What I Learned at…Stanford Graduate School of Business, Part 1

In our “What I Learned at…” series, MBAs discuss the tools and skills their business schools provided as they launched their careers.

Sandi Lin is the CEO and founder of Skilljar, which provides businesses with online course software. Before founding Skilljar, Sandi was a senior manager at in Seattle. She earned her MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In Part 1 of this three-part series, Sandi reflects on the advantages of having gained experience at a “real job” before starting her own company.

Entrepreneurship is in the air at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). In 2011, 16% of the GSB class started their own companies after graduation, and many more chose to join start-ups as nonfounders. Stanford’s location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the extremely high caliber of engineering and business students on campus, and the university’s active support of start-up accelerator programs like StartX all fuel the school’s awesome entrepreneurial engine. Even the GSB’s tagline, “Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World,” leads students to dream big.

I arrived at Stanford knowing that I wanted to start (or work at) a tech start-up after business school. My background was in transportation consulting, so this would be a significant career change for me. Unfortunately, in 2008, the global economy collapsed—Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in September, just as I was just starting my second year at Stanford. It is hard to imagine now, but virtually all big companies declared a hiring freeze that fall and even began laying off seasoned employees.

My goal had been to join a start-up, but I also had a product management job offer from in Seattle, where I had interned the previous summer. Although Amazon is a very well respected company today, in 2008, most people believed that Amazon was “just a retailer” and that its era of innovation was long over. I knew differently, having just witnessed the early days of the Kindle, Amazon Web Services and Fulfillment by Amazon (all of which were very small teams with MBA interns back in the summer of 2008). Not sure what to do, I looked to the Stanford network for advice.

I first talked to an alumna at a Bay Area start-up that I had my eye on. She had worked at several big companies before founding her company. Her advice was gentle but blunt—her company was always looking for talented people, but I had very little experience. In addition, well-known tech giants were laying off hundreds of experienced product managers. That was the reality of the job market I would be competing in. At the same time, she told me that work experience at Amazon was very well respected in the industry and that I could not go wrong by taking a position there.

At Stanford, I was lucky enough to take a supply chain class with Michael Marks, an amazing leader I admired both personally and professionally. When I asked him for advice, he told me, “No matter when you decide to start a company, you will need to know how a well-run company operates. And there is no better-run company in the world than right now.”

With their advice, I decided to put my start-up dreams on pause and take the job at Amazon, where I spent the next four years in various product management roles. Looking back now, I cannot imagine taking the entrepreneurial leap without the experience I developed during those years. Thanks to Amazon, I met my co-founders, most of my early employees and several of my future investors. I learned how to build and launch a tech product, how to hire and manage a team and how to run a business. While it may be true that nothing prepares you for a start-up like launching a start-up, I now know that my decision to work at an established company after graduation has given me the best chance of success with Skilljar.

Click here to read Part 2.

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