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Breadsticks and Business by Maggie L. '12

Just remember, undergrads are like puppies in the eyes of an alum

If you’ve ever seen Glee, you know that Breadsticks is the token restaurant hangout for the students at Lima High School. I am here to say that Bertuccis Brick Oven Pizzeria is the Breadsticks of Cambridge, MA. This is where advising groups often meet for dinner; it’s where we’ve had a few cross country team dinners; it’s where MIT students say they’d like to order pizza, but then ask for a bag of those famous pizza dough rolls to go. Those rolls are carbohydrate legends.

When some teammates from my junior year’s Engineering Leadership Lab (ELL) wanted to have a reunion dinner a few months ago, Bertucci’s was the obvious choice of venue.

It was fun catching up, especially since our table comprised of a graduated course 2A (a flexible degree in mechanical engineering) startup cofounder, a course 6 (electrical engineering and computer science) senior, and me, a course 10B (chemical-biological engineering) senior. We’re all students in GEL program, and I love the opportunity to meet students from a variety of engineering disciplines because so many of my classes are in the coure 10 curriculum. But we didn’t talk about psets and exams. We talked about career ambitions and networking and other things that I as a graduating student am particularly interested in.

I learned a LOT about startups that night. In his senior year, Kevin cofounded a company called Ministry of Supply with a fellow GEL student, Gihan. They sell business shirts made out of performance material, so subway trips or bike rides to work won’t spoil a fresh, clean shirt. According to Kevin, startups are startlingly similar to an ELL.

“You need to talk to people, you need to get something, you’re under time pressure, you’re working with teammates,” he explained. He didn’t realize the impact from the GEL program until he had the opportunity to apply the lessons to his company, which has had a lot of fantastic opportunities in the past year. Ministry of Supply got to present on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

According to Andrew, “One thing GEL taught me that I talked about was the importance of understanding how your users think. I think the relevant quote from [one of the GEL classes, Engineering Innovation & Design] is ‘The best way to observe a fish is to become a fish.’” He took a class this semester on international supply chain management since he knew that Panjiva’s users are supply chain and sourcing managers.

In less than one year with the company, Kevin is amazed with how much he’s learned in such a short amount of time. Some examples include the importance of visioning and interpersonal skills in a work environment. Ministry of Supply came up with a core mission. They use superhero names in emails. They constantly use the phrase “use all parts of the buffalo” to remind themselves to avoid waste and encourage resourcefulness. They watch Ocean’s Eleven and Top Gun to have fun.

Andrew, who works for a Cambridge-based startup called Panjiva, said his company also made a list of commitments (“we are constantly learning – and, therefore, constantly growing,” “we give and receive constructive feedback for example” are a couple of examples) and identified their stakeholders order to focus their efforts from the get-go. It apparently makes things a lot easier when a company has direction and a clear purpose.

Kevin, who was accepted early to Stanford Business School as a senior before starting the company, recommends setting milestones for 1, 3, and even 5 years out from a company start date. At MIT’s spring career fair at the beginning of the semester, their booth was right next to the UnderArmour booth. This was a great motivation for Ministry of Supply, since UnderArmour was also a performance-wear startup just over a decade ago. This year, the company is projected to have over $110 million in revenue.

What’s Ministry of Supply’s goal for 2012? Kevin says they’d love to be on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.
Meanwhile, Andrew has learned a lot from being on the “other side” of hiring at the MIT career fairs.

Both of them agreed with the sentiment of “we hire people, not years.” If a sophomore walks up to them at a career fair, and seems like a promising candidate, they don’t care if that’s the youngest applicant they have.
“People often say that the best indicator for future performance is past performance,” Kevin said. He recommends putting specific details on a resume so that interviewers have something to talk about that highlights one’s strengths as an applicant.

The final topic we hit on was networking. I thought it was great to hear their experiences as the career fairs, but I find that sometimes it’s tough for course 10 students to find engineering positions from the giant chemical engineering companies that show up at MIT. More often than not, companies don’t take my resume and instead recommend that I submit it online. But that’s so impersonal! All that accomplishes is putting my name in a database far, far away.

Kevin actually got an internship from one of these “online resume drop” companies in his freshman year, and got an offer. When it came to his specific group assignment, he called the guy he babysat for, who was a top official within the company and paired Keven with an “amazing” supervisor. Sometimes getting your foot in the door like that takes a little bit of creativity and a whole lot of luck.

Honestly, though, Kevin loves it when undergraduates reach out to him. “I was told as an undergrad that when alums hear from current students asking for help, the undergraduates are like a puppy,” he said. Basically, there’s no downside to reaching out to an MIT alum. Even if he or she never responds, you’re not in any worse position than you were in before.

As we left the restaurant, bags of dinner rolls in hand, I felt like I had just had a conversation with my own personal mentors. It’s not every day that I get to spend a solid hour just talking about initiative, visioning, and networking for the heck of it, and these are really the kinds of lessons that you can’t simply learn in a classroom.