According to the University of Michigan’s website, a first generation college student is “a groundbreaker, a person who is the first generation in the family to attend and graduate college.” While I’ve only attended a few club meetings on campus, the first gen identity is something I feel strongly about. At first I thought being a first gen would hold me back. I would be competing against students in a curved class who had guidance on what college is like. I didn’t know what a credit hour was before coming to college, and I didn’t know what to expect in general. However, after working at a startup, I’ve realized being a first gen has been a strength more than anything.
- Knowing What You Don’t Know
One of the biggest hurdles first gens face is a lack of awareness. How can you go to office hours when you don’t even know what office hours are? Because of this, I have become extremely comfortable asking questions. If I don’t understand what the professor is referencing, I’ll go to office hours or talk to my GSI. This has proven to be extremely useful at a startup. The CEO started talking about CACs, KPIs, and throughput in one of our 1 on 1s, and I had to stop her and ask her to clarify. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions that I knew would be vital to my performance. You have to be comfortable asking questions. Startups move so fast, so if you’re not on the same page as everyone else it could cause issues down the line. The founder of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, has even said that vulnerability and the ability to ask questions is the most undervalued leadership quality.
- Being Resourceful
I certain don’t speak for all first gens, but typically most of us face monetary constraints when it comes to paying for college. This situation is not ideal, but it also helps us become extremely resourceful. Instead of paying for breakfast on Wednesday, I like to go to the alumni center and get their free bagels and coffee. Instead of paying for a textbook, my friends and I share one. This type of resourcefulness is crucial at a startup. The company is typically so new that you’re not able to work with a budget like an established corporate company would. Instead of contracting our content out to a media company, me and the graphic designer will work on content for an hour a day. Instead of paying a research team to learn more about our target demographic, I spent a week calling and talking to moms. Our sample size was a lot smaller, but I got to hear from our customer and learn more on such a granular level.
- Having a vision
Applying and getting into college is no easy task. The process is the culmination of 4 years of hard work and dedication. Studying for the SAT is laborious and expensive. Touring colleges itself is expensive, time consuming, and certainly not an option for everyone. If no one in your family has attended college before you, it takes a great deal of vision to make attending college a real possibility. Just like you need a vision to attend college, you need a vision to make a startup a reality. You venture into uncharted territory and create something that no one else can see but you. That has been the strongest sentiment my internship has taught me. A successful startup validates your wildest dreams.
- Taking Risk
Risk, by definition, is something that could lead to loss. The risk with college is huge. What if I don’t get accepted? What if I have thousands in student loans? What if I fail and chose the wrong major? These are thoughts all students have, but the consequence for first gens can sometimes be greater because they are doing all this with little guidance. There are similar parallels when it comes to startups. Starting a business requires significant financial and emotional investment. Usually demanding, business might also make a founder feel isolated and miss out on social events. You’re also asking people to join you in the risk which makes it all seem even more riskier since other people are now risking their job security for you. However, just like with a college degree you hope and speculate that the investment will pay off in the long-run.