Living Life in Co-ops: An Alumnus’ Advice
After three vastly different co-op experiences and working as chief of staff at a Series A company, alumnus Alex Bender, industrial engineering and engineering management, has realized he wants to live his life in co-ops. The next big step? Starting his own non-profit.
Since graduating from Northeastern, Alex Bender, E’20, industrial engineering, MS’20, engineering management, hasn’t shied away from taking on new projects. His time at Northeastern reflects this mindset, as all three of his co-ops at Lahey Health, PricewaterhouseCoopers, or PwC, and Boom Supersonic offered completely varied experiences.
“It wasn’t like I did the same role for all three companies, so it was actually quite different, and that’s how I wanted to use my co-op program; to get a lot of different experiences to help me understand what I wanted to do long-term,” Bender says.
Right from the start, Bender forged a unique co-op experience by being the first ever process improvement co-op at Lahey Health. He says that because his co-op employer was also working through the program for the first time, his mentorship experience was greatly enhanced.
“There were several people at Lahey who were invested in trying to make the first co-op experience a really good one so future co-ops would come back,” Bender says.
Bender’s experience enabled him to apply his industrial engineering skills to a hospital setting, taking on tasks such as studying and optimizing hospital procedures and processes. This optimization was framed around waste reduction and maximizing efficiency. He split his time between hands-on work in the clinic and analysis in the hospital’s corporate building.
Bender is especially grateful for how his employers went the extra mile to give him unique but highly educational experiences.
“I got to attend the weekly leadership meeting of the whole company as a fly on the wall,” he says. “I got to shadow an open-heart surgery, which was definitely the highlight of the co-op. It wasn’t directly related to my role, but they were trying to give me memorable experiences.”
For Bender, Lahey Health had all the necessary ingredients for “a perfect first co-op.”
Though he enjoyed his experience, Bender sought a change of pace for his second co-op. His search led him to PwC, where he worked as a management consultant for their mergers and acquisitions division. On his first day, he got his wish as soon as he opened his email.
“There’s one email that read, ‘Urgent: You have been staffed on a project in Chicago starting tomorrow. See you there;’ so on my second day of work, I flew [from NYC] to Chicago,” Bender says.
For the first three months, he travelled between New York and Chicago every week to see his client. After that, his commute extended to San Francisco. It was a much more literal type of constant movement than he expected, but it helped him figure out some of his post-graduation career choices early on.
“I was treated like a full-time consulting associate, which helped level up my co-op experience,” Bender says. “It also instilled in me that I wanted to end up back in New York.”
Co-op at PwC also motivated Bender to develop a strategy for showing his dedication when starting a new position. He says his determination to advocate for himself helped him make the most of his experience.
“I would try to find a way to show my skills, so to speak, and take initiative on a project, and that would be a good way to show the team how I am able to contribute rather than it just being handed down to me,” Bender says. “That was a good way to do some job crafting where I actually also had influence on what my role was.”
Equipped with experience from Lahey Health and PwC, Bender developed his own co-op at Boom Supersonic in Denver, Colorado, where he is originally from. Though he says this was a “total coincidence,” he was happy to work close to home. This third co-op split Bender’s time between engineering and finance work on developing Boom’s supersonic airliner called Overture.
Getting the opportunity to work in such different environments across three co-ops helped Bender determine his future career choices.
“At the time, I was really loving the startup experience, so that’s why I decided to go back to Boom full-time post-graduation,” Bender says. “I only got to know that I wanted to do that because of my experience at three totally different styles of company.”
Beyond co-op, Bender never passed on a chance to serve as an on-campus leader. During his time at Northeastern, he held positions as the Vice President for Student Affairs for the Student Government Association and a Resident Assistant for the Office of Residential Life. He was also a Husky Ambassador, Orientation Leader, and a Husky Hunt superfan.
Bender was most recently chief of staff at The Routing Company, a Series A company focused on building a vehicle routing and management platform that works with cities to develop algorithmic software for sustainable public transit. He says that the way he operated as chief of staff was directly influenced by what he learned from his managers while on co-op, as well as his public transit-focused Dialogue of Civilizations in the Netherlands.
“Now as a manager, I know that no matter how busy things get, I need to invest in people or else I shouldn’t be a manager,” Bender says. “I think treating co-ops as full-time employees and giving them agency helps them to grow so much more than handholding.”
Bender was especially inspired by the leadership of Jim Smith, a Northeastern College of Engineering alumni and a former partner at PwC. Smith was the head of the department Bender worked in and served as a mentor to him.
“[He was a] huge advocate for industrial engineers to go to PwC, and once you were there, you became his mentee,” Bender says. “He really focused on your experience.”
Having such a varied range of roles to fulfill at his co-ops also helped Bender become a versatile asset to The Routing Company.
“All of my co-ops helped contribute to my ability to be this sort of generalist at The Routing Company where I was truly doing a little bit of everything,” Bender says.
Recently, however, Bender’s role at The Routing Company has changed. His role has shifted from a full-time position to a contractor. The main reason for this career change is his goal of freeing up time to found his own non-profit organization.
Bender’s non-profit is something of a passion project. It’s called the New York City Disc Golf Association, or NYCDGA, and its creation is a foundational step towards his desire to bring his passion to New York City for the first time.
“I knew disc golf was a hobby of mine, but New York City is a total disc golf desert, so I had this hobby of mine with no ability to play it,” Bender says.
It’s been an opportunity for him to merge his career and his hobbies, but he’s also been able to build a community around it.
“We started realizing that there’s way more people in the city that have been either travelling outside the city to play disc golf or just haven’t been playing because there’s nowhere accessible to play,” Bender says. “It’s such an easy and financially accessible activity that’s great for health outcomes. I think there’s a big opportunity… to partner with schools to help introduce kids to disc golf as a new alternative form of recreation in NYC.”
For some, this change of pace and uncertain future would be something to worry about, but by now, Bender is used to changing it up every so often, and he’s ready to take on this new project.
“I think I’ve made some hard but right choices around my career recently to change up my path a little bit and try something that felt more in an area of passion, and I think that has been benefitting me immensely,” Bender says. “I just want to keep pulling this thread and seeing where it goes… and I really trust that it’ll bring me to the right place.”
Through his experiences, Bender says that the key to success is trusting in one’s own capabilities while understanding one’s goals, but he owes his understanding of what he wants in life to his co-ops.
“I always like to say I want to live my life in co-ops,” Bender says. “Sometimes when you’re exiting college, things can feel like you’re signing your life away on big, permanent decisions, but truly, you’re always in control of what you do, and you’re never obligated to be on someone else’s path.”
Bender’s approach to life is the same as his approach to co-ops. If he doesn’t find true passion in what he’s doing, he’ll move on, but if he likes his “life co-op,” he might just decide it’s the road worth taking.