I have recently been catching up with colleagues from companies past, and when I let them know what I am doing now, I often get the reaction, “Wow! That’s such a cool job.” And it is … I’m fortunate to be the director of delta v, MIT’s student venture accelerator. Each year, we guide a new group of startups through “entrepreneurship boot camp” and help them to launch their startup ventures into the real world. This past summer, I worked with 21 startup teams as they were striving to either gain traction or make the tough decision to regroup. It was an amazing group of students with ideas that address real world problems.
But, I also thought I had a cool job at age 12 when I cleaned up after dogs at a kennel. I had a sense of purpose, got to fulfill a passion of mine by working with animals, and met some great people as well.
The organization I worked at most recently, prior to MIT, was IBM – a company that is trying to bring data analytics insights to companies, so they can address real world problems. The complexity of what both our MIT startups and IBM are doing, albeit in different ways, struck me. Are they so different? I have deep respect for IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty, who is moving a company the size of a small nation. However, the leaders of the MIT three-person startups are also scaling difficult challenges and placing bets with tremendous odds of failure.
The Three Constants of a Cool Job
I started my career at Honeywell – a big company for sure, where many people (mostly men) took me under their wing as an apprentice in engineering. This laid the foundation for my career, and I learned skills that I call on to this day. Why did I work from 4am to 4pm shifts to test chemical baths? —because I loved the people I worked with, we were doing interesting work, and I had mentors who were willing to share their time with me. As my career went on, and I worked with smaller companies, I saw the same trend… great people, interesting work, and mentorship. This is when I started to spend time mentoring others.
New Challenges Every Day
Is MIT any different than a corporation? The complexities of a university rival corporations, but the opportunity to be immersed in new technology brings me back to my days at Honeywell. Working with our startup teams, I feel like a first year engineer every day. The teams in delta v are addressing new science for medicine, solutions for water scarcity, addressing the lack of open spaces, and use of AI to improve workers skills to name a few. These students range from undergraduates through post-docs, from all engineering disciplines to business. It is the team that matters most in start-ups. After reminiscing with my colleagues from Honeywell, Computervision, Sun Microsystems, Stratus, Visual Networks, Netezza, and IBM it is also the teams and the challenges they overcame that they most fondly remember. We took on challenges together and broke down those challenges into manageable parts, then worked together to achieve a goal. The other key item was leadership. Great vision and a lot of latitude to solve the problem for customers (clients, suppliers, and internal organizations) reflected on inspired leaders.
Comparing this to our student ventures, they are all focused on solving a customer problem or addressing a new market – the same thing all successful companies focus on. You solve those problems with a team approach—you don’t have all the answers, but you learn, assess the new information, and address the issues.
The Greatest Success comes from People
Are huge corporations and startups all that different? Sure, they both have their challenges in infrastructure – which is sometimes a help and sometimes a hindrance. But, at the end of the day whether you are a 300,000-person company or a three-person company, the people in a company need each other. (Maybe you can hide in a corporation, but if you want to do satisfying work is that really working?)
At this point in my career I have seen big, medium, small, and now micro-small companies. All of them have their own struggles but the greatest success comes from people. My realization is that any job can be a really cool job, as long as you are working with people who will challenge you, lift you up, and inspire you to do your best.
Trish Cotter is the Director of MIT delta v, the Institute’s educational accelerator program run out of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship. At delta v, Trish mentors students through the accelerator process for their startup ventures. She also serves as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence and Associate Managing Director of the Martin Trust Center.