It is the norm for Universities to offer formal programs in entrepreneurship. But, not all students have a desire to start a company from scratch, so, what gives? Susan A. Scherreik, Director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at Seton Hall University's Stillman School of Business enlightened me recently. She said the goal is not only to churn out graduates who will start their own companies, but also to get students ready to work in entrepreneurial companies.

What does that mean? Don't all companies need employees who can calculate a net present value, and who know the 4P's of marketing? Don't companies need engineers who know CAD and chemists who can analyze an HPLC? Yes, they do, but Susan says prospective hires have to be ready to answer 10 questions in order to not only get a job in an entrepreneurial company, but also to thrive:

  1. Can do, and have done, on a team--students who genuinely enjoy working with others and who have participated meaningfully in an initiative that required close interaction with others are ideal for startups. Be sure to mention on the interview the national meeting your team organized, or the e-newspaper you started, or the problem that you and your team solved at the school, as well as how you were energized by the social engagement of being on a team.
  2. Fully absorbed and energized from the experience--demonstrating passion for something and having attained what psychologists call the flow state or zone in some project is critical. Your potential employer will be looking to understand the reasons that the experience energized and motivated you and the personal value that you derived from it. If the project at the startup offers something close to that personal value, you're a lock for the job!
  3. Long distance runner--many people, especially young people, can be energized for a short period of time (sprinters) or for projects that interest them. The sign of a person ready to contribute seriously to a fledgling company is demonstrating reliability and discipline by being available with the same level of energy for any challenge, big or small, at any time. Employees who can hit the 19th item on the list with the same vigor as the first is what a startup is looking for because Lord knows, the hours are not 9 to 5.
  4. Simply the best--HBO used to promote this as their catch phrase. I loved those commercials and employers love hires who give their best effort all the time to every project. Never convey that a job or a project is a stepping stone to something else--the project before you is critical and you will give it all you have. Giving examples of this kind of work ethic will serve you well, especially if they involve jobs you have held in school, or better yet, internships.
  5. Entrepreneurship courses--the names and content of the ones you took, but more importantly, what you liked best about them. Employers in entrepreneurial companies will want to know whether seizing opportunities and embracing unknowns fearlessly is in your blood. If that's what turned you on about the classes, be sure to explain how that resonates with you.
  6. Failures--everyone wants to know about times that you have failed. But, in a startup entrepreneurial company, this isn't only about showing what you learned from the experience, rather, trial and error is the way of life. So, if you are not comfortable admitting that you failed, it is a very dangerous sign. Defensiveness, information hoarding, and hiding bad news can kill a little company. Know why this question is being asked and be honest.
  7. Active engagement in entrepreneur contests--it doesn't matter whether you won or lost, but did you come up with an idea, hone it with a mentor, learn to pitch it, and advance it to some degree? If so, just the experience itself will be of interest to a startup manager. Explaining how this formed your view about what you want out of your job and career will really seal the deal.
  8. Personal connection to entrepreneurs--having a close relationship with people who are entrepreneurs or who work in startups is a plus because you will come into the organization knowing some critical basics, for example, filling voids is the main job of everyone in the company, and what is printed on your business card is irrelevant.
  9. Your main competitor is yourself--employees who constantly seek to outdo their own performance are the most prized pearls in a startup. Having standards and pride in your work is fundamental, but considering mediocre the quality of the work you did 6 months ago is the sign of someone who is striving and looking to optimize themselves.
  10. Problem solving--comfort grappling with problems and the capability to solve them is essential. Uncertainty is the norm in startups and entrepreneurial ventures. Having demonstrated prowess and desire to solve problems when the answers are neither known nor obvious, not simply being proficient and efficient at executing tasks will differentiate you among highly qualified candidates.

Oh wait, you don't have good examples to share that demonstrate the qualities above? Or, you have not had a number of these experiences to discuss? Good news--you're only a sophomore, you've got 2 years to make yourself invaluable to a startup and being on your way to a very fulfilling career!

Published on: Sep 23, 2014