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From an intern to the CEO

May 12, 2009 19:48 IST

Long before they were running entire companies and making million- or billion-dollar decisions, all chief executive officers had to start somewhere. They weren't (mostly) born into their jobs. But many of them got a very good start.

They knew from the beginning that not every internship is about making copies and running out for coffee. Among top-tier executives, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who settled for that kind of grunt work--even if they weren't confident enough to be sure they were above it.

Take David Rubenzahl. He's now the president of Maxon Co., a medical and pension plan administrator. He started as an intern in traffic court. He was two years into law school at the time, and he got to question a witness in a courtroom.

He had some doubts that he could do it, and, in fact, the witness' testimony was quickly objected to by the other side as hearsay. When reflecting, he says he handled that just fine.

Jon Oringer's internship had him running a solo project at Lockheed Martin. He created a program that graphically displayed the locations of satellites used by a cellphone network, to make the system more efficient.

He credits the internship with teaching him how a team can produce computer code, invaluable knowledge for a future dot-com CEO. Nonetheless, he felt that the atmosphere at Lockheed wasn't creative enough for him. At his current company, the photo stock agency Shutterstock, it is.

Mitch Tyson and Marie Hollein didn't just learn from their internships; they wound up in those fields. Tyson interned for then-Massachusetts Congressman Paul Tsongas in 1977. He briefed Tsongas on energy efficiency and policy, and occasionally he even suggested amendments to new laws at Tsongas' request.

The next year, Tsongas became a senator, and Tyson took a staff job with him. Now Tyson is CEO of Advanced Electron Beams, which sells, he says, cleaner, cheaper and more energy-efficient technology for industrial processes.

Hollein runs a nonprofit association called Financial Executive International. She spent years in for-profit businesses before going to FEI, but before that she worked as an intern revising the business plan for a nonprofit in Pittsburgh. She says she has loved seeing that business plan continue to serve, in expanded form, many years later.

Tyson says he acquired many of his moral values while working for Tsongas. Tsongas was a man who truly lived his ethics, he says. He insists that he can't always quite meet Tsongas' standards but working with someone so in tune with his values helped him get in touch with his own.

Oringer says he learned a great deal about business from his internship at Lockheed. He started Shutterstock in 2003 and ran it as a one-man operation for the first six months or so. Knowing how to build an organization helped him immeasurably as he eventually expanded to an 80-worker outfit.

Many CEOs seem to have gotten their ambition itself from their first internships. Oringer discovered that he craved creative autonomy.

Jacqueline Beauchamp, the CEO of Nerjyzed Entertainment, a videogame company, interned at IBM and found that she wanted much more. "I saw that my digital-animation dream would require very hard work, strategy and passion to become reality," she says. "I knew I wanted a business that was revolutionary and cutting edge.

"That type of success doesn't happen by accident."

Klaus Kneale, Forbes.com
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