Ask the executives at young companies big and small what they would consider to be their biggest challenge after securing good investors and you’ll hear a recurring answer: Finding and hiring talented employees.

Monday’s Startup Career Expo aimed to ease that burden by inviting 85 upstarts to a job and internship fair that targets students with an interest in working at small businesses. More than 500 students from universities around Washington registered to attend.

“You don’t have to bring your fancy display. That’s not what this is about. It’s about getting your message out and I think the students get that as well,” said Jim Chung, director of the office of entre­pre­neur­ship at George Washington University, which hosted the event.

This was the university’s second year organizing a career fair specifically for young companies, but it’s the first that was open to students from around the region. Last year’s event attracted 150 students and 35 start-ups, Chung said..

Unlike many similar events that draw big firms with more applicants than jobs, there was desperation on both sides of the table at the Startup Career Expo. Start-ups are in need of talent, especially low-budget talent, and students are eager to find jobs and internships in a down economy.

Emmett Miranker, a University of Maryland senior, came to Monday’s career fair with several internships on his resume. But those experiences taught him more about the types of jobs he doesn’t want rather than those he does.

Previous career fairs had left Miranker pessimistic about his prospects of finding a company with actual openings, so he thought his chances might improve if firms don’t have the name recognition to attract droves of applicants.

“There’s always the potential that it could blow up and be successful and you are one of the first people to work there,” said Miranker, who studies environmental science and policy.

The recruiters hailed from a broad swath of industries. Some of the firms on hand were more established, such as daily deal purveyor LivingSocial, online nuptials planner WeddingWire and data privacy firm Personal. Others had fewer than a handful of employees.

Dan Berger decided at the last minute to hunt for interns for Social Tables, a start-up that provides digital seating arrangement for events. He hired his first employee, an engineer, this month.

Berger said the career expo provides a way for young companies without much cachet to gain exposure among students. More young people than ever are open to careers in entre­pre­neur­ship, he said, but don’t know how to connect with up-and-coming companies.

“It signals to people here that there’s more companies here than the usual suspects,” said Berger, adding most students are drawn to names such as Lockheed Martin or IBM. “Those guys suck up talent and frankly I think we have more to offer.”

With plans to ultimately pursue a career in medicine, GW sophomore Obumneme Ezekwem turned to the fair in hopes of finding an internship that will bulk up his credentials.

“I think that’s what [medical schools] are looking for, more practical experience outside of the medical field,” Ezekwem said.

“I feel like you get more experience [at a start-up] because when you work for a huge company they can make you an errand boy or do a lot of paperwork,” he added.

But not every student shares that mentality. Farhan Daredia, a GW senior who was recruiting marketing interns for his own company, Bookstore Genie, said most of his peers don’t realize there are opportunities at start-ups.

Daredia used to be one of them. Before launching his textbook rental business, he interned with media outlets and politicians with the goal of landing a job in politics after graduation.

“Every internship is a stepping stone to the next internship and from there to the next job,” Daredia said. “I did that starting out. If I had not figured this [business idea] out in college, I would be doing that right now.”

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