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Start-ups Offer Risks, Rewards for M.B.A. Interns

Business students can learn all facets of an industry via internships with start-up firms.

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Start-up businesses are emerging from the rubble of the Great Recession—and they're hiring.

Companies such as Groupon, LivingSocial, and Zynga, the game developer behind Farmville, added more than 6,000 jobs in 2011, according to company websites and growth reports, and new ventures are launching every day.

Start-ups can present a unique opportunity for M.B.A. students in search of internships: a chance to work directly with company founders and CEOs to make a substantial impact on the future of the business, according to start-up insiders.

[Learn why entrepreneurship is gaining steam at b-schools.]

"They are really meaty, exciting roles," says Jay McClary, vice president of marketing for RideCharge, the 5-year-old company behind transportation apps such as Taxi Magic, which allows users to book a taxi and pay for it using the company's website or smartphone app.

This summer, RideCharge wants an M.B.A. intern to expand the company's footprint in Europe and Latin America.

"[The internship] is integral to the growth of our business," McClary says. "This isn't something we created as a test to see if someone would be a good employee after they graduate."

Unlike corporate internships, which are often mapped out in detail and full of structured training sessions, RideCharge allows interning M.B.A.’s the freedom to approach their role from different angles, says Matt Carrington, director of marketing and communications at RideCharge.

[Discover tips for students vying to fill the tech talent gap.]

Carrington interned with Pacific Gas & Electric in 2009 while completing his M.B.A. at the University of California—Berkeley Haas School of Business. The internship, which serves as a feeder program for PG&E's leadership development program, consisted of training sessions and exploratory projects, he says.

"It was an incredible experience, but it's incredibly well defined," Carrington says. "They have it scripted to the day, of what you're going to be doing."

RideCharge's program is vastly different, Carrington says. Interns work directly with McClary, the VP of marketing, to define the project's goals, then hit the ground running, relying on their own expertise to work independently and often remotely.

This level of autonomy and responsibility is what attracts students to start-ups, says Scott LaChapelle, assistant director of technology platforms and new employer development at Harvard University's Office of Career Services.

"Our students like to have a lot of influence and impact," LaChapelle says. "They generally like to develop their passion into tangible skills."

Another factor drawing students to start-ups is their often casual, high-energy atmosphere. That energy was on display at Harvard's recent Start-up Career Fair, which brought in more than 90 start-ups and attracted more than 600 graduate and undergraduate students. Budding companies brought in pizza, candy, T-shirts—even a giant blow-up elephant—giving students a taste of the culture of start-ups, which often list Ping-Pong tournaments and sponsored happy hours among their company benefits.

[Find out three tips for students to ace job fairs.]

The fun, fast-paced atmosphere of start-ups often reflects the personalities of the founders, as well as the employees they hope to attract. But it isn't for everyone, LaChapelle says.

"You need to be OK with rapid change, not having a clear road map, not having a management program," he says. "You need to be OK with the fact that your job description, if there even is one, may change as well."

Rachel Schaengold, an M.B.A. student at George Washington University and intern with Social Driver, a digital technology consulting firm, says that environment is exactly what she's seeking.

"Everyone's roles are blurred," Schaengold says. "As an intern, your roles are blurred across everything—but I like that."

While Schaengold appreciates the creative freedom, the uncertainty about her employment future can be unsettling, especially when classmates returned from their summer internships with signed employment contracts, she says.