College Lessons I Keep On Learning

Tonight I will speak at a Step Up event for high school seniors on how to make the most of college. Each girl will be matched to a mentor from Harvard Business School for the evening and they will also receive counsel from a panel of recent graduates. In preparing for the evening, I have been reminded of some of the most important lessons I learned in college, and how I continue to apply them today.

A mentor can be a lasting advocate
The mentor you find in college is likely your first champion.  A student is empowered when a respected adult identifies potential, encourages growth and rallies others around his/her goals. Step Up facilitates this kind of experience for students at the high school level and I want to encourage them to seek it out in college. Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, met her mentor Larry Summers while she was at Harvard. “During my junior year of college, I took Larry Summers’s public sector economics class,” Sandberg says. “He offered to supervise my senior thesis — something very few Harvard professors volunteer to do for undergraduates. Larry has been a major part of my life ever since.” Summers helped Sandberg to launch a group called Women in Economics and Government and she went on to work for him at the World Bank and the Treasury Department. No matter how far along you are in your career, you are still learning. What are you a student of these days and who around you might be able to offer guidance? Inversely, are there college students who could benefit from your expertise? See here for more thoughts on both sides of the mentoring relationship.

A bold idea can become a reality
I will talk to the students about Leila Janah, the founder and CEO of Samasource, a non-profit organization that provides digital work to impoverished people around the world. Samasource, which has now moved 20,000 people over the poverty line, came from an idea Janah had during her studies at Harvard. Her academic pursuits led her abroad and to a leadership position in the Harvard International Development Group. Dorm room start-ups abound in the wake of Facebook, Reddit, Google, and Napster but college has always been a breeding ground for entrepreneurship (FedEx and Time Magazine were both started by college students). I suspect that great ideas come out of a university setting because they are hatched in a robust intellectual community whose participants possess more energy and drive than they do fear. What can I do to cultivate a stimulating environment around me now? Do I still dream as big as I did when I didn’t know better?

A small responsibility can lead to something bigger
The kinds of jobs you take in college may not make full use of your talent or of what you believe yourself to be capable of. Internships tend to involve data entry and fetching coffee more than they do strategic decision-making and brainstorming. However, being diligent in the small things often opens doors to more responsibility. The NACE 2013 Internship and Co-Op Survey found that more than one-third of respondents’ expected new college hires will come from that organization’s internship and co-op programs. Tonight I will tell the story of Ursula Burns who started as an intern at Xerox during a college summer and worked her way up to become the first African-American female CEO of a Fortune 500 Company. Are there parts of your current job that feel small or unimportant? For as long as these tasks fall within our responsibility, let’s meet them with passion and enthusiasm- the same way we’ll tackle the big opportunities when they come.

I’m looking forward to tonight’s event with students who are on the brink of their college adventures and I know I will be reminded of the many lessons it takes more than four years to master. (Such as how to make good choices in the dining hall.)