It was the summer of 2009 and I was part of a horde of interns who walked out of the subway and into the muggy D.C. summer. I forced myself to slow down, attempting to walk without sweating, as I made my way through the gates and into the halls of the Obama White House. That summer changed my life -- I met my husband, made lifelong friends and learned how to push myself beyond what I’d ever thought capable. I also saw the power of a well-organized internship program, both for what it did for me and for the value that I was able to add during my short time in the White House.
Shortly after starting my own company, Kuli Kuli, I decided to hire interns. Though, at the time, I was the only full-time employee, we still managed to secure office space and brought on four brilliant summer interns. I planned our hiring, projects and budget carefully, using what I learned from internships of my own and taking advice from my mentors. Since then, Kuli Kuli has hired over a dozen summer interns as well as “fellows” which are longer-term interns who are given even more responsibility and compensated as such. These talented individuals have brought their expertise and curiosity from cities and towns across the country into our Oakland-based office. Without them, our brand wouldn’t be the same.
We’ve learned a lot from our internship and fellowship programs and have hired more than half of them. And we aren’t alone-- in 2014, 65% of employers offered full-time positions to their interns. As the summer “intern season” arrives, here are a couple of thoughts on how to create experiences that add value to your organization while furthering the careers of the young people you hire.
At Kuli Kuli, we hire interns as if we’re hiring full-time employees. While more effort is required up front to vet each applicant, the work always pays off. By conducting multiple interviews and reference checks for interns and fellows, we ensure that our short-term employees are at the same caliber as our long-term staff. The interview process not only ensures that we are bringing on the best people for the job, but also provides a learning experience of the hiring process for our interns. We learned this the hard way when we hired a fellow who was not performing at the level of the rest of our team and it ended up damaging our culture until we finally let her go.
Though we give our interns a lot of responsibility, we also make sure to put together clear workplans, set goals and hold weekly check-ins. For each hiring cycle, I work with my team to put together clear workplans and summer learning projects for each individual. During the first week, we work with our interns and fellows to cater the plan to their specific goals and passions. While it may require more work at the beginning, following this process ensures that our company, and each intern, is motivated to make the most of the experience.
Though during our first year -- a year when I wasn’t even paying myself -- we weren’t able to compensate interns, we now provide living stipends and have increased those stipends as our company has grown. We recognize that it takes privilege to be able to work a summer unpaid and have sought to hire a diverse and talented part-time workforce by paying our interns. How companies compensate their labor is often a marker of how much they value human capital. Our brand was founded upon the value that workers across the world have brought to the table and I want everyone who steps into our office to carry the same passion and motivation.
The summer internship season is the optimal time attract young, top-tier talent to your company. It doesn’t happen on its own, but if set-up successfully, internships can add real value to both you and the intern. I hope that everyone who works with us walks away feeling like they have contributed not just to the brand itself, but also to what makes a successful company run-- the people.