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October 8, 2020

How Startups Can Win with Virtual Internship Programs

In the face of continued economic uncertainty, startups must look at all avenues for growth. One that may have been dismissed during COVID-19 is offering internships to college students and recent graduates. Internship programs lead to collaboration that can move companies forward, while developing the next wave of entrepreneurs. Successful programs also provide this group of early professionals with quality instruction, hands-on experience and unmatched networking connections.

To run an internship program that benefits both interns and startup leaders there are several best practices to keep in mind, especially in this era of the virtual office.

Invest the Time. Great reward comes from good planning. Companies must be willing to devote significant time to building and maintaining an internship program. Unlike professional hires, most college interns are unaccustomed to a corporate position. They require more hands-on management from end-to-end. Set aside recurring meetings between senior leadership and interns to review work and brainstorm ideas for projects beneficial to the company. Use this opportunity to teach, lead, and model.

Consider Going Virtual: While a virtual work environment is now commonplace, the flexibility (and safety) of this structure enables companies to recruit internship candidates from anywhere. It can also help teams learn ways to maximize the capabilities of remote working since young people often bring new ideas for the latest tools that can be used. That said, going virtual requires more preparation and connectivity to bridge the gap.

Chart the Course Early. Nothing is worse than scurrying for an assignment once the intern is onsite. Not only is it awkward for the intern who is there to work, but most importantly, it is a waste of resources, both professional time and budget. Before interns arrive, set aside engaging and useful projects for them to accomplish. Make sure there are multiple assignments that utilize a variety of skills. Find ways to get interns involved in meetings to learn more about the business and how it operates. Ideally, interns will have completed a portfolio of work at the end of the summer.

Over Communicate… No, Really. Communication has never been so crucial as the current situation in which so many are working from home and will continue to do so. Defined expectations, processes and deliverables create a pathway to greater results. Be available to answer questions that arise. Establish the best ways to interact with interns:  email, face-to-face, text, phone, or Slack and be open to modifying your preferences. Schedule frequent touchpoints to keep each intern engaged. Monitor progress and provide praise as well as feedback for growth.

Listen and Learn. Internships are typically short, so building a relationship quickly makes a difference. Find out what interests them in the work and non-work worlds. Ask interns for opinions on big questions facing the company; most of them are likely to be members of Gen Z, a crucial segment from everything from purchasing power to election swings. They’re the leaders of tomorrow – don’t waste their valuable insights.

Evaluate and Improve. At the end of the program be sure to gather 360 degree feedback from both interns and their managers. Gen Z is known as a group whose opinions are driving the future. Their fresh ideas may provide perspective that those too close to a business may not see. Plus honest reflection gives companies a way to determine whether internship programs are a good fit and, if so, how they can be perfected year after year.

Internship programs can be a springboard for both young professionals and the companies that hire them. They provide an opportunity for you to fuel the fire of emerging entrepreneurs while working with eager students who are on board to support corporate needs and advance your company. Why wouldn’t you explore a win-win business option such as this?


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Kristy Campbell leads operations for Rev1 Ventures, a nationally recognized startup studio and top-tier seed investor. Rev1 has nearly $100 million under management across five funds and works with a spectrum of investors, including traditional venture capitalists, angel investors, corporate venture funds, and public sector capital.

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