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the graduate plasticsTwo years ago, as a Harvard senior studying economics and math, I was faced with the inevitable decision — what to do after graduating. I was fortunate to have great options, including offers of direct admission to business school at Harvard and Stanford. But I ultimately decided to forego traditional job opportunities.

Instead, I accepted a job at Rapleaf, which was then an 18-person technology startup in San Francisco.

In retrospect, I have grown more resolute that my decision to work at a startup was correct. As I’ve watched the career trajectories of many of my friends that have entered different types of jobs, I have formulated three principles of entry-level jobs for ambitious young job seekers deciding on a career track -– principles that may lead more people to opt for a startup career.

  1. Take a job where you are a decision-maker. The first principle is to join a firm that maximizes the number of decisions per capita. In most entry-level jobs, your work helps to inform the decisions of more senior employees, but you make few decisions yourself. For example, a typical consulting analyst provides research that a partner will incorporate into their own recommendations, but they do not formulate the recommendations themselves. However, in an organization with a large number of decisions that need to be made per capita, decision-making authority will be delegated to you immediately. While the decisions will be small initially, they not only allow you to learn more quickly, but also enable you to prove yourself and earn increasing amounts of responsibility. A well-funded, fast-growing startup that typically has an over-abundance of decisions that need to be made. Even interns that work at Rapleaf are generally given small areas that they’re responsible for, and as they prove themselves, those areas can grow as quickly as the employee’s capabilities. While the rate of learning generally slows after six months in most jobs, I have found that it actually accelerates at some startups because of this accumulation of decision-making ability.
  2. Find true meritocracy. The second principle is to seek out a company that promotes true meritocracy, independent of your age. Over the course of a career, many industries are meritocratic, though few are truly meritocratic for 22-year-olds. In most industries, independent of how talented you are, there is a career track that you are generally required to follow and it is impossible to accelerate beyond a certain pace. Due to their size and culture, many startups seek out the best ideas internally, and they reward the best talent -– independent of age. For ambitious and talented young employees, it is possible to skip several steps of a typical career track, and promotion can occur quickly.
  3. Love your job. The third principle is to do something you love with colleagues you admire. In an environment where you are working because you want to, you will learn more, accomplish more, and will be more likely to succeed. I work long hours in my job -– not because there is an expectation that I do so, but because I feel passionate about the projects I work on and enjoy the impact I have. The hard work in turn translates into more opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed.

Evaluating other options

Travis MayOf course, there are downsides to startups. First, all of these benefits are contingent on being at a quickly-growing, meritocratic company with a strong team; the experience could be very different at the wrong startup. Additionally, extreme meritocracy means that you will have to perform well and work hard in order to succeed. Finally, to succeed at a startup, one generally needs to thrive on ambiguity; unlike a college problem set, startups face questions without prescribed answers (and sometimes not even formulated questions).

Perhaps due to these risks, and also due to the low presence of startup recruiting teams at universities, startups are an undersubscribed career option for young job seekers. But for ambitious and talented graduates, they provide the chance for extraordinarily quick career acceleration, a fast rate of learning, and the opportunity to be passionate about one’s work.

Travis May is head of strategy and operations at Rapleaf.

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