Recent University of Colorado alum Monica Gauthier had no idea what she wanted to be when she grew up.
The 2012 grad studied art history at CU, but didn't know what that degree translated to in the real world.
She moved to California without a job and then heard about a new startup called Activyst. Gauthier started interning part time for the company, which now has four employees with the addition of Gauthier. When she started working with Activyst, the company still hadn't launched, so its founders needed all the help they could get in every aspect of the company.
"If I didn't know how to do something, I would learn," Gauthier said.
Though the job market is improving, some CU students have turned to startups and prolonged internships at small companies instead of seeking out more traditional work at a big, 9-to-5 firm.
"While some students know exactly what they want to do after graduation, many don't, so taking some time to explore the world of work can be exciting and informative," said CU Director of Career Services and Assistant Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lisa Severy. "Taking some early risks, working for a low wage, working a potpourri in a couple of part-time jobs or working with startups is a good thing to do before you encumber things like mortgages, kids, spouses."
Severy pointed to research from the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, which found that nearly 65 percent of young adults said they would likely engage in job surfing during their early careers. That's because many young adults have watched their relatives or parents get laid off at large firms, even after working there for years, the study found. They're less likely to settle down into a career path right away, and that's OK, Severy said.
This weekend, CU will award 6,084 degrees. Since last August, the career center has posted over 6,000 different positions for students and recent graduates, Severy added. Many of those students will work for startups or small companies to get hands-on experience or to try something new and different.
Gauthier said she wasn't really aware of the startup community or lifestyle until she started working at one. She had no idea she'd be working for a small startup as her first job out of school, but has now found a career she's passionate about rather than one that's just so-so. Her company, Activyst, makes athletic bags to support girls' sports organizations and programs around the world.
"Choose passion over security," she said. "If you have to make a choice between one that lets you be a part of something and really work hard for your passion, choose that and take a chance rather than going into a 9-to-5 that won't satisfy you."
Activyst founder and CEO Katie Rock said it didn't bother her that Gauthier was fresh out of college. She knew that she wanted to bring on an intern who could eventually become a long-term employee, so fit was more important than experience, Rock said.
"She made it clear how much she really wanted to work for the company," Rock said. "As a founder of a startup, it's sort of your baby, so knowing someone is as invested as you are is very comforting."
Gauthier began taking over different roles and tasks within the company, Rock remembers. They began to rely on her, and she became invaluable to the company.
"In a startup, there's no formal roles," Rock said. "Everybody has to do everything and wear a lot of hats. She just sort of jumped right in and wasn't afraid to get her hands dirty. She made herself needed."
Rock, who herself went to law school a year after graduating from undergrad, said she took an informal poll of her law school friends. They decided that during college or immediately after college should be the time to take risks, work for a startup and not necessarily take the most traditional career track right away.
Junior Danny Godin has decided to take a similar path by working for a small clothing company in Denver. Godin, who's originally from Aurora, Colo., and is studying operations management at CU has been interning at Akomplice since last fall.
After completing a three-month internship, the company decided to hire Godin part time while he finishes school. This summer, he'll move to Akomplice headquarters in Santa Barbara to work full time. When he graduates next May, the company will take him on full time permanently.
The Denver location has just five employees, so even as an intern Godin learned all aspects of the business.
Godin, like many students trying to figure out what to do after college, decided that working for a smaller, newer company was a better fit than working in a large company with hundreds of employees where he could get lost or bored.
"We're up and coming," Godin said of Akomplice. "(I've been) getting to know the owners and they're getting to know me and my potential. If I was working for a big company, I can't imagine that I'd ever get to talk to the owners."
Another reason Godin said he wanted to work in a more intimate environment was so that he could feel personally invested in his work. At Akomplice, everything Godin does has a direct impact on the business, he said. He's learning all parts of the company, not just one, he said.
Senior Molly Carstensen began interning for a small marketing firm in Boulder in January. She'll keep interning at Egg Strategy this summer and says she's been getting valuable work experience while working in a smaller, more intimate environment.
At Egg Strategy, 21-year-old Carstensen has been applying her marketing skills to real clients and brands, she said.
The company has around 30 employees, compared to larger marketing companies with around 150 employees, Carstensen said.
"What I really love about Egg is that they trust me to do actual work," she said. "I'm the only intern, so I get tons of one-on-one attention from my mentors."
Carstensen said she feels like interning for a small company is often better for college students because it's easier to form deeper relationships that can lead to future jobs. At a smaller company, interns often get to work on more projects and do more meaningful work, she added.
"Right when you walk into Egg, you feel as if it's your family," she said. "I really fit into that small knit (company). It's more hands on."
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.