Managing Product at a Mission-Driven Startup

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Carmen Lau, WH ’20

This summer at CariClub as a Product Management Intern was an exhilarating and fast-paced learning experience. CariClub is a B2B SaaS (business-to-business, software as a service) startup that connects young professionals with nonprofits to help them raise money, plan events, and further their impact. Our clients include Fortune 500 companies such as Deloitte, KKR, Morgan Stanley, and more.

My 11-week internship gave me a chance to leverage the fundamental business knowledge I learned in my first 2 years at Wharton and apply it to product strategy so that we can satisfy the needs of our company, customers, and nonprofit partners. I was given a lot of responsibility and autonomy as I oversaw a team of 5 designers and developers to make improvements to our platform and build out new features. I created guidelines for prioritizing product decisions and set and oversaw the execution of an 8-week product roadmap.

One of my main projects during the summer was leading the creation of the world’s first online associate board builder tool for nonprofits. An “associate board” is a group of young professionals who volunteer their time and skills to help a nonprofit. Since it is still a fairly new concept for nonprofits, we built a web application that asks questions about the size, mission, roles, and responsibilities of the board they want to make, then takes their responses to create a personalized charter. This will be critical in raising funding and scaling our service.

But business needs aside, when at a mission-driven company, you always have to think about your purpose and your “why”. So I set a mission statement for the team and wrote it on the whiteboard as a reminder: “Create a product so awesome that every time a user logs on, they become excited about the change they can create in the world.” This was my North Star throughout my internship, and reminded me of the team’s role in the company and the significance of our work. I really believe that our work is centered around helping nonprofits make a bigger impact on their communities, and what I wrote was later adopted as the official mission statement of the team.

Outside of working hours, I got to explore New York City and stayed at a hacker loft in Brooklyn, where I met people from around the world who were photographers, artists, musicians, programmers, travelers, and more. I read design and business books to further develop my skills and foundational knowledge. I was finding fulfillment in my work, and also the community around me in a wonderful city.

Thanks to the support of the summer funding award, I was able to have an incredibly fulfilling internship and summer. Raised by a single mother and the first person from my town to attend Penn, a summer like this for me to pursue my passions would not have been possible without financial assistance. I definitely want to continue working in the tech industry, and look forward to exploring more product-related roles in the future.

Why Do We Talk Badly About Ourselves?

Dr. Joseph Barber

When I give a mock interview to a student, I occasionally ask the classic question that still pops up in interviews in various forms: “What is your greatest strength?” The answer that students give usually starts off sounding something like this:

“Um … well …I think my greatest strength is …”

This hesitant, uncertain beginning doesn’t really fill the listener with much confidence, especially when the pauses are long. If I ask the related “What is your greatest weakness?” question (still common in interviews in a range of different career fields), the answer I get is noticeably differently. It’s usually without any of the pauses heard in the previous answer and goes something like this:

“Well, one of my weaknesses is [weakness that sometimes is the strength they just talked about in the other answer], and I also have a hard time [second weakness], and also [third weakness] …”

Students and postdocs are far more comfortable talking about their weaknesses than their strengths. We can debate the usefulness of these particular interview questions, but they do illustrate a general lack of confidence that some students and postdocs have in their own abilities — or at least the lack of practice they have in communicating their abilities to others.

Perhaps this is common at all levels of education. But I will discuss below certain aspects of higher education that increase the likelihood that people are not comfortable highlighting what they are good at doing. This hesitation and reluctance to talk positively about one’s strengths can be a significant issue when applying and interviewing for jobs.

Knowledge and Expertise

I teach an online master’s degree course about animal behavior and welfare at Hunter College. This year as part of my online course, I combined one of my career-focused workshops on networking that I normally give at Penn with the animal welfare topics we are discussing. The outcome was an exciting, chimeric lecture that covered networking strategies my students can use to connect with welfare experts in the field from whom they can learn more about the course’s topics.

It was fun to do, because it combined the two aspects of my professional identify into one cohesive whole, albeit for one lecture. As part of the online discussion forum for this lecture, I asked the students to think about how they might describe themselves as part of their introduction and elevator pitch. And I gave them a series of questions to answer as a way to explore the positive aspects of their professional identity:

  • Thinking about the knowledge you have, what are you an expert in?
  • Thinking about your skills, what are you an expert in doing?
  • What makes you stand out from others like you in a positive way?
  • What positive words do others use to describe you?
  • Why do people seek you out when they need help?
  • How can people benefit from working with you?

Of all the questions, the first one seemed to cause the most trouble. Here are five examples of the responses I received:

  1. I don’t think I’m an expert in anything yet.
  2. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in anything, but …
  3. I don’t believe I am an expert in anything, although …
  4. I don’t think I am an expert at anything, however …
  5. Many of the people in my life would consider me an expert in animals and their behavior. This is nowhere near the case.

It is true that it is impossible to be all knowing in any research field. New discoveries are always happening. New, fascinating papers are always being published — many remain unread because there’s simply not enough time in the day. Given all that, no one can ever be an expert in anything. Let’s take a closer look at one definition of the word expert: “a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.” Since no one can have all knowledge, even students can have sufficient knowledge in a field to be experts in it if they can also share that knowledge confidently enough. (It’s how I might define authoritative.)

In fact, no matter what your research is on, if you have been focusing on it for a few years, you will be an expert in not only the topic but also the methodologies used to study it. You will also have expertise in understanding the broader field of your topic: what other research people are conducting about it and who those people are, what questions remain unanswered, where the best source of information for your topic area can be found, which ideas are controversial, and so forth. The fact that some people may have more knowledge or experience doesn’t actually make you less of an expert.

After the “but,” “although” and “however” in responses No. 2, No. 3, and No. 4 above, my Hunter students did actually share their expertise — but only after saying that they didn’t have any! The phrasing of response No. 2 is interesting, because if you don’t highlight your own abilities, then who will? Your reference writers will, but in between the long periods of time applying for a job when someone might read a formal reference letter, you should take responsibility for advocating for yourself.

And when other people do talk up your expertise (see response No. 5 above), then definitely build this into a professional narrative, because it can become part of your professional brand. What people say about you can give others a positive impression of you — that is, as long as you don’t deny it and can illustrate these skills in action as you are telling stories about your experiences.

Critical Feedback and Positive Reinforcement

Another common attribute of doing research in a higher education setting is that most of the feedback you get will be critical. Now, critical doesn’t mean negative, but it certainly doesn’t mean positive, either. Professors, mentors, book and journal editors, and random scholars at conferences are always more than happy to tell you where your research falls short, what you have failed to looked at, and why your argument is wrong. What is generally missing is a plentiful supply of positive reinforcement for all the things you got right about your research approach.

In animal training terms, a reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a behavior is performed more frequently. A positive reinforcer is something that animals are motivated to work for. If you want your dog to shake your hand with its paw, then giving it a yummy treat as soon as it lifts its paw will help it make an association between paw lifting and treats. Your dog will lift its paw more frequently if it knows treats may be coming, and you can use this to shape its behavior by reinforcing only the movements you are seeking.

In terms of academic research, few students receive a plentiful supply of positive reinforcement during the course of their daily research, and rarely are specific skills highlighted. Advisers and principal investigators should always be encouraged to do that more often. But students and postdocs can also seek to put their skills into practice in situations outside their academic research where positive reinforcement is more likely.

For example, if you set up a departmental panel of alumni to talk about their post-Ph.D. experiences, the panelists will probably express their gratitude to you for having the opportunity to share their advice. Attendees who found it helpful will thank you for organizing the event. You are demonstrating relationship-building, event-organizing and project-management skills that the positive feedback you are receiving will reinforce. The more these types of skills are strengthened and applauded through your involvement with a student or postdoc group, volunteering projects or other side gigs you may be working on, the more you will actually believe that you have them — and the more natural it will seem to you when you talk about them.

People worry that by highlighting what they are good at they will come off as bragging, self-important individuals. The way to avoid that becoming a reality is to practice telling stories about your skills rather than just saying that you have them. If you wanted someone to know you have good leadership skills, then simply announcing that you are a great leader is really not going to sound very convincing. But if you tell a story about a time when you used your leadership skills, the challenge you faced and what you did to overcome it, then you help people to experience your skills in a more meaningful way. If you also reflect on what you found enjoyable about the experience you had and what you learned from it, then you will find that people will begin to form an image of you in their own minds where your skills are prominently defined — not because you told them you have these skills, but because you depicted them in action.

Don’t let the sometimes cold, harsh academic environment make you doubt you have marketable skills for a wide range of career paths. You really do have them. You can certainly develop them further, but you must take every opportunity to practice talking about them to others. The more you do, the more they will become a natural part of your professional identity.

CS Radio – Episode 88: “Bad Decisions”

Spring Fling is over. Finals are upon us. Everyone is tired…but we have to keep our level heads about us in all things. From taking care of yourself to examining how you’re presenting yourself online, Michael and Mylène offer up some advice on avoiding bad decisions. Enjoy!


Experiencing the Best of DC

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Hayley Boote, COL ’20

Washington, D.C. truly lived up to the myth of being a swamp this summer — but not in a political sense.  High temperatures and even higher humidity made my internship feel more like the Everglades than just 150 miles south of West Philly. Despite the near constant battle with frizzy hair, my D.C. experience was career-enlightening and exciting. D.C. in general is an exciting place for a young person right now, especially a young person interested in public service and politics. Some of my personal highlights were the 4th of July Celebration on the National Mall, the National Portrait Galleries, and discovering &pizza! Even with the excitement, it was truly my work that amazed me the most this summer.

            The U.S. State Department is known internationally as an organization that furthers US influence and policy goals. An internship at the U.S. Department of State offered me an unparalleled opportunity to work in the federal government in a learning capacity. As an undergraduate majoring in Political Science, this role allows me to gain real public policy experience in the place where U.S. foreign policy is made.  Simply, there is no other organization that can provide such an opportunity for learning.  The chance to work for such a renowned agency, while enhancing my experience in public service and communication, was singularly important for my personal career goals.

During my time at State I worked in the Bureau of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, in the office of the U.S. Diplomacy Center.  The Center is an public/private initiative to inform the American public about the role of U.S. diplomacy historically and presently, through educational programs and a future museum. My office is nonpartisan and nonpolitical, meaning that we are only working for the mission of the U.S. government, not a particular agenda. As a communications and data analytics intern, I built surveys, create visualizations of our engagement data, wrote an foreign policy crisis simulation, facilitated educational programs and simulations, and helped plan a hackathon for college students and young coders.  All of these experiences really changed the game for me professionally; I had never before wrote with HTML or used Tableau, and by the end of the summer I had gained proficiency in skills I had never even known existed.  Even in areas in which I thought I was seasoned, like public speaking, I grew in way I could not have anticipated. Part of my job included facilitating foreign policy crisis simulations with students, educators, and scholars; acting as a chairwoman for a conference with different, feuding stakeholder groups trying to solve an international crisis together.  Keeping teams on track, trying to feed them breadcrumbs to get to a tenable solution,  and helping them to negotiate effectively were just a small part of the 180 minute, life-like simulation.  This experience gave me insight into how people negotiate and how they tried to persuade other teams, which was very unexpectedly valuable piece of my work as a student pursuing a psychology minor. The great thing about working for the federal government is that you are never bored — there is always a solution to a problem that you could be looking for. I learned first-hand this summer the long hours and challenging obstacles that our public servants endure.  The work ethic at State and other similar federal agencies is not commonly known, but was incredibly eye-opening for me. I loved being a part of that atmosphere and community, and the skills I learned only added to an all-around amazing experience.

CS Radio – Episode 87: “Her Alma Matters”

It’s our first podcast crossover! This week, we are joined by the host of the Alma Matters podcast, Riane Puno (COL ’18) to discuss how she discusses the career paths of different Penn alumni on her show. It’s Penn podcast synergy at its finest! Enjoy!

Show Notes