Mechanical and aerospace engineering major Zhen Xia is accustomed to solving problems that have cut-and-dried solutions, but an internship at IBM this past summer taught him how to approach problems that don't have one right answer.
As part of a new internship program, Xia spent three months working with senior marketing executives at the IBM corporate offices in Somers, N.Y. From analyzing the brand's image to establishing a business case for a new product launch, he found himself in the midst of the complicated intricacies of the business world.
"Unlike technical problem-solving where everything is black and white, problem-solving in business deals heavily with people and customers who have many different viewpoints," Xia said. "In business, there are various shades of gray, which make things exciting and interesting."
This is precisely the type of knowledge that the creators of the Preparing to Lead internship program hoped rising seniors would gain from the experience, which closely pairs undergraduates with business leaders to provide opportunities that wouldn't be possible in traditional internships. Offered by the Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, the program was first envisioned by center director Sharad Malik to help prepare Princeton students for leadership positions in a technology-driven society.
"Our expectation is that Princeton students will rise to the highest level, and this program allows them the opportunity to experience corporate leadership before they even begin their careers," said Malik, the George Van Ness Lothrop Professor of Engineering.
The valuable learning experiences were made possible by a strong alumni network, which counts among its ranks many leaders in technological businesses. In the inaugural year of the Preparing to Lead program, five executives from a variety of corporations worked with the School of Engineering and Applied Science to design internships for six current undergraduates. Students applied for the program through the Office of Career Services TigerTracks system, and partner corporations interviewed applicants and made hiring decisions.
"How better to expose our students to corporate decision-making than by placing them in close proximity to senior executives?" asked Bob Monsour, associate director of external affairs for the Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, who facilitated the internships.
Florence Hudson, the vice president of marketing and strategy for IBM mainframe System z, served as Xia's mentor throughout the summer. A 1980 Princeton graduate with a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, Hudson jumped at the chance to share what she has learned throughout her career. Over the course of the summer, she met with Xia regularly to discuss leadership and engage him in real projects.
"Being a business leader with an engineering degree from Princeton, and knowing how much I didn't know about business when I graduated, I knew I wanted to teach a Princeton engineering student what I've learned about business and leadership," Hudson said. "It's important to understand how to lead others to do what's right, how to link the business needs and value to the engineering and technology, and how to succeed in the complex world of business."
During Xia's time at IBM, he also worked closely with John Burg, System z product marketing manager, which provided him with another valuable perspective on corporate leadership.
"I loved my weekly talks with Florence and John," Xia said. "They shared a lot of their personal experiences and career development advice. One of my most memorable conversations with Florence was about speed bumps. She told me that life is like a series of speed bumps: obstacles may slow you down but will never stop you as long as you believe in yourself."
While Xia spent his summer at a corporate giant, other students in the Preparing to Lead program had the opportunity to witness the inner workings of much smaller businesses. Saed Al Shonnar, a senior majoring in chemical engineering, spent two months conducting market research for WildPackets, a network software company in Walnut Creek, Calif. Al Shonnar reported to WildPackets chairman Mahboud Zabetian, a member of the Princeton class of 1988.
With an interest in entrepreneurship, Al Shonnar applied to the Preparing to Lead program seeking to examine the inner-workings of a small company. He wasn't disappointed.
"The internship is exactly the kind of experience I was hoping to have this summer," he said. "I have been closely exposed to the dynamics of a small- to medium-sized company and I learned more about business aspects applicable to most companies."
The first year of the Preparing to Lead program also placed Eva Leung at medical device firm Integra LifeSciences in Plainsboro, N.J., Geoffrey Hamilton at e-mail marketing company Return Path in New York City, and Ruth Fombrun and Malik Saunders at Sealed Air, a global packaging company, in Elmwood Park, N.J., and Greenville, S.C., respectively.
"Unlike other engineering-related internships I considered, 'Preparing to Lead' offered me exposure and learning opportunities in both business and engineering, which was critical for someone like myself whose interests had migrated closer to business and further from a traditional engineering career," said Fombrun, a chemical engineering major who worked in the Sealed Air treasury department. "I learned so much more about business and finance than I ever could have imagined."
Malik and Monsour said they are pleased with the success of the program in its first year and look forward to improving upon it in years to come. In addition to enlarging the program to include opportunities for more students at a greater number of companies, they hope to increase the amount of time interns spend interacting with their corporate mentors. To introduce more students to the program, this year's interns will participate in a panel discussion during the upcoming academic year.
Xia, for his part, looks forward to telling interested students about his Preparing to Lead experience and helping the program to grow.
"I couldn't have asked for a better experience at IBM," he said. "Every week, there was something new, so I wouldn't say there was ever a typical week. I was constantly able to work on new things."