The case for summer internship programs

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Scouted Note

We interviewed Arena Investors a few weeks before the first wave of George Floyd protests which served as an initial catalyst for broader attention to and adoption of a lasting Black Lives Matter movement. While it is not addressed in the interview (simply because we did not ask), we would like to stress the importance of strategic and comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programming for all employees – including summer interns. 

For many companies, their stance, strategy, and policy around DEI has been confined to the c-suite. But, considering how issues surrounding racial inequities have been amplified amid the growing Black Lives Matter movement, DEI has become a top priority within all levels of an organization. Of course, a training session in isolation is not sufficient, but it’s the first step to opening the dialogue. It’s a first step in educating the next generation of professionals entering our workforce on the problems that exist and the way we need all employees to think, act, and lead.

Even though this interview does not address DEI programming for interns, it serves as a relevant and informative resource for companies looking to expand or improve their internship programs.


Given the move to remote work and the uncertainty of where your business might be in the long term (or near term), you might be thinking about cutting your summer or fall internship programs. You might be asking yourself, “Is now really the time to be spending budget on relatively inexperienced, contract employees?”…

Internship programs are still important. 

Internships still matter – and not just to the college student or recent grad. Interns represent future potential employees for your company, and the internship serves as an“extended interview” for both parties. You and your team can get a better idea of how this person will function in the workplace in a relatively low-risk situation, and, regardless of whether or not you deliver a full-time job offer, your intern will hopefully be brand ambassadors on their college campuses when they return to school (and beyond).

Now, more than ever, we need to be intentional and proactive in our curriculum  – and have an explicit plan for the entirety of the internship experience. Attention needs to be paid to connectivity and mentorship that otherwise would naturally come through immersion and proximity. The shift to remote work has changed how we interact with and behave in the workplace, and that will certainly challenge typical internship methods. 

We had the opportunity to speak to our partner company, Arena Investors, a firm that has hired almost as many interns as it has full-time employees since inception five years ago, and who is leaning into their internship program in full force this summer, to learn more about how they are shifting and adapting their internship program to accommodate the COVID-19 climate. 

Here’s how Arena is thinking holistically about a virtual internship program: 

Scouted: How do you Integrate people who are going to spend 3 months with you – and typically don’t have any job experience – into your day-to-day workflow and project management?

Arena:  This is hard enough in an in-person office setting, let alone in a remote setting! While you’d ideally have an intern do actual work that moves the business, that concept has its practical limits, and as such, many internship programs have a dedicated“simulated project” (e.g., you are a sales intern in a company that does not fully utilize on-line marketing channels, and your project is to create a “proposal” for how the company might embark on that path).

The advantage of such projects is that it offers some element of a control environment (i.e., you know there will be a project to be done — and you know what you will be assessing, what information/training needs to be given, etc.). A simulated project also offers consistency (all the interns are working off the same information set, you can make common assessments across the interns), and it makes managing the collective intern group more efficient for the respective responsible party (RP).

But, that’s a tough project to set into motion right now. Our advice? Ditch the giant project.

Instead, think about how you can adapt current projects to accommodate a young, inexperienced team:

  • Hold a brainstorming session with your current team and think about what project items can hit the sweet spot of being fast to get trained on but meaningful enough that they aren’t (all) menial tasks. This list will probably (mostly) include having smaller roles within larger projects that more senior team members are leading. Bonus perk – this takes work off of your current team’s already overflowing plate and makes the intern feel especially connected to business outcomes.
  • Think about how to turn work that others already did into work that your interns can do – e.g., making smaller assignments like, “review this proposal against the client’s selection criteria – how did we do, and for question X – come up with a new and better answer to showcase the case study that was presented” – these smaller assignments can end up being more enjoyable than a larger project, and throw off clearer assessment data (since you already know what good looks like).
  • If you still want to stick to your large project, at least ditch the “team” aspect for an individual one – team projects are more complicated to manage because they are definitionally larger, it is harder for the interns to collaborate, and it’s harder for you to oversee and get any signal regarding how they worked together, who contributed what, etc.

Scouted: Learning and education are important to a comprehensive internship experience. How are you planning to adapt your more formalized intern training program, and how do you suggest companies do the same? 

Arena: Hopefully your company has an onboarding/training plan that can be adapted to a compressed timeline, but if it doesn’t, some ideas to think about include:

  • Give interns exposure to the entire company.This provides for a better experience and also gives interns the ability to speak more intelligently about your firm when they go back to school. And it’s relatively easy and can be done without asking groups to make grandiose presentations. Simply lay out a schedule for meetings (both internal and external) across the firm that interns can attend as an observer, and then hold breakout discussions about the meetings afterwards.
  • Put weekly required readings into a schedule where interns are accountable to complete them (and if something is reading material but not a formal assignment that will throw off data, you can make it one by asking the intern to summarize the key insights). This is another opportunity to host a breakout discussion.
  • Have a broader reading list that expands the scope of the learning beyond your company – e.g., if you are a finance company, you might consider having interns read Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possibleby William Goetzmann. This article provides interns with a thoughtful framework about how to get the most value out of their summer internship experience, regardless of industry. These types of readings expand their perspective and also give them things to be able to fit into periods where there are pauses in the work cadence.

Scouted: What about access to people? How can senior team members make sure that interns can still build these critical relationships? And how can teams make sure that intern cohorts can build cross-department relationships? How do you replace the happy hour?!

Arena: You want to make sure interns have access to senior people – C-suite, team leads, and director-level team members. The best intern programs are those that have sponsorship and endorsement from the top. 

And, of course, make sure people are having fun. Given that traditional social events are off the table, make sure that you create an environment in which interns can casually get to know people in the firm.  This can look different depending on the company, but we might set-up virtual coffees across a sampling of people or put the onus on the interns to (virtually) meet outside of work meetings – empower them to feel like they can ask team members to participate in a happy hour or trivia night. It will give you a sense of their creativity and take the burden off you and your team.

Scouted: So, it’s the end of the summer and a manager wants to think about full-time offers… How are you thinking about formal assessments in a remote environment?

Arena: One of the most important but also most stressful aspects of the internship is the question of “am I going to get a job?” Have a grading rubric to evaluate what success looks like, make it triangulated (multiple people and data points), and make it transparent from the get-go. This part should not be hard or cause any “ill will” if you’ve made for a thoughtful and meaningful  experience based on handling all of the above.

Scouted: So lastly, how DO you make sure all of this is happening and happening well?

Arena: Most important is the manager – they run the day to day. If your program is like most, you will have multiple managers overseeing the interns, and even though you have a plan, it is critical to be be cognizant and agile because as we all know, now more than ever, plans change. COVID-19 has reminded us all that we can’t just follow the the “playbook”, so we need to ensure that managers are empowered to handle what is in their control and adapt to what is not, as it is often the way we handle unexpected changes that create the most meaningful learning experiences for everyone involved.

You also want to have designated point people – separate from the managers – that are overseeing the program. Make sure those folks hold individual and small group check-ins at a regular cadence where they report the results – these can be casual, but centered around “how is it going?” Make the environment safe, but also with a desire to share the feedback and find potential ways to improve across intern managers. Providing a communication/mentorship channel outside of management lines gives interns the space to share any issues they are having with their manager that they need help working through, as well as raise general questions without the pressure of being evaluated.