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Years of guiding young entrepreneurs

By Amy Lohmann '14
July 5, 2012

Mark Johnson '82

Fifteen years ago two Oles created a summer internship program that aimed to connect St. Olaf College students with entrepreneurial alumni in the Twin Cities.

Brothers-in-law Mark Johnson '82 and Paul Estenson '80 knew that these connections would be vital for students as they entered the professional world and would provide them with valuable work experience. They wanted to give students the opportunity to gain this career experience and networking savvy by interacting with alumni-owned or managed companies in the Twin Cities.

The Estenson Internship Program proved to be the perfect outlet, and over the years it has given more than 120 students a place to challenge themselves while gaining a significant advantage over their peers. 

"We provided the students with a 'laboratory' to explore their entrepreneurial impulses through paid internships and also to meet and get to know a great group of established business people who share a passion for the college," Johnson says.

St. Olaf alumni have made these experiences possible, sponsoring the internships and providing close to $1 million in summer earnings for students.

Paul Estenson '80

"Students who have participated have gone on to do remarkable things, including running their own companies, rising through the ranks at some of America's most respected corporations, earning Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships, and becoming pastors and teachers and doctors and artists and everything else that makes St. Olaf so cool," says Johnson.

This summer participating students are employed in a variety of industries, including social media technology, corporate marketing services, online business auction services, and e-commerce technology.

Both Estenson and Johnson understand the importance of entrepreneurship first hand, as each is the founder and CEO of his own company (Johnson created Four51, Inc., while Estenson is the brains behind E-Group).

Johnson and Estenson still aim to create a unique, one-of-a-kind environment, where college students can experience the ups and downs of entrepreneurship in a "controlled" setting. They combine this setting with a program where current students get to know and interact with successful and forward-thinking alumni entrepreneurs.

"This creates a great mixture that we believe is only positive for the college as a whole," says Johnson. "We have built a 'network' that is now an asset to the college, where people who have gotten to know each other can leverage their many talents to solve problems and create opportunity."

Another strength of the program is that it adapts to changing student demands. "In the late 1990s, every student really wanted to get placed for their internship in a technology start-up so that they could experience the tech boom," says Johnson.

"These days, everyone wants to get involved in digital media, social media, and other related Internet and mobile marketing opportunities. We kind of roll with the flow to find and place students in the best opportunities for the times."

The Estenson Internship Program was named in honor of Wally Estenson '41, Johnson's father-in-law and Estenson's father, who passed away in the early 1990s.

"Wally Estenson provided 'intense' inspiration to young guys (at the time) like Paul and me to go out, quit working for someone else, and start our own business," says Johnson. "Working for himself is what he did for the last 30 years of his professional life, and he did a great job of inspiring many others to stake out on their own and create their own opportunities through entrepreneurship."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or