The Mistakes Startups Make Training and Managing Student Interns

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More than ever, startups are hiring college interns. But most startups have little experience training and managing interns. And most students have never worked in a professional setting, let alone a fast-paced startup environment. Result: host companies rarely educate interns properly. Only once in a while do students actually get to do anything substantial. More likely, they’re given too little to do or outright neglected. And it’s a shame. Here, Samantha Dewalt and Nicola Corzine share their insight.

In the best scenarios, interns at startups tackle real-life challenges in real-life environments, gaining real-life experience with real-life advantages. They participate in – and directly contribute to – day-to-day business functions rather than merely listen to and observe more experienced employees in action.  

The upshot is that they learn something they can learn nowhere else and get to show what they can do outside a classroom. They gain a feel for the dynamics of the workplace and pick up what working in a given organisation might be like if they’re hired. And at the same time, startups get access to new ideas and an opportunity to connect with a potential future employee.  

New research conducted over the last five years now reveals how startups can make the most of early talent. The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Centre and Lehigh@NasdaqCentre surveyed dozens of founders of early-stage Silicon Valley startups along with hundreds of student interns at Lehigh University and California Community Colleges.   

To start, your company should articulate and define its why, the research showed. Explaining the key reasons your company exists and the purpose it’s pursuing is more important than the what and the how. Describe your company’s business model and industry. Students increasingly need to know how the internship experience will be meaningful enough to make a difference in the world.  

Along similar lines, a company should connect the dots between the work the interns will do and your mission. Students are hungry to understand how the project they undertake – and the results they deliver – will contribute value toward meeting your objectives and making an impact. If you’re specific, the outcome will be a higher return on your investment.  

Likewise, identify what your company expects from interns. Typically, students lack big-picture context. For many, this is the first professional experience outside a classroom. So define projects to be undertaken. Explicitly describe key deliverables anticipated, complete with timeline, and indicate the number of hours to be committed. 

Remember to give interns feedback at midpoint, too. Are they engaged and self-sufficient? How are the projects progressing? How can they improve? This is a great time to ask interns which lessons they’ve learned so far and what else they would like to explore to keep growing.   

It’s essential to regularly encourage students to assess themselves. Ask, for example, what they might do differently on a project the next time, what they’ve learned about themselves through the internship and which skills they’d like to develop. Students love this exercise. Ideally you can match student interests with a project that awaits.    

In order to maintain consistency, schedule recurring meetings and other touchpoints. Keep a checklist of items to cover, such as project updates, upcoming deliverables, challenges and outstanding questions. Early on, seek input on what additional support is needed for interns to be successful.   

Companies should take multiple other approaches, too. Designate an intern manager, for example. A busy CEO is probably the wrong fit to manage interns. An intern manager will be available to interns to impart information and respond to questions.  

Make sure, as well, to invite students to present what they accomplished to company leaders. This is a valuable exercise for everyone. Companies sometimes even end up implementing an intern’s recommendations.   

Our research began in 2017 with this question for early-stage entrepreneurs: “What keeps you up at night?” The answer that most often came through was “talent.” As in how to recruit it, cultivate it and retain it.  

Now, five years later, the answer is clear. Your company can accelerate personal and professional growth among your interns – and tap the abundant talent available -- only if they get the opportunities to train and develop they so clearly deserve.    

Samantha Dewalt is Managing Director of the Lehigh@NasdaqCenter, an education-industry partnership between Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Centre in San Francisco. Nicola Corzine is Executive Director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Centre.  

Originally published in Startups Magazine