High school can be a confusing time for many people. And for Pierre-Alexandre de Smet, it was just that. He knew that he enjoyed engineering and problem-solving, and guessed that working at a technology firm could be in his future. But beyond that, he was undecided about where his passions were. And then a friend introduced him to the world of consulting. This past summer, he landed an internship at the Boston Consulting Group, a coveted U.S.-based firm with offices across the globe.
“I can still remember the turning point when I was brought to a consulting club meeting by a friend, where I realized consulting would be my ideal first step after college,” de Smet recalls. “Hearing about the opportunity to help companies engage in problem-solving across various industries through team collaboration and client interactions, made me realize what I wanted to do with my life for the very first time.”
Today, the fourth-year University of Michigan senior is back at school wrapping up his education. De Smet is completing a five-year dual degree program between Industrial Operations Engineering and the Ross School of Business with a concentration in Strategy and has already accepted a full-time position with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), after completing the summer internship.
AN OFFER IN THE MIDDLE OF BUSINESS LAW
The first time de Smet made contact was BCG was at an event on campus, when he was just a sophomore. Like hundreds of others, he approached their table and began chatting with a representative from the firm and found them “incredibly open and enthusiastic about their work.”
To secure a summer internship during his junior year, he says the interview process with BCG included two rounds of interviewing following a resumé drop. The first was an on-campus interview with some BCG employees who were three to five years ahead of him, where he completed two verbal case studies. For the second, de Smet went on a paid trip to Chicago to interview with principals and partners at the firm and completed one written and one verbal case.
“I got the call in the middle of a review session for my Business Law class, and as I had already told my professor I was hoping for a call, I left the room to take it,” de Smet says. “I remember feeling ecstatic as I had been hoping for this ever since freshman year. It took me over two years to complete the journey, but that moment alone was worth it.”
As soon as class was over, de Smet called his family and close friends to let them know the good news. Even so, he added that everything only sank in after he flew to Chicago to sign the official offer.
THE FLOW OF AN INTERNSHIP
For the internship, de Smet was based in Stamford, Connecticut, from Mondays to Thursdays for 10 weeks. A typical day for him began at 8 a.m. with his team to a client site, before settling in to catch up on emails and small talk recapping the previous day or nights work. The group would then move into a brainstorming session to plan out “workstreams” for the rest of the day. His work varied greatly from Excel to slide design, and even though the team always regrouped in a check-in after lunch, the environment was clearly welcoming enough for anyone to ask for help or seek clarification on issues throughout the day.
Even as the team works with the client, de Smet says someone from the client team is always present to ask them questions or help them access data needed to carry on the work. The team tries to depart from the client site by 7 p.m. for a team dinner, but of course, it depends on whether a satisfactory work goal has been achieved. “The days never felt long because of the constant environment changes, fun team dynamic, and constantly unique problem-solving opportunities,” de Smet says.
As with every internship out there, there are good days and bad days. One can expect that as a summer associate at one of the biggest consulting firms in the world, that there will be challenging days, and de Smet says his most hectic day was the day right before his final client presentation.
“We had new team members and an expanded scope, and we were pushing to turn around a presentation very quickly,” he recalls. “It was incredible watching the team come together to turnover the deck multiple times and put together a finished, client-ready product.”
From the experience, de Smet says he saw how important it was not to be overwhelmed by what seemed like mountains, to break tasks down into manageable parts, and collaborate and cooperate to put together a plan of actions for each step. Working together as a team instead of taking on things individually, and planning instead of running off blindly, was crucial, he says, and of course, it made the celebration afterward a team one as well.
By turning challenges into successes, de Smet says that his most memorable day was when he got to present a new pricing tool that he worked on with the CFO of a billion dollar company. “It was a crazy experience and thankfully went great,” he says. “Dealing with people at such a high level as a college undergraduate is not something I ever expected, but is definitely an experience that I take a lot of pride in.”
ADVICE FOR CURRENT AND FUTURE STUDENTS
As students enter business schools, they count on the environment to prepare them for the most demanding positions that lead them towards their dream careers. De Smet says being at Ross helped him develop a consistently logical way of looking at things. Whether in an individual or group setting, he practiced enough to feel prepared to approach any problem that clients needed help solving, he says.
One of the best parts of being in a great internship is being taken under the wing of someone who has been in your shoes. And at BCG, de Smet says that the guidance and mentorship he received was one of the most integral parts of his summer spent with the firm.
“Every single person I worked directly with, and a lot whom I didn’t work with, were willing to help me out no matter the situation. There were so many incredible experiences, from asking consultants on my team for life advice, to swapping stories with my office mentor, to even grabbing coffee with a partner to hear more about their work,” he says. “Everyone was willing to share advice, and even among the fellow interns we often helped each other out on our various cases. The mentorship is what confirmed for me that I wanted to go back full-time with BCG after graduation -—to soak in as much as I could from the great people around me.”
In his last year at Ross School of Business, de Smet has chosen to stretch himself even further by taking on some exciting classes, including being part of a Venture Capital Fund. On campus, he is Vice President of Client Acquisition for BOND Consulting, as well as Vice President of Membership for the Alpha Kappa Psi-Phi Chapter, and a member of the Zell Lurie Early Stage Fund that allows him to learn and practice early stage investing.
Before joining BCG full-time next year, de Smet says he hopes to work in tech or with startups over the summer. And to supplement his path in that direction, he has also become part of the founding of two startups, A2Z Refunds (online e-commerce service), and Soul Smoothies & Bowls, an on-campus, health-conscious smoothie and acai bowl provider.
De Smet says he hopes to still be in consulting in five years, considering how much he enjoyed his summer while working with BCG. The other option he says he might try is joining a startup and embarking on a new journey.
If there’s anything de Smet could have done differently, he wishes he had started taking risks earlier and working with startups and clubs. Now that he’s a senior with a full-time job in the bag, he says it’s easier to give new ideas a try, but still, he wishes he had put them out there earlier.
For students who are just setting out to design their careers, he says the best advice is to set goals early and set them high, to take risks, and try new things. After all, it isn’t fun to regret having let an opportunity pass on. Similarly, he says it’s critical that students keep an open mind so they are ready for the next opportunity when it comes from a surprising direction and sets them on the path meant for them.
Finally, and most importantly, he says, is that students find something they are passionate about.
“While this isn’t new advice, I think a lot of people in the Business school lose sight of it as they attempt to pursue jobs in specific careers because that’s what they’re “expected” to do. That doesn’t mean you have to love every part of whatever you end up doing, or that it should be easy, but you should come out of every day knowing that you’ve accomplished a task that is valuable to you,” de Smet says. “And that’s why it’s so important to say yes now and to take those risks early, because that passion and energy can end up coming from anywhere.”