Last month on campus, On Campus Recruiting (OCR) occurred, involving Wharton MBA students, dozens of employers, lots of expectant energy and, I suspect, some nerves too. Walking the interview room corridors got me thinking about the apparent disconnect between what we think we know about millennials and what I saw during recruiting.
On reflection, one conclusion is clear: When it comes to millennial career paths, it is not big brand names versus startups, but rather both/and. You just need to take a longer-term view of millennial careers than their first jobs.
The stereotypical millennial wants to change the world, right now. Millennials have supposedly lost faith in big organizations, both corporations and governments. They want to do it on their own, on their own time and in their own way—after all, that is what their (young) heroes of the tech age have done. Millennials have a hubris that raises eyebrows among those with less and grayer hair sitting in black leather chairs in mahogany-paneled offices.
Contrast that stereotype with the sight of amped-up Wharton students, after long hours of preparation, going from interview to interview with most of the household names in consulting and finance. While there was lots of diversity in their faces, it was all blue-gray-black business suits on their bodies. Not a lot of those in Silicon Valley, unless you lose the tie and add a black T-shirt.
If you look at where recent Wharton MBAs have gone post-graduation, the top 10 list is still dominated by banks and consulting firms. Big tech players like Amazon and Google have made it into the top 10, but they are still the exceptions. And they are hardly startups. Mainstream career choices are even more prevalent among Wharton undergraduates when they leave us—even though they have been even more influenced by the Mark Zuckerberg generation.
Is this just millennials saying one thing and doing another, with risk aversion and conformity in the end overwhelming their entrepreneurial impulse? I don’t think so.
I think our students know exactly what they are doing. They go to large elite firms to gain experience and expertise. Many will stay for their whole careers. But increasingly, we see our graduates becoming entrepreneurs, going out on their own three, five and 10 years after graduation.
This is very smart for them. They know their chances of succeeding as entrepreneurs increase with age, experience, expertise and capital. Just look at the senior teams at private equity firms and hedge funds. Big bank pedigrees as far as the eye can see. Increasingly, we see finance and consulting stars crossing over into tech.
This is a big problem for the big firms. That is why they are so heavily focused these days on trying to retain the talent they have developed in-house.
This also has big implications for a school like Wharton. We have always believed that our impact on our students extends far after they receive their diplomas. But now we also know it means being there for our alumni when they change careers, especially when they strike out on their own as some of our best known entrepreneurial alumni have, such as Bob Goergen WG62, J.D. “Dave” Power III WG59 and Michelle Peluso W93, among many others.
I expect this notion of lifelong learning—of schools continuing to add value to alumni throughout their careers—will become an increasingly important part of the business school value proposition. It certainly is at Wharton.
The millennials graduating from Wharton aren’t hypocrites. They are smart. When it comes to elite established firms and exciting startups, they want their cake and to eat it too. We will do all we can to help them make it so.
Stay tuned in the coming months as we roll out initiatives supporting our alumni if/when they take an entrepreneurial turn.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article appeared on LinkedIn on Feb 3, 2016.