New TechTown internship program provides startups with the expertise of anthropology students

Student researchers
Student researchers attend orientation for Startup Studio Cohort at TechTown Detroit.

Wayne State’s anthropology department has teamed up with alumna Marlo Rencher, director of technology-based programs at TechTown Detroit, for Startup Studio Cohort — a program that hires undergraduate anthropology students as research consultants for startup businesses.

Student researchers participating in this paid internship program consult multiple startups on customer discovery over the course of 90 days. The researchers help each startup conduct interviews with potential customers, allowing the entrepreneurs to reshape their ideas based on the needs of their client base.

“The goal of the program is to help the students develop experience for their portfolio that will make them more marketable as researchers in anthropology,” said Rencher. “The entrepreneurs should get some transfer of the mentality around how to conduct market research for their company.”

Rencher, who earned her Ph.D. in anthropology from WSU, joined forces with Harman Singh, the students’ academic advisor, to create opportunities for women and minority anthropology students to apply their skills in a professional setting.

“Our students' qualitative research experience – solidified through their Anthropological Methods course – is a great launching pad to assist technology-based startup companies with vital research related to user experience and customer acquisition,” Singh said.

Although anthropology is not typically associated with entrepreneurship, anthropologists’ critical thinking, qualitative research and cross-cultural communication abilities allow them to take a big-picture approach to solving real-world problems, said Singh.

Anthropology students at Wayne State are trained in cultural, linguistic and biological anthropology as well as archaeology — giving them a multidisciplinary approach to conducting research.

Singh’s drive to create opportunities for students stems from the question they often ask him: “What can I do with a degree in anthropology?” To help answer this question, Singh started weekly professional development hours for anthropology students to assist with resumes, cover letters, mock interviews and networking.

“Most importantly, I help students identify their unique strengths and skills that can translate to a wide variety of careers,” said Singh.

Syed Mahbub is one of the five anthropology students currently participating in the program. A senior, Mahbub became involved in the program after meeting with Singh about gaining professional experience before graduation.

“For a long time, I didn’t know there was a business sector of anthropology,” said Mahbub. “I am interested in how business, culture and technology are related.”

Mahbub is assigned to consult three startup businesses on customer discovery.

Each student researcher is responsible for overseeing around 100 interviews with potential customers between three startup businesses.

Dr. Marlo Rencher
Marlo Rencher meets with student researchers participating in Startup Studio Cohort.

According to Rencher, this customer discovery process is essential for startups still in the idea stage of creating their business.

“Startups often struggle with customer discovery since they try to sell their product rather than focus on gaining insight through the interviews,” she said. “That’s where the anthropology students come in.”

Startup Studio is currently a pilot program and Rencher’s team aims to continue to refine it as they gain insight into how the customer discovery-based research can be best used to help entrepreneurs develop their startup businesses.

“This program is just one step in showing our students how they can use their classroom knowledge in a professional setting and to not limit themselves in how they approach their careers,” said Singh.

“To anthropology students: take your skills and show the work you can do with them,” said program participant and senior anthropology student Steve Williams. “There’s nothing you can’t do; you’re trained to be able to do anything and everything."

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