resources," Trias says. "The way our world works, and especially in this macroeconomic situation, we need more entrepreneurial-minded leaders throughout business, no matter what kind of business they get into."

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