Why students should consider a start-up for their next internship

September 16, 2019

After a summer experience that landed him in meetings with top execs, Kathem Bazzi has some advice for his fellow engineering students: Don’t be afraid to think beyond the big-name companies when it comes to internships.

Kathem Bazzi’s recent internship experience is about as far away from the pop-culture stereotype as you can get. There were no extended mind-numbing stretches of filing papers or coffee runs for managers. Nope — by the end of the summer, Bazzi was presenting at meetings where his audience was a crew of top-level directors. It was hardly a tiny, inconsequential company, either. Rivian, the electric vehicle start-up, has been getting lots of attention for its high-performance, 400-mile-range electric pickup and SUV that are due out shortly. The Rivian platform is also set to be the base for Ford’s new electric SUV.

So how did Bazzi find himself in this position in just a couple months? For starters, we should acknowledge that the UM-Dearborn mechanical engineering senior has some obvious — and documented — talent. Bazzi already has two research papers published in academic journals — as a lead author. But he also attributes the next-level internship experience to the fact that he was willing to take a chance on a start-up.

“You go to a big company and they probably have a way they’ve been doing things for years,” Bazzi says. “And it’s great, it’s organized, they’ve got what they do down. But at Rivian, it’s a much smaller company. And they have these huge, ambitious goals that they're trying to reach, so it’s kind of an all-hands-on-deck situation. You might be an intern, but it’s three rounds of interviews to get in the door. They expect you to contribute.” 

By the end of day one, he already had an assignment, the first of four projects he was asked to tackle over the summer. They weren’t do-or-die problems, but they weren’t trivial either. On one assignment, he was tasked with getting the engineering and design teams together to solve a problem with real dollars attached to it. In that case, as a 21-year-old intern, he found himself leading meetings where his job was basically asking tough questions of directors who had decades of experience in the industry. 

Then, on his final project, he got to do some real-deal engineering work, tweaking the design of a signature perk of the Rivian pickup. (He can’t say what it is, but likened it to the hidden umbrella found in a Rolls-Royce.) “They called me in to present the different design options to all these managers and directors. They were probably like, ‘Who is this guy?’ But I had my PowerPoint, and I felt good about what we had to present. So I didn’t sweat it. I just enjoyed the moment.”

Bazzi says experiences like that have helped him figure out what he’d like to do post-graduation. It’s basically a question between grad school and starting his engineering career, and he says the excitement at Rivian is definitely pushing him toward the latter. He’s interviewing for jobs now, and in some sense, he’s facing the same question he had when choosing an internship: Go with one of the big companies, like GM, where he hears they’re doing a good job developing young talent; or dive-in with one of the new players, like Rivian. 

He admits that when it’s a job and not a short-term internship, the calculus feels a little different. Luckily, he still has a few months to figure out what his next adventure will be.

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