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A few weeks after she got admitted to Columbia Business School, Cristina Benitez Sacasas started cold-calling dozens of companies in the hope of landing summer work at a consulting firm. Like many MBA students, Sacasas was a career switcher with no previous consulting experience. She worried that her four years as a sales associate in the private wealth management division of Morgan Stanley (MS) wouldn’t impress recruiters from top consulting firms visiting her school that fall.
Her determination paid off when a recruiter from Deloitte told her about a new summer internship program the company was starting called the Deloitte Consulting Immersion Program, geared toward students like her about to enter business school. She was accepted to the program, and by July she was working on a restructuring project for a manufacturing client. When she got to (Columbia Full-Time MBA Profile) last fall, she had a leg up on many of her fellow students, as well as a coveted offer from Deloitte to return the following summer as a first-year associate.
"It was a crash course in what you were expected to do as a consultant," says Sacasas, 26, who accepted Deloitte’s offer and is interning there again this summer. "It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for."
Perhaps the biggest quandary for MBA career switchers is how to get the attention of a recruiter in a field they’ve never worked in before. Increasingly, the solution for many is landing a pre-MBA internship, which runs four weeks or longer internship and gives students experience in a field they hope to get into after business school, plus an edge that impresses recruiters. With the still shaky economy making it more competitive for MBA career changers to land a job in a new sector, students have been more aggressive about pursuing these types of opportunities, says Nicole Hall, president of MBA Career Services Council (CSC) in Tampa and executive director for career services at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management (Graziadio Full-Time MBA Profile). The CSC does not track the number of students who do pre-MBA internships, but Hall says she and other career services officers have noticed more students pursuing them. Companies are making the experiences available to students because it helps the companies get a head start on the fall recruiting process, Hall says.
"It is becoming increasingly important for employers to have early visibility with students," Hall says. "If they can connect with them before they literally start their first class, that increases their access to the best talent."
One of the most common ways students land these opportunities is through minority leadership organizations, which set them up with paid internships at banks and consulting companies. Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing the number of minority students enrolled in MBA programs, has been one of the early proponents of the pre-MBA internship, says MLT Chief Executive John Rice.
The organization started its pre-MBA internship program about seven years ago, as an extension of its larger MBA preparation program. Every summer, Rice helps about 20 to 25 prematriculating MBA career-switchers find paid summer internships at leading banks, consulting companies, and venture capital firms.
Almost all the MLT fellows end up with either job offers from the company where they did their pre-MBA internship or a position at another leading business in the same sector. Most don’t have any experience in the sector where they spend the summer, and they would otherwise have trouble competing against classmates with more experience during the competitive fall recruiting season, Rice says.
"It can be a game-changing experience for them," says Rice. "This gives them the ability to get in and get their hands dirty, do meaningful work, and get exposure to the [company] and its executives. It gives them a huge leg up."
That was the case for Jorrell Best, 31, a 2010 Columbia Business School graduate and MLT alum. Before business school, he worked as a financial analyst in PepsiCo’s (PEP) consumer products division, but he wanted to break into investment banking. He had little exposure to Wall Street, but through MLT’s connections he was able to secure a pre-MBA internship in Citigroup’s (C) investment banking division. When he entered school that fall, he was quickly able to attract the attention of recruiters at other Wall Street firms, he says.
"People would say, ‘Wow, this guy had an internship before he even started school,’" says Best, who accepted an internship offer from Swiss Bank UBS (UBS) for the following summer, where he now works as an investment banker. "It made me stand out, and back in 2008, when the economy was worse, it made me stand out that much more."
UBS typically hires about five pre-MBA interns for the summer, says Jessica Swanderski, UBS’s associate director of investment banking campus recruiting. The bank has worked with MLT for about five years and also works with other minority organizations to find students for the program, which has grown increasingly popular, with more than 100 applicants this year, she says. Swanderski explains that the bank provides students with a 10-week paid internship, which includes one week of training and additional guidance and mentorship—work similar to that of first-year MBA associates, though pre-MBA interns receive additional guidance and mentoring—and by participating in the program, the bank is able to get a jump on building its MBA intern class for the following summer. It also helps the company build it brand awareness among first-year MBA students, she says.
"It develops our pipeline and we get to know our students pretty much at the earliest point possible," says Swanderski. "If these students have a great experience at UBS during their pre-MBA summer, they are just another advocate for us on campus."
While the majority of pre-MBA interns still find their internships through their connections with minority leadership groups, some students seek out opportunities on their own by networking or cold-calling companies.
That was how Benjamin Lo, 27, a second-year student at the MIT (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile), found his summer internship before business school. Lo knew he wanted to work in technology after getting his MBA, but he had no experience in the field, having spent the past four years in finance working as an assistant vice-president at Barclays Capital (BARC) in London. One of his friends from college worked at a small social media agency called FreshNetworks and introduced him to one of the company’s executives, who agreed to take him on for a three-month unpaid internship. During Lo’s time there, he worked on various social media marketing campaigns, including a high-profile project involving footwear brand Jimmy Choo.
While at MIT, Lo secured another internship in the technology field during his January break at the online travel company Kayak.com. Both experiences helped him land his dream internship this summer, working as a product manager intern at Zynga, an online social game company.
"I don’t think I would have been able to get a position at a high-profile technology firm like this one without the pre-MBA internship," he said. "I definitely felt it gave me, as a career switcher, an advantage, because it was just another experience I could point to that let them know I was serious about the industry. It even helped me compete against people who had worked in technology before."
Small startups can be a good place for soon-to-be MBAs to get experience in a new field, because startups are looking to find talent early yet often don’t have the same recruiting resources as larger companies, says Krishna Subramanian, co-founder of Mobclix, a 45-person mobile ad exchange in Palo Alto, Calif. His company hires about five MBA interns a year, including two at the pre-MBA stage, hailing from such schools as neighboring Stanford (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile).
"When you’re trying to compete with big-name companies such as Facebook and Twitter, you’ve got to reach out and give people opportunities, maybe even before they see what else is out there,” Subramanian says.
As pre-MBA internships become more popular, some companies are trying to make them a more established part of their recruiting process. The Deloitte Consulting Immersion program that attracted Sacasas, the Columbia Business School student, was launched last summer, says Matt David, a principal with Deloitte Consulting. Last year, the four-week program received 300 applications for 11 spots. All the pre-MBA interns received offers to return to work as a first-year associate, and the majority of them are working at the firm this summer, he says. The program has proved so popular that Deloitte decided to expand it to 19 participants this summer, after receiving 420 applications, says David.
"This really was a brand new concept that we put out there, and it was more successful than we anticipated," he says. "As far as finding the best talent, this really is where the game is going."
Hall, from the MBA Career Services Council, says she wouldn’t be surprised if more companies start copying Deloitte in the next few years, adding pre-MBA internship programs to their cadre of MBA offerings.
"Employers want to be competitive and get access to the best talent, so the Deloitte program or another company’s could inspire employers to start to offer these opportunities," she says. "If they do, I am confident the students will come."