by Bobbin Wages
The Career Advancement Center at the Robinson College of Business recently took 18 students from across Georgia State University to Silicon Valley. Our students left an indelible paw print at some of the area’s hottest companies.
The thought of working in a Silicon Valley office environment makes many professionals squirm. Free snacks and dogs in the office sound appealing, but those perks often mean foregoing traditional comforts — and instead sitting at a desk in an open room, conducting meetings in the same shared space and making things happen when they have to happen as opposed to keeping a neat nine-to-five schedule. The Career Advancement Center (CAC) at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business has crafted an opportunity for students across Georgia State University to tour some of Silicon Valley’s most cutting-edge businesses, engage in panel discussions with their staff and decide whether they are cut out for a West Coast work culture. Called Panthers in the Valley, the immersive program sent its first-ever cohort of 18 students to California for four days in March. When we checked in with the students about their trip, they didn’t seem afraid of giving up an old-fashioned office and the option to shut a door.
Panthers in the Valley’s sister program, Panthers on Wall Street, attracts students from Robinson’s financial-related disciplines and has been sending talent to New York City for nearly a decade. But since academic fields even outside of the business school complement the skillsets Silicon Valley employers value, the CAC opened this new initiative to the entire university. In order to ensure the cohort fairly represented all of Georgia State, the CAC partnered with Robinson’s Institute for Insight, the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Computer Science and the College of Law; those units not only promoted the program to their students but also took part in the interviewing process. More than 100 undergraduates and graduates from programs representing the fields of computer information systems, computer science, big data analytics, financial engineering and law applied. “We ended up with an amazing group of students who were very inquisitive of each other’s perspectives and reached out to understand each other,” says Sharry Conroy, the CAC’s associate director. “It was important to cross-pollinate their knowledge.”
The CAC intentionally selected employers that represent startups to established firms to what Conroy calls “the journey of the hero” — entrepreneurs who not only discovered a need in the marketplace and came up with a cool idea to fill that gap but also exerted the blood and sweat necessary to build a successful business. “Sander Daniels, the co-founder of Thumbtack, gave us a personal and realistic view of the life of an entrepreneur,” says Helen Nhan, an undergraduate computer information systems major. “He was honest about the difficulties of a startup and persisted in growing his company from four to more than 200 staff members in a short amount of time.”
Scoring visits with hot companies like AirBnB, Google and Skype came surprisingly easily thanks to the power of Georgia State’s alumni network. After finding both contacts on LinkedIn, Monica Scarbrough, Robinson’s assistant vice president of development, facilitated the initial conversations with Erin Coffman, a data scientist with AirBnB, and Suezette Robotham, a program manager at Google. Coffman earned a master’s degree and Ph.D. in economics from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies (AYSPS) in 2009 and 2012, respectively; Robotham completed an M.S. in urban policy studies from AYSPS in 2005. “I was excited to give back and make a more intentional connection between Georgia State and the global community,” Robotham says.
Coffman selected a diverse set of team members to participate in AirBnB’s panel discussion: a recruiter, user researcher, public policy professional and engineer, in addition to herself. “A lot of people at AirBnB aren’t doing what they envisioned themselves doing while in college,” she explains. “I wanted to show students there is more out there than they might be aware of.” J.D. student Eli Cohen engaged one-on-one with a member of AirBnB’s policy department about real-world legal obstacles the company has faced. For example, a recent set of regulations passed in Austin, Texas, requires residents to live on the same property they rent to short-term tenants. “We looked at different ways of working within the confines of the law, such as helping those people build a guest house in their backyard,” Cohen says.
During her downtime, Rao Fu, a dual M.S. in mathematical risk management/M.S. in analytics student, attended a fintech meetup in San Francisco. “I learned about an innovative model that can evaluate individuals’ credit risk profile,” she says. “When I came back from Silicon Valley, I discussed those new modeling techniques with my operations research professor.”
Impressing employers can be daunting. Before the pilgrimage to California, Cassius Butts, an executive in residence at Robinson, delivered a workshop on the importance of first impressions. Both Butts and Ryan Grelecki, a clinical assistant professor from Robinson’s Department of Risk Management & Insurance, joined Conroy and Jason Aldrich, the college’s assistant dean for strategic partnerships and career advancement, as advisers on the trip. The training and on-the-ground support made a difference: Coffman specifically notes the students’ insightful questions. “They were eager to learn what they can do to set themselves apart on the job market,” she says. “They also asked thoughtful questions about our product. They clearly did their research.”
Thirty percent of all Panthers on Wall Street alumni currently work in Manhattan, but according to Conroy, quantifying the program’s success is more complicated than that single number. The purpose of both Panthers on Wall Street and Panthers in the Valley is to help students gauge where they best can make a contribution, be it in Manhattan, Silicon Valley, Atlanta or a different side of the world. And if students want to land a position in Silicon Valley but aren’t quite ready, the CAC is equipped to get them up to speed. “There is plenty of opportunity for us to partner with technology firms in Atlanta to train our talent,” Conroy says. “I also anticipate this being a gem for recruiters to look to students who decide Silicon Valley is not the culture for them.”
“Panthers in the Valley is the most recent immersion experience we offer as part of our strategy to ensure that ‘No one gets closer to business than Robinson’,” says Richard Phillips, the college’s dean. “We’re getting students closer to Silicon Valley businesses by giving them a real sense of the entrepreneurial spirit of the region, and by doing so Silicon Valley employers get a chance to meet some of Georgia State’s best and brightest.”
In an effort to better sync with companies’ recruitment cycle, Panthers in the Valley now will take place every fall. A second cohort will travel to Silicon Valley this October, joined by a group of Executive MBA students who will engage in activities and challenges tailored toward professionals at their level.
Robotham is committed to making Silicon Valley a viable employment option for students from her alma mater. “Our involvement in Panthers in the Valley reaffirms that we are opening our doors and hearts to making the Google experience a real choice for Georgia State students,” she says. “The university’s commitment to ensuring its campus reflects the broader community, society and world is parallel to what Google is aiming to do. No matter where I am, I will continue to support Panthers in the Valley.”