6 Interns Who Ended Up Running the Company

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Many of us started out at jobs way down at the bottom of the food chain. Getting coffee and stuffing envelopes isn’t exactly a dream job for most people, but if you’re doing it now, take heart in the fact that these people started out as interns as well – and ended up running the joint.

1. Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner

LARRY W. SMITH/EPA/Landov

These days, most people know Roger Goodell as the NFL Commissioner. But 30 years ago he worked hard to even get a lowly intern position. After receiving rejection letters from pretty much every team in the league, a young Goodell tried the NFL itself. Then-executive director Don Weiss replied to say that there wasn’t anything available, then blew him off with the trite, “Hey, if you’re ever in the area, stop by.” Though he was hours away, Goodell picked up the phone and said, "What do you know? I am in the area, so I’ll stop by tomorrow." He drove seven hours overnight and “dropped in” on the league headquarters the next day, where they hired him because he seemed like a nice guy. It’s that kind of tenacity that landed him the plum Commish role 25 years later.

2. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox

In 2009, Ursula Burns became the first black woman to helm a Fortune 500 company. But back in 1980, she was a 22-year-old mechanical engineering summer intern at Xerox. After her summer at the technology giant, Burns joined the company full time in 1981. Though she nearly left for a cushy position at Dell, Vernon Jordan – then a member of the Xerox board of directors – personally called and asked her to stay to help boost employee and consumer confidence in the company’s stability.

3. George Hu, COO of Salesforce.com

A mere 10 years ago, Stanford MBA student George Hu joined salesforce.com as a summer intern. Now he’s the chief operating officer. Hu was tasked with investigating new markets for salesforce.com to pursue, and in the process, his research ended up showing that the company was throwing millions of dollars a month away on direct mail campaigns that had generated exactly 14 leads in six months. After that, he quickly climbed the ladder at Salesforce. In October, CNN named him one of the 20 highest paid under 40 – and that was before he was named COO in November.

4. Daniel Hesse, former head of AT&T Wireless

Daniel Hesse didn’t let a little thing like college preference stand in the way of getting an internship at AT&T. As a student at Cornell, Hesse was determined to get a job at AT&T. The problem? Apparently the telecommunications company was only interested in Harvard-educated interns, because that’s the only place they advertised. Hesse caught wind of this and sent his sister, who lived near Harvard, to see if she could find any flyers hanging on bulletin boards. She managed to find the information and got Hesse an application. When AT&T received his paperwork, they called him to see how a kid from Cornell managed to apply for an internship that had only been advertised at Harvard. Hesse says when he explained himself, the recruiter said, “I want to meet you.” The recruiter probably felt pretty good about her choice when Hesse was promoted to the head of AT&T Wireless in 1997. He's currently the CEO of Sprint.

5. Rob Cavallo, Chairman of Warner Bros Records

Rob Cavallo landed a sweet gig as an intern at Warner Bros. Records in 1987, where he worked with Black Sabbath. Seriously, can you imagine comparing notes with your friends? “I had to order lunch for everyone today. What did you do?” “Uh, I scouted out some bands to maybe tour with Black Sabbath.”

After his successful internship, Cavallo made a name for himself in the industry by producing Green Day’s Dookie album. After kicking around as Senior Vice President for a few years, Cavallo left the company for a while to pursue things like helping Phil Collins win a Grammy, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Tarzan’s “You’ll Be in My Heart.” But he came back to Warner in 2002 and was named CEO in 2010.

By the way, Warner has a history of promoting people from the bottom rungs. Tom Whalley, the Chairman before Cavallo, started out in the mailroom.

6. Bill Summers, CEO of McDonald & Co

Though it would make for a good story if Bill Summers started out his career as a clown, we’re actually talking about McDonald Investments… not the fast food behemoth. Summers was a lackey in the Municipal Bond department in 1971. When he retired in 2006, he was the president and CEO.

These guys don’t quite fit the bill, but they’re close enough to warrant a mention:

Dick Cheney interned under Wisconsin Congressman Bill Steiger in 1969, three weeks before Nixon was inaugurated. Steiger and Cheney were only three years apart in age and ended up becoming close friends.
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Ira Glass “talked [his] way into” an internship at NPR when he was 19. “Like most teenagers, I had never heard of public radio,” he said. The unpaid internship led to a job soon after, and now he’s the host and producer of This American Life.
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Roger D. Hodge started at Harper’s Magazine as an intern in 1996 and was hired as a fact checker when the internship ended. He served as the editor from 2006 through 2010.
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August Anheuser Busch IV, the former president and CEO Of Anheuser Busch, was once an intern/apprentice brewer. It will surprise no one to learn that he is the great-great-grandson of company founder Adolphus Busch, so his internship and rise to the top isn’t exactly a rags-to-riches story.
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George Bodenheimer was once a mailroom clerk at ESPN who graduated to selling ESPN to cable operators around the Midwest. After serving as the president of the company for more than a decade, he was named Executive Chairman of ESPN, Inc., earlier this year.
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Dick Grasso, former Chairman and CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, left the Army in 1968 and joined the NYSE as floor clerk for the mailroom. He was the chairman and CEO from 1996 to 2003.
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Sidney Weinberg made $3 a week assisting the janitor at Goldman Sachs. That was in 1907, and by 1925, Goldman Sachs had purchased the junior high school dropout a seat on the NYSE. He was partner two years later, and from 1930-1969, he led the company.

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April 6, 2012 - 7:30am
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