Interns Wanted: How to Build Value Into Your Internship Program

Do you remember your first internship experience? What was it like? Did it suck? Was it one of those grueling rites of passage that you finished not because you believed you’d learn something but because otherwise, you’d enter the workforce with a page full of summer fast food gigs and high school community service credits?

At Create Forward, we don’t think internships should suck. We’re more than capable of getting our own coffee and usually like to do lunch communal style. As a company committed to advancing equity and justice, exploiting the labor of college students while they take on student loan debt just to pay for the credits they get for working for us, is the kind of contradiction of values we try to avoid. Furthermore, we want to nurture young people of color who often don’t have the family financial cushion to spend a semester working for free.

Two years ago, when I first launched our internship program, I didn’t know where to begin. I put together an internship description and just sent out to various schools and networks hoping to find someone. No one applied and I couldn’t figure out why. Then a friend and fellow entrepreneur, Nia Austin-Edwards of Purpose Productions, offered some really good advice. She told me, interns want to feel like their time and effort is valued. There are lots of ways to create that sense of value you just have to use what you’ve got.

I’m not saying that our internship program is perfect. In an ideal world, we’d be able to pay our interns, compensating them their time or at least cover their transportation costs. One day we will have the resources to do that but right now we’re a small start-up and it’s just not feasible. But that doesn’t mean that an internship can’t come with other creative benefits.

So here are some ways to create an internship experience that creates value for the intrepid humans who think interning with a startup sounds like just the right kind of adventure.

Three ways to add value to your start-up’s internship program:

Extend Their Network:

Host a “lunch and learn” once or twice a month where you invite the awesome people you know to come in and share their expertise with your whole team.

If “lunch and learns” aren’t practical (like, say, because you don’t have an office) then find out who in your network they’d like to connect with a set-up them up on an informational lunch meeting with a colleague who can help advance their goals.

Provide Professional Development Benefits:

When I was thinking about the unique skills that I can share with my interns, I realized that I’m positioned to offer something that most young professionals can’t afford, leadership coaching. Over the course of a semester, Create Forward interns have the opportunity to receive around $1000 worth of coaching support. Figure out what unique skills or assets you can share with your interns. Maybe you can offer a master class on marketing or tutoring in software like Adobe InDesign. 

Another benefit we offer is a $50 PD credit. You can use this PD credit to attend a workshop or conference of your choosing. One of the most creative ways PD credits have been used was to cover the cost of a 1:1 Skype session with the owner of a community farm.

Provide an Opportunity to Shine:

An internship should be an opportunity to build your portfolio, which is why we invite all of our interns to contribute something new to the company. Once they’ve spent a few weeks getting to know the organization they can pitch a new idea, a new system or way of getting things done or even a new project that advances our mission. If it’s the right time and the right fit, we give them the green light to begin working on it. Past interns have researched story archival strategies, developed case studies, or pioneered new ways of documenting and assessing our work.

At the end of every semester long internship, we complete an exit interview with each intern. We ask them what they gained from the experience, we praise them for their offerings, but most importantly we ask for feedback on how we can improve.

The Impact

Since launching this value added internship program a year ago we’ve had three incredible cohorts of interns come through our doors. They’ve become an integral part of our community and continue to be long after they’ve completed their exit interview. Not only have we infused value into our internship program but in turn, our program design has raised the quality of the people who apply to intern with us.

But the best indication that this value-added approach is working is that half of our interns each semester are already college graduates excited about the work we’re doing and eager to learn. Which is the best part, Create Forward is a place where people know that an internship really is an opportunity to learn and grow.