Landing among stars: A KPCB Fellow story
On the KPCB Fellows website reads the tagline “Jumpstart your career in Silicon Valley.” I believe, there are no truer words to describe the impact that the fellowship has had on my early career. KPCB has helped build and grow some of the biggest and beloved companies on the planet. Their highly selective summer fellowship places students at these companies to gain experience and mentorship as they develop skills in technology development. In addition, the program holds events that expose fellows to its portfolio companies, their executives, and other notable individuals that have made an impact in the world.
I will forever look back at the KPCB fellowship as a major turning point in my career that prepared me to reach my goal of making a contribution to humanity within my lifetime. If you or anyone you know is interested in becoming a fellow, I believe my story can shed light on the application and interview process, as well as what to expect from the highly respected fellowship.
Preparing for the application
On January 1, 2017, I was (probably like you are now) knee-deep in the job search with little success to hold on to. I randomly came across the fellowship application on my facebook newsfeed and after reading into it, I recognized it as an opportunity that I couldn’t afford to miss, so I diverted all my job hunting efforts to focus on getting myself into the program.
I laid out a 30-day plan to complete the best possible submission I could muster. The design fellowship application called for a mission statement (max 500 words) as well as an optional product redesign challenge. Since I was also highly interested in doing Product Management, I planned to apply to that as well.
Was I overreaching? Yes!
At that point, I had been driving Uber for 9 months as a flexible way to make money (to finance my beer and Thai food habits, of course), so I chose to do a redesign of that app that became the bane of my car driving existence. For the product management application, I wrote about Amazon, a company I had been fanboying over for a few months - a company who, as you’re reading this, is probably expanding its reach into an industry that would make you say, “WTF Amazon??”
Like I said, I went all in on this mission, which included taking my draft iterations to the writing center at my school to make sure I was expressing my ideas clearly. I also reached out to the design directors at Airbnb, Uber, Yelp, and others with the hope that they could review my portfolio. They did, and their responses were invaluable and much appreciated. My mentors within the university also helped me tremendously. After receiving a ton of red-ink feedback (and shedding a few tears), my portfolio and resume were both in tip-top shape.
After a month of sleepless nights and personal growth, January 30th arrived and I submitted my application with total confidence that I put it all on the line, leaving nothing to chance.
The interview process
On February 10th, I received first contact with KPCB. It was an email congratulating me on making it into the semi-finals of the Design fellows candidacy. Needless to say, I was ecstatic, despite the fact that I didn’t also make the Product Fellow candidacy. The email came in ten days after my submission and I was informed that a representative from the interview committee - a designer from a KPCB portfolio company - would reach out to me for a general interview.
The semi-finals interviewer would be assessing my fit for the program based on my competency, energy, self-awareness, aspirations, and career momentum. My interviewer was from Betterworks, a company making Performance Management software with the mission of helping employees reach their full potential at work. The interview went well, and by March 6th, I was informed that I made it to the final round.
At this point, each finalist got to choose 5 companies in the KPCB portfolio that they’d like to work for. Then the companies would begin independent interview processes with the candidates that THEY were interested in.
“Holy shit, what?? You mean to tell me it’s possible that I make it past the semi-finals and have NONE of the companies select me.”
“Yes, calm down Emiola.”
Fortunately, that wasn’t the case for me. I had 2 of my 5 companies reach out, and it was a welcomed challenge to juggle interviews between the two companies.
The final round interviews were looking to understand the candidate’s design process, what kind of problems we like to take on, how we work with engineers and product managers, as well as how we handle conflict. I had to be prepared to walk through my portfolio projects in detail since they might ask me to either tell the story of a project (from concept to launch), grill me on the intentionality of my design decisions, or a combination of both story and decision-making framework.
Between my two companies, I ended up preferring BetterWorks since our missions were highly aligned. Moving forward, with BetterWorks, I really only had to do one more interview, since I had already made an impression with the semi-finals interviewer. On the other hand, for the other company, I had to do about 3 more rounds. After making it to the second round, I told them I was no longer interested and took a risk by doubling down on BetterWorks.
I learned everything I could about the company, then submitted to them an (unsolicited) essay about their industry, their position within it, and their opportunities. By March 16th, I landed the offer. After taking the risk to forgo interviewing with the other company, I believe the extra effort with BetterWorks helped me get the job. Caught in my excitement, I damn near fractured my larynx while screaming at the top of my lungs.
My work experience up to that point
When I applied, the only design experience I had was side projects and my own (unsuccessful) startups I had been involved in; I had never actually worked at a tech company at that point. I had about 4 projects in my portfolio that were presented in blog form and told the story of my projects including my process, upfront research, design intentionality and decision making as well as how I worked with users, customers, and teammates. I believe what helped my lack of experience was that my mission statement and website both did a great job of expressing that I had a clear life mission and had developed subject matter expertise in a defined niche, Personal Development and Self-Actualization.
My Experience As A Design Fellow
Fast forward to June, as a fellow in the Bay Area for the first time, I was blown away by how great of a job the program did at welcoming me to the greatest tech arena on the planet. I honestly can’t imagine a better way to get introduced to Silicon Valley. I consider myself very fortunate to have made it here only a semester after graduating, although my parents were absolutely flabbergasted by why I would move to a such an expensive place.
The program administrators took us on a tour of the offices for some of the KPCB companies, where we got to hear from their executives. Sitting beside the other fellows, it really felt like making it to the big leagues, everyone was genius level at something - likely the greatest from their respective schools. With the resources and connections of KPCB as well as the fellows I was surrounded by, I truly felt that I had landed a rare opportunity to make an impact on the world.
One of the last few KPCB events we had was a Design Dinner where design fellows got to rub shoulders with design directors and executives from big-name companies like LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, and many others. At this dinner, I got the amazing opportunity to meet the great, John Maeda, and bond with him on a personal level - chatting about vertical takeoff jet airplanes among other things. It didn’t end there, after the dinner, I was able to grab coffee with Jared Erondu of the High Resolution podcast and learn about his background and how the podcast got started. He’s one of the few people in product design who looks like me, and I was grateful for the opportunity to build a connection with him.
Most interesting of all from that Design Dinner, John Maeda had me volunteered me something nice about the wonderful, Natalie Gavello, who runs the KPCB fellowship. With only 5 minutes to prepare something, I eloquently compared Natalie’s efforts to the role of an aircraft carrier. Yes. The positive response I got really surprised me, but also attracted the attention of a design director from Twitter. He would later go on to invite me to the office for lunch and share an opportunity to work on their Performance Management software. After utilizing my lessons learned in preparing for the KPCB interview process as well as the tremendous growth I had at BetterWorks, I was offered a position at Twitter as a full-time Product Designer.
Jumpstarting My Silicon Valley Career
The KPCB fellowship is a wonderful opportunity for any student (or recent grad) to develop themselves and a platform for many - like me - to completely transform their lives. I wrote this piece not as a cheat sheet per say, but more as a resource to help increase the quality of applicants and interviewees that the fellowship gets. I was fortunate that the selection criteria is built to distinguish candidates with clear goals and grit despite their relatively low working experience.
With close to 5,000 applicants projected for this year, it’s going to be as competitive as ever. Although most won’t make it in, the practice of preparing for the application and interview process can really prepare you to compete in such a competitive space. If you manage to get in, great! Recognize the opportunity for what it is, and take full advantage of it. Once a fellow, always a fellow, so we’ll meet soon enough. In either case, I’d love to know how we can work together to help make a difference in the world!
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