This is the second post in a series exploring startups in international education for NAFSA 2015 week. Read the previous post here.
Ultimately I want to build a global community of students and entrepreneurs. Once you’re part of Sage Corps, you’re part of the community for life.
It’s not often you hear stories about American undergraduates devising go-to-market strategies for global startups in Argentina or translating slides for a fundraising pitch to Korean venture capitalists. But these are the stories coming out of Sage Corps, an experiential learning program that sends top US college students abroad to help entrepreneurs build companies. Students are immersing themselves in startup communities around the globe, trying new roles, applying their skills and gaining access to influential makers and leaders along the way. It’s transformative learning at its best and the most captivating new program in the international education space.
Founded by Matt Meltzer and located in Chicago’s thriving tech hub 1871, Sage Corps has been sending students abroad to work in global startups since summer 2013. And with 1871’s incredible network of co-working spaces around the world and Matt’s personal network, there is no shortage of startup projects for students: Working with 3D sensor technology in Buenos Aires. Developing next-gen baby monitors in Singapore. Creating sustainable housing in Singapore.
Yet the student experience doesn’t end after the 12 week program. When students return from abroad they are paired with a Sage, a global business leader – often a Vice President or higher – who is tasked with helping the student figure out how to leverage their experience abroad in a professional context.
Below I talk with Matt to learn more about immersive professional experiences abroad and what Sage Corps participants gain from this unique global experience.
What is the goal of Sage Corps?
We are really focused on teaching students global company building and global networking. That’s our two pronged mission for college students.
There are many places outside the US where the local consumer market is too small to support a robust startup community. So out of necessity someone who wants to create a business in those markets has to think globally from day one. That’s global company building. If you look at a place like Israel the local consumer market is tiny. So Israeli startups need to figure out how to sell products or services internationally, across markets, languages, and geographies. That’s a much different process than starting a company in NYC or LA. In the US you walk out your door and have access to a billion dollar market. But we think it’s increasingly important for students to understand how you build a global company as opposed to a local one. At Sage Corps students are learning how to sell a product that is made or developed in one continent and sold in another. They’re learning how to sell it to consumers in multiple languages and across time zones.
The idea of global networking is really based on the idea of expanding your professional network beyond just your local borders. We took our students to a networking event in Hong Kong last summer. One of our students approached a speaker who was from the local startup community, in ten minutes had a job offer, and then went to work for him. We had another student in Argentina and we took him to an investor conference. He connected with an entrepreneur who was moving his startup to Chile. They kept in touch and the following summer that student went down to work with them. There are real opportunities now especially with startups because they need the help.
How did Sage Corps start?
It started with my own personal experience having spent a year in South America, primarily in Argentina. I worked for a small early stage newspaper and I taught corporate executives to pay the bills. I was getting access to higher ups at multinational corporations. In the process I became fluent in Spanish. When I returned in 2004 I went to law school and was able to leverage my experience abroad into a niche practice representing Latin American companies. That was due in part because of my global work experience and the network I built overseas. So my idea is to help students open doors to form real professional relationships with people across borders.
What type of students participate in Sage Corps?
We are looking for students who are self selecting who want to do this. We have poetry and literature fanatics who work with startups on creating a narrative for their customers. We have comp science majors. We have huge opportunities for engineers and those on the business side. We have a mechanical engineering student going to Ireland who is building a sensor for a company that will purify and kill bacteria in the air. We have three mechanical engineers going to Singapore to build a prototype of a new baby monitor that’s placed underneath mattresses to detect the baby’s heartbeats.
The great thing about this is that there are no rules. Students are not pigeonholed into a department and given assignments. Students have the freedom to dabble in other areas. They may be at a startup for sales and marketing but if they want to learn how to fundraise, they have the freedom to do that. And CEOs think that’s amazing.
How does Sage Corps benefit student’s careers when they return?
Our alumni have gone on to work at other startups, consulting firms, tech companies and even investment banking. The anecdotal feedback we get is that students are walking into interviews and recruiters are looking saying, “Wait a minute, you rolled out a market strategy while you were in South America? That’s amazing.” We’ve had incredible outcomes for our students. One student from Dartmouth came back, started a digital marketing company out of his dorm room and launched a student innovation center.
We tell students that if you go through this program with the right mindset and open yourself up, there will not be a job in any corner on the earth or professional opportunity that you would be scared to take on once you come out of this experience.
What’s next for Sage Corps?
We are rolling out part-time programming during the semester for the first time. So if you are studying abroad you can work with a startup 10-15 hours a week and join our event programming on the ground. It all takes place after hours so it doesn’t interfere with your studies. We aren’t looking to replace study abroad; quite the contrary. We are a niche opportunity to compliment student activities. We give you that immersive professional experience to compliment your study abroad experience. We are already working with University of Michigan business school and Illinois engineering school on that. We are obviously looking to connect with other schools who would be interested in offering this to their students who are studying abroad.