How to Succeed in a Startup Without a Tech Background

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Even though I grew up in Silicon Valley, I never thought of myself as a tech kind of gal. While it was cool to live near Google, Apple and Facebook HQ, I didn’t have much interest in computer science, which I assumed was a prerequisite for 99 percent of the jobs my friends’ parents held. It took leaving the Bay Area and coming to Davidson to make me realize how wrong I was.

Although having a computer science background is certainly a necessity for many tech roles, Davidson and its Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program have helped me realize that my liberal arts education is actually an asset here in Palo Alto, rather than a hindrance. As a Hispanic Studies major with no coding experience, I’m not programming or building apps, but what I am doing is just as valuable to the startup I work for–VersaMe, which was founded in part by Chris and Jon Boggiano, Davidson’s Entrepreneurs in Residence.

After connecting with them through the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program in the spring of 2015, I was thrown into the world of marketing, business development, blogging, beta testing and more when I officially started that May. After a great summer, I was hooked, and now I’m back in a more focused role. By using my interpersonal and critical thinking skills –- both of which I have honed at Davidson –- I help our company build valuable relationships with clients, conduct customer research and define marketing messaging. I also work to further our company’s social mission, which promotes educational justice via early childhood development.

Although we are still a young company, we’ve more than doubled in size over the past year. Even though I’m still an intern, I feel like an old timer sometimes since I’ve been with company longer than many of the newer team members! This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to learn about different aspects of what goes into running a successful business, such as retail planning and HR strategy. I’m also building on the skills I gained last summer by conducting research and writing content for our website and advertisements. I’ve really enjoyed testing different marketing messages and getting a feel for the whole process of getting a product on a store shelf. Because of my Davidson education, my supervisors know and trust that I can get up to speed quickly in areas where I am less experienced.

For example, I’m helping facilitate VersaMe’s hiring process by combing through resumes and phone screening candidates. Sometimes, I find it hard to believe that as a student intern I’m able to have such an impact on who ends up joining our team full time. This experience has taught me how to conduct myself professionally, and it’s going to make me a much better interviewee in my future job searches — it’s really been an invaluable experience to be the one reading the resumes rather than sending them in.

I’m also in charge of putting together our company’s team handbook. It’s been fun to put our company culture into words, and I’ve learned a good amount about employment law. For a 20-year-old college student, I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about parental leave policies.

One of my favorite projects so far, though, is acting as a translator. We want to make our research and advertising as accessible as possible, so I’m converting some blog posts and marketing materials into Spanish. It’s great practice for me personally, and it’s also encouraged me to look out for future opportunities that have a similar focus.

In short, I’m making a real impact on a Silicon Valley edtech startup, even though I have no technical background. Davidson has helped me see that liberal arts training can be essential to a well-rounded and successful business model. You don’t need to know JavaScript to have a great business idea, but you do need to know how to work on a team, make effective decisions and write really, really well if you want your business to succeed. Davidson has prepared me excellently in this regard, and I’m excited to keep learning.

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Allison Cowie

Allison Cowie '18 is a Hispanic Studies major and economics minor from Palo Alto, California. She is interned at VersaMe for a second summer as part of Davidson's Global Entrepreneurship and Innovation Internship program.

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