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Senior Sequence: Experience Working in a Startup

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Across campus, Cal Poly students are asked to complete a senior project prior to graduation. Project requirements differ across Cal Poly’s six colleges and, in the Orfalea College of Business, differ across concentrations.

In their senior years, business students with entrepreneurship concentrations are able to choose from one of two “senior sequences.” In one sequence, students are given the opportunity to build their own startup. In the other, students work with a pre-established startup team in the San Luis Obispo area.

The latter option, often referred to as “Experience Working in a Startup,” is a two-quarter sequence that consists of two, four-unit classes: BUS-488: Building a Startup Skillset and BUS-464: Applied Senior Project Seminar.

“In the first quarter, BUS-488, we have [students] working on the side to make sure they understand the value proposition of the company, the customer segments — the kind of stuff they need to be good entrepreneurs in the future,” explained course professor Jon York. “By the end of the first quarter, they’re pretty embedded in the company, so they really start to rock and roll.”

The overall experience offered by the course differs notably from student to student. The work students are asked to do and the skills they develop are entirely dependent upon the needs of the startup that he or she has been assigned.

Because this assignment is so involved, course professors Jon York and Lynn Metcalf do their best to pair students with startups that they have a genuine interest in. They screen a number of local startup teams, looking for founders who can provide a valuable learning experience to students. Then, they present these companies to the students and, in turn, present descriptions of their students to the startup founders, or “company mentors.”

“There’s sort of an interviewing process, and then we let the cards fall where they fall,” said York. “So, for the most part, students end up choosing who they work with.”

According to business senior Nicholas Thorpe, the company that a student is paired up with heavily influences the value of this assignment. 

Thorpe was initially paired with a startup that he believed could not provide him with the opportunities he had wanted to obtain through his senior project. He voiced his concerns to York, who reassigned him to BlueLine Robotics, a startup founded by two engineering students, Ryan Pfarr and Geoffrey Smith, that manufactures tactile robots for law enforcement use.

Through his work with BlueLine, Thorpe said, he has been “able to stretch my wings and exercise some of the things I’ve been learning at Cal Poly.”

Working with BlueLine has taught Thorpe how to apply the skills he has learned in the classroom to a real-world business. 

“In class, you get the skill set you need, but then the reality of how that plays out is very different sometimes,” he said. “In typical lectures, you don’t see how complicated things can actually be in real life.”

Metcalf believes that it is this hands-on learning that makes this senior project such a valuable experience.

“The thing that’s unique about this is it is a ‘Learn by Doing’ experience, but [students] are working alongside a founding team and are really treated as a part of the organization,” she said. “They sit in on important meetings and are privy to the kind of information that makes them feel like a part of the team.”

Students become integral members of the startup teams, sometimes even going on to work for the startup after graduation. 

According to Pfarr, Thorpe and the other students assigned to BlueLine have been valuable assets to his startup and prime examples of how this project is not only beneficial to the students involved, but also the companies.

“[The students] are super talented and well-prepared to a level beyond what I expected,” said Pfarr. “They taught me things that I didn’t even know I needed to know. They’ve both gone above and beyond what the class requires them to do and are great members of the team.”

While Thorpe entered his senior project with a strong understanding of entrepreneurship, working with Pfarr and Smith provided him with a unique perspective on how to run a business.

“Ryan is an encourager,” said Thorpe. “He’s good at seeing what people are good at and thanking them for that. He and Geoffry are intelligent guys. They’re humble and willing to seek out help and advice and mentors, and I think that’s something to look at, see as valuable and try and imitate.”

Throughout the senior sequence, students have both their company mentors and course professors at their disposal for the guidance they need.

“The professors are great,” said Thorpe. “They’re equipping students and then they’re actually there as a resource. I have the ability to connect with them, and because I switched companies, I switched from being under Professor York to being under Professor Metcalf, so I’ve benefited from both.”

York and Metcalf are eager to see their students succeed. Both believe that success in this senior sequence is indicative of a successful career post-graduation.

“This is really about life-long learning and finding resources,” said Metcalf. “[Students] are learning how to keep their skill sets relevant and current, which is what you need to do after you graduate. Nobody is going to give you an assignment. You need to be able to go to someone and say this is what I need in order to do my job better. They’re learning how to do that.”

York echoed similar sentiments.

“For the last 16 years of their life, [students] have lived off of someone telling then when to turn work in and what it should look like — in college, we call that a syllabus,” he said. “If [students] can get to the point where they can create their own goals and objectives and get through it, they’re going to be way above other students who have just been sitting in the classroom.”

Learn more about this senior project course sequence, contact lmetcalf@calpoly.edu.

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