The first thing I’ll say is that none of this is prescriptive. I do not believe that there is a certain way or track that anyone should follow to guide their career choices. Second, I’d add that I’ve gotten incredibly lucky being able to talk to and work with amazing people that are willing to take irrational, yet life changing chances on me and my life.
When I first came to college, my goal was pretty straightforward: grow as much as possible. I also wanted to make sure I was happy, healthy, and having fun. If I could do all of those things at once, I figured I would be in an incredible place, no matter where I ended up.
Since that first day on campus about a year and a half ago, those goals have remained constant. The only things that have changed are the tactical steps I have taken to try and get to them.
There are so many different ways to go about growth. You can sign up for extra challenging classes, join or start a club, build a company, become more social, learn a skill, the possibilities are endless. For some reason or another, I have always found that I grew best in challenging environments where I could make a serious impact. Simply put, I wanted to work on interesting problems that I could make a difference in.
I have generally hated being a cog. Generally hate being the norm. So I strayed away from the means in hopes of finding an opportunity towards the ends.
What I wanted to do was really become an outlier and have an incredible amount of growth over these next four years. To do this, I made an assumption:
I needed to start working in the real world, today.
Was this the right assumption? I am not sure. But I went for it.
Specifically, I knew I wanted to work with startups and investors, with teams interested in building something new. So I started building relationships with former strangers outside of my school and community. I built one of those LinkedIn things and started reaching out to people that I thought I could provide value to while having an interesting conversation.
Most people never responded. But I did not have the time or energy to worry about those unread messages. Instead, to this day, I am always grateful for those individuals that for some reason not only opened a message from a random 18 year old, but also took the time to make an investment in me.
The first “success” I had was via LinkedIn message. I had outreached to a general partner at a venture capital firm. It was one of the biggest and most successful venture capital firms in the midwest. I had always been interested in VC, growing things, and tech companies. This was a great mix. And so, I and my meek LinkedIn profile reached out:
Hi, My name is Jordan Gonen and I am a current student in Olin at WashU. I came across your profile and was very interested in your past experiences working at x, x, and now with Name of VC Firm here in St. Louis. As a student very interested in the startup world, I was wondering if you had some time over the next couple of weeks to briefly talk about your background as well as advice you have for a current student looking for opportunities in the business sector for the future. If you could, please send over a couple of times that work for you and I will definitely make them work! Best, Jordan Gonen
He responded to my message, we met, and I got the lucky opportunity of getting my very first internship to be in venture capital.
A big lesson I learned here: you have to ask for what you want in the real world because no one is going to come by with a magic fairy wand and bestow upon you what you want.
As soon as you know what you want, you must go out and get it. I would have never gotten this experience if not for my initiative and outreach. This internship program had previously only been open to upperclassmen and graduate students. If I had applied via conventional application, there is no way I would have stood out. I was 18 years old, just beginning my freshman year of college. Differentiation is often everything, and taking that pro-active step and reaching out was exactly what I needed.
I found that I got a lot of satisfaction and accelerant growth from this experience. And so I did what anyone who finds what they like do, I doubled down. I wanted to gain more exposure to the real world and start working on more interesting problems. My next tactical step was to find an operational experience that I could work on remotely.
Through outreach via Slack group, I formed a relationship with another person who was had just started building his company over in San Francisco. I had two phone calls with him (I actually screwed up the first one so badly he had to give me another chance) and started providing value where I could (for free).
Okay, so it is now the beginning of my second semester of college. I am working remotely for a startup and a venture capital firm; I now needed to find something to do for the summer. That was my next tactical step: find a really compelling internship that would help me grow 10x.
At this point, I was also convinced that that internship needed to be in Northern California. I thought that that was really the only way I would accelerate inevitable growth for my career. (this holds not to be true).
So I again began this outreach to people that I thought would have interesting things to talk about, and perhaps even an opportunity for me.
I probably sent thousands of emails and talked to over 100 people via phone about ‘advice’ for students and how I could be of value to them.
The first thing I’ll note is that much of this was a distraction for me. It was nearly irrational and, looking back, probably in large part unnecessary for me to reach out to all of these people. Instead I could have been working on or building something. But I continued outreach because it was my assumption that this would be the best way to learn and grow.
Again, most everyone did not respond. Most people are far too busy to take on requests from random 18 year olds asking to chat for a few minutes. But, once again, I was surprised and amazed by the kindness and giving of some select individuals. Of the many many stories I could tell you, the one that perhaps most helped me was via a simple email.
I was not making much progress emailing companies directly, so instead I took a more creative route and started emailing a couple of venture capitalists. I knew that they were connected to many companies and that if I could provide value to them, perhaps they would be able to connect me onwards to someone in their portfolio.
Hi Blank, My name is Jordan Gonen and I am a student at Washington University in St. Louis. I share a passion for technology and building business. I also like helping people solve really hard problems. I know you get asks often — so I will be straightforward and succinct. Are there any opportunities for students to get involved with what you guys are doing or any of your portfolio companies. I think the youth/student perspective is extremely valuable to companies and vc firms. I’d love to make that difference where it will count. In my experience, formal application processes block young talent from even entering the process. This is lost opportunities. I really appreciate any thoughts/introductions/advice you have and I look forward to figuring something out. Even if there are no spots available, I’d love to stay in contact and learn as much as possible from you. Best, Jordan Gonen
Looking back, that email was too long and perhaps said a bit of the wrong thing. But, he still responded. But it was a different sort of response:
Thank you Jordan. What are your favorite tech products and why? Which young startups will be huge over the next 3–5 years?
I again answered. And he responded:
You are a smart guy my man. This is very good structure. And have a lot of maturity too… What would be your ideal summer internship?
I thanked him, and his next response was the one that would maybe change my summer:
He responded with a bitmoji and a simple note:
Really, Jordan? This really happened? Yes, yes it did.
Fast forward a few months and, thanks to one person making an investment in talking to me, I received an opportunity to work at a fast growing, Series B, tech company. And it was in San Francisco.
This summer was amazing. I not only worked full time for this internship, I also got to help out a few more companies, meet amazing people, and, perhaps most importantly: grow really quickly.
It also led to future work. While in SF, I attended startup meetups. At an event hosted by a seed fund, I met Daily.co (they were known back then as Pluot), one startup where I interned while in college.
I am forever grateful for people who take chances on me, and I will always do the same for others.