What is Silicon Valley like? Should I work at a big tech company or a startup?
What are the risks?
As a college student, it’s easy to get lost in the noise when you’re trying to figure out how to break into the Valley. Unless you were born in the Bay Area or go to school here — it’s hard to know where the best place to start is.
For me, it’s been through the True Entrepreneurship Corps (TEC) fellowship by True Ventures.
I’m writing this with only a day left of the fellowship and I wanted to dig into:
The structure of the fellowship
Why I chose this program
Some things I’ve learned
The fellowship class
Concluding thoughts on the program
What is the TEC Fellowship and how is it different from a regular internship?
True Ventures brings up to 15 undergraduate students to the Bay Area to work at its portfolio companies as part of its True Entrepreneur Corps (TEC) fellowship. Fellows take on a variety of roles from engineering to marketing and are paid a minimum of $11k for the summer. The program lasts for 10 weeks from early June to mid-August.
My time has been split up with 4 days of the week (MTWF) at my internship with a portfolio company and my Thursdays as part of “TEC Thursdays” at True’s office for activities and speakers.
The summer after Junior year is traditionally seen as the summer where you have to be the most risk-averse and seek an internship at a company that will give you a return offer.
But this linear thinking leads to missed opportunities and regret. Going through the recruiting process, I realized that I wanted to be at a place with the highest ceiling for improvement despite risks.
My big question was: Which experience will give me the most positive exponential growth?
So I turned down an offer at a big company for a Product Design internship that had a 95% return offer rate and a six-figure starting salary post-grad. I knew if I accepted then I’d be trapped with the comfort and stability that these types of companies provide.
I knew I needed discomfort to grow.
So instead, I accepted a role at Whole Biome, a biotech startup, as a Marketing & Design intern. I first interacted with the company through their website and thought that it was the last place where I could learn and grow as a designer. But what sparked my interest and led me to accept an offer was the product and the team behind it.
Whole Biome manufactures bacteria strains and puts those strains in products that help treat certain health conditions. Its primary product helps manage Type 2 diabetes with proven efficacy and little to no side-effects.
Even as someone with basic knowledge of biology and health — I could tell how revolutionary the product could be after brushing up on the science behind it.
After being impressed by the product, I looked more into the team. I saw that the co-founders were technical industry experts and had built a company made up of rockstar scientists. I was impressed, but still skeptical in joining at a time when marketing and design were still in their early stages.
Joining carried a lot of risks and there was a good chance that I wouldn’t work on what I wanted to as a designer. But I was excited about the opportunity for impact and learning about a space that I was unfamiliar with.
On one hand, I knew that I wanted to do intensive product design this summer and had only applied for design roles. If I didn’t play a design role at the internship then it’d be much harder to transition out of college with a design position. Design has been my passion since the start of college and I needed to do more immersive practice than what school could offer me.
However, I also knew that I didn’t want to be just a designer for the rest of my life and that being exposed to something different like biotech would net me greater returns than I could accurately gauge. I’d also be able to round out my understanding of business at a smaller place.
I weighed the pros and cons and accepted Whole Biome’s offer.
Learning has always been at the top of my values and startups force you to learn.
The flat structure of startups also makes it easy to get access to people you can learn the greatest amount from. During my internship, I led an hour-long presentation to the C-Suite executive team and was able to set up a time with a co-founder to ask about entrepreneurship and advice on building a startup. This type of impact and visibility is rarely possible at a large established company.
I was also part of an amazing team that guided me and mentored me throughout the summer. Being part of a small marketing team allowed me the freedom to absorb as much knowledge on areas of the product and business that I didn’t have experience or comfort with.
I learned about FDA regulations, go-to-market strategy, product-launch-plan, and many more technical strategic frameworks. My projects have ranged from making recommendations on the unboxing experience to being a part of consumer research and segmentation. Beyond business, I’ve also learned about the science behind the microbiome, diabetes, and fecal matter transportation (yes it is what it sounds like).
I didn’t have an easy time at Whole Biome though. There was a steep learning curve with understanding the science behind the product and the regulatory space of biotech. However, absorbing all this information from people smarter and more experienced than me made me grow so much more than I thought I could or would.
I reflect about the time I’ve worked at Whole Biome and the asymmetric returns are clear. I’m grateful for my time working there and so excited to see where it goes in the future.
The other part of the fellowship occurs on Thursdays as “TEC Thursdays” and this is one of the parts that separates the program from other internships.
These days feature activities and 2–3 speakers per day. I won’t spoil the activities, but just know that they’re fun and that True pays for your lunches and dinners, so you won’t feel like a starving college student. Most of the speakers are founders that the firm has invested in or are experts in a tech-related field. Some of the people that ended up talking to the group included Jeffrey Veen (Founder of Type-kit and Partner at True), Kevin Rose (Founder of Digg, Zero, Oak and Partner at True), and Erika Hall (Mule Design).
The best part of these talks is how personal each one is.
Each speaker hangs around for about an hour to an hour and a half. You have their undivided attention and since there are only 15 fellows — you get a balance of focus and diversity in what you talk about. Many of the talks were about things you wouldn’t have expected to talk about at a VC — balancing life, making sure to be curious, and having a moral and ethical compass when building. Other times it’s exactly what you would have thought — biohacking, blockchain, and taking risks.
During our first Thursday at True’s office, I remember preparing myself for what I thought would be a very technically dry day where each speaker would give us advice on how to launch a product successfully.
I was wrong.
Instead, both speakers shared the personal experiences that drove them to the positions that they were in now. It was intimate and refreshing.
Rarely did we have a set topic to discuss. Speakers were kind enough to answer anything we had questions on. There were many technical business-related questions asked and answered, but I appreciated the open seminar-style talks because we would end up on topics that would be interesting and non-obvious.
I’ve gone through my notes to share some of the wisdom I’ve gained from these talks:
#1: You learn the most from the people farthest from you
You naturally gravitate towards people you have a lot in common with or are close to. You rarely get outside of these close-knit networks and while you can benefit from the dense network effects, you can also suffer from a lack of growth because the people you end up closest to are often the people most similar to you. This also means that they tend to be the people you learn the least from.
The people you can learn the most from are the ones farthest away and most different from you.
One speaker mentioned how he had built his startup as a purely technical founder and had no understanding of the business side, so he spent hours learning from the finance team of his company. This had several upsides. The first was developing a deeper understanding of his company and the second was developing a relationship built on trust and mutual respect with his co-workers.
By centering the fringes of your networks — you’re able to increase the density of the network and the frequency of interactions in it, which often leads to a higher quality of interactions over time.
#2 — It’s not what you know, but how you find out
You tend to think that everybody successful has had their lives figured out since the day they were born. That misconception is fed by hindsight bias you might have about your success. All of these things condition you to fear the unknown and uncertain.
But you don’t have to know and it’s ok not to know.
The speakers I’ve met have emphasized the fact that nobody knows everything. It’s impossible for someone to have all the right answers, so instead of focusing in on our blind spots and being paralyzed by them — hone in on having a process that facilitates development and filling in those gaps. Being process-focused will have much better returns than worrying about an endpoint.
If you know exactly what you’re supposed to do and where you’ll be going to next that just means that you’re not pushing yourself enough. Many founders and experts alike didn’t start as being who they are now. Their ability to grow nonlinearly was due to the nonlinear paths that they explored.
Be messy. Have curiosity. Explore.
Life isn’t about being right, but being less wrong.
#3 — Process and learn to think for yourself
Mental consumption of information should be similar to the physical consumption of food. You should be intentional about what you choose to consume and give yourself time to digest. By being deliberate and reflecting on what’s happened in your life — you’re being proactive about your future.
A partner at True mentioned that one way to do this is by writing down your values and holding yourself accountable to those values. Over time, you’ll find out which values matter the most and which need to be swapped out for more relevant ones.
Unintentional inertia is the cause of a lot of regrets. By processing and practicing a level of metacognition you’re able to adjust to the intended path you’re most excited to be on.
Who are the fellows?
When I accepted my offer to the fellowship the first thing I did was look up my co-fellows. After a few Google and LinkedIn searches, I found a majority.
I was surprised at the level of diversity.
Majors were across the board from Religion to Design and Computer Science to Business.
There was gender parity.
Most of us went to different universities all across the US ranging from Stanford to Mount Holyoke.
There were even a few international students.
Of course, the diversity wasn’t perfect, but it was much better than what I had seen from similarly selective programs.
I felt relieved on that front, but I was still somewhat apprehensive going into the summer. Everyone seemed intensely goal-driven and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to develop fun relationships because of that.
I didn’t want all work and no play for the summer.
After a few months and some semi-awkward interactions on a group chat, I finally met the other fellows. Since then, I’ve been blown away by how meaningful each individual and group interaction has felt.
My co-fellows are not only Engineers, PMs, and Marketers, but also musicians, athletes, and advocates. Most fellows align on their knowledge of entrepreneurship and startups, but the execution and interpretation of what those mean vary.
One fellow wants to bring awareness to and increase venture capital funding for women. Another dreams of sustainability and its holistic benefits to the economy and the earth. Yet another is passionate about the quantified self and its applications for human potential.
Each person in the fellowship has such different passions and interests. It’s surprised me how well we’ve all gotten along.
One contributing factor is each person’s willingness to get to know each other. Throughout the summer we’ve taken the time to meet up in the Bay and just have fun together. In the group, there’s a universally reciprocated level of investment that I haven’t come across often.
Another part is the scale. Having 15 people allows for enough diversity of thinking without pushing people out. Each person can get to know each other. For example, I was able to set up one-on-ones with each fellow before the end of summer. This allowed me to interact with them in a different context beyond the collective setting. I saw another side of each fellow that I hadn’t seen before.
One of my favorite memories was after the first week of work when we all went to a cabin at Lake Tahoe. We went hiking on random trails and tried to wakeboard on the lake.
That weekend was grounding. I was able to hear the other fellows speak of their personal dreams and vulnerabilities. Seeing the human side of my successful peers brought a level of relatability that continues to serve as inspiration.
Growing with the other fellows has been a highlight of the summer.
I don’t think any other experience would have afforded me that same opportunity.
Inflection points are strange because most of the time we only talk about them predictively or retrospectively.
“I think this is going to change my life.”
“This changed my life.”
Not often do we say “This is changing my life.”
It’s difficult to recognize change as it happens and even more so gauge how much that change will impact you. After all, most change is incremental which is why it’s difficult to recognize at the moment.
That hasn’t been the case with this summer.
Being a part of the True Ventures TEC Fellowship has been one of those rare inflection points that I’m able to recognize while I’m experiencing it and know with near certainty that it’s going to make a huge impact on my life later on.
I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of this fellowship and work at Whole Biome. I’ve grown holistically and am so excited about not knowing what I’ll be working on next.