• Innes McArthur

Startup Internships: Future-Proof and Powerful

While many lost their internship opportunities this summer, startup businesses seem to be thriving with the younger generation. But what do students find so appealing about startups?

Passion Led Us Here, graffiti art on pavement

Universities and colleges around the world are beginning or preparing for their first semester back after the most unusual summer of recent memory. However, many institutions are witnessing a noticeably low number of students, and not just on campus, but also in scarcely populated Zoom classes. Instead of pursuing the 20/21 academic year during the current pandemic, a staggering number of students are opting to take a gap year.

Most of these students had internships lined up for the summer that were swiftly cancelled, if not made remote, due to the current Covid-19 environment. As early as April this year, 35% of summer internships for students were cancelled, leaving many students anxious about their future career plans.

But this leaves the question, what will gap year students do with this year? Companies running traditional internships have downsized immensely or completely cancelled all programmes and international travel is largely still restricted for most people.

Luckily for students avoiding campus and academics this year, innovative startups have been quick to seize the opportunity and take full advantage of the huge applicant-pool that’s full of ambitious students looking for experience. Could their flexibility and willingness towards remote working signify a shift in how students look at internship opportunities as well as future career possibilities within startups?

Why Startups?

Team working remotely in coffee shop

The biggest impact that Covid has had on businesses, and subsequently internships, this year has been the necessity for many companies to begin working from home. Many large businesses have adapted well to working remotely over the past couple of months, shifting tens of thousands of employees out of the office and helping them get set up at home. Unsurprisingly, this has been no easy task, and it has come with the cost of no longer being able to take on student internships over the summer period.

On the other hand, startups have been excelling at remote working for years, giving them an incredible head start, as well as making them far more prepared for running virtual and remote internships. The small and intimate nature that comes with startup companies has made them prepared and familiar with remote working, avoiding the unnecessary costs of large office spaces.

And while many businesses claim remote working to be ‘The New Normal’, students and young people with internship opportunities don’t seem to be included in transition change for many companies. As a result, many students are beginning to realise the internship opportunities that exist beyond the conventional big business summer positions. Those students who lost internship positions at large companies are now turning to remote internships with startups that are offered to them throughout the academic year - allowing them the job experience they had missed out on this summer.

But this rising popularity in startups isn’t necessarily new and is certainly not due to Covid alone, though it has undoubtedly helped them gain interns and employees. Students are focusing less on pursuing traditional careers in industries like banking, management and law, and becoming more entrepreneurial, setting their goals higher. In the UK, 25% of university students are actively running or hoping to start their own company while still in education.

What do students and young people find so enticing about startups?

In The Face of Failure

failure typeography

We often hear about how terrible the current state of the world is (I mean, just look at the first half of 2020). Surely the notion of a collapsing job market and global economy do nothing to help bolster the prospects held by students in today’s climate. However, Gen Z has never been a group that seems to make much sense. Many Gen Z-ers in education right now say they are anxiously optimistic about the future. But can optimism only take one so far?

The reality is that 90% of startups fail. Take a moment to consider this. That’s a rather scary figure. So why is it, that even in a time of such economic uncertainty, students are becoming more drawn towards the perilous world of startups?

The answer? They embrace failure. 80% of Gen Z believe failing helps them become more innovative and prepared for future challenges. Unlike the more risk-averse generations prior to them, the students of today aren’t intimidated by failure - if anything, they are driven by it. If they run or work at a startup that fails, that is not the end for them. Instead, it is a new beginning, a chance to learn from their mistakes and come back fighting.

But the attraction students have for startups is far more than a mere calmness towards failure. Startups often boast a culture and style that relates to Gen Z far beyond any ‘traditional’ business has ever managed.

Overqualified Yet Unprepared

city skyline from ground level

Startups allow youngsters the opportunity to earn while they learn - and I mean actually learn. In the US, almost a third of higher education students feel unprepared for the workplace. Students are graduating from colleges and universities only to be told by employers that they are overqualified or lack the necessary experience (experience that these employers aren’t offering, mind you).

91% of companies hiring said they want students to have had at least two internships before they graduate, while only half of them had run internship programmes within the last six months. How are students expected to get the necessary experience for a job, if nobody is offering to provide them the experience that is needed in the first place?

Startups, that’s how! Because of the small and intimate nature of startups, they not only offer you the experience of the specific role you’ve been hired for, but also the experience of seeing how the business and its various other teams work and function together. The challenges and roles interns at startups face can change often and fast, keeping them on their toes and able to adapt to any situation. Because of this, working for a startup means you have to be prepared to address problems quickly and independently, making you a much more confident problem solver for the future.

Hangover GIF, mathematic equations

The generation entering, or preparing to enter, the workplace wants to feel valued by their employees, they want their ideas to be considered and their voice to be heard. The reality is, with big corporations there is often too many people and too much bureaucracy for interns to be noticed; instead, they are just another number. Luckily for them, the intimate nature, coupled with the relatively flat hierarchy of startups, allows employees and interns to be heard and valued, often by the entire business. It’s no wonder that students are flocking towards them.

As more and more students begin combing through the internet looking for opportunities following the cancellation of many big companies’ internships, startups are sweeping up students looking to gain experience. The market for students looking at startups for experience is huge - even startups are innovating off the back of students’ love for startups.

Take Seedstages for example: a Californian startup with the mission of helping aspiring students obtain internship opportunities with tech-based startups. Seedstages are doing incredibly well at identifying the attraction students have for startups and are creating a brand that resonates perfectly with the students they aim to help.

Their user interface is even fine tuned for the younger audience, using a Tinder-like swipe system for users to match with startups they’re interested in. Swipe left if you’re not interested and right if you’d like to save them to your list of potential companies.

Boris Gorshteyn, Seedstages co-founder, sees the innate appeal students have for startups due to the fact they share similarities in their nature. Startups, much like young students, are trying to find and challenge themselves as they grow and begin entering the real world. Similarly, we know students, much like startups, are full of optimism and not afraid to take risks in order to succeed. Students are enticed by startups because they can see the similarities they share with them and recognise the experiences that are offered which aren’t by big corporations.

But startups not only offer students experience in the workplace, they also offer a level of flexibility that makes their internships accessible to an entirely new, and previously neglected, talent-pool.

Remote Working Before It Was Cool

Scrabble tiles spell out 'Work From home'

Geography is no longer a limitation. The recruitment process for interns is becoming democratised based on merit

- Boris Gorshteyn, Co-Founder of Seedstages

Traditionally, internships for big companies were limited to a small number of well educated, Ivy League students who were fortunate enough to find themselves living close to wherever the business in question was based; usually cities with exorbitant living costs. However, the digital workspace that startups offer has torn down these restrictions, allowing anyone with a laptop and WiFi access to intern from anywhere in the world.

Consider the current Covid-19 pandemic: we’ve witnessed students adapt to online and virtual learning far better than their parents have to remote working. The technology used for remote learning or working is the same technology that younger generations have known their whole lives, making these students far more capable of adapting to the remote and technology-dependent nature of startup businesses.

And, while many of the current workforce may struggle with not being able to see their colleagues in the office, Gen Z - the student generation – focus more on virtual communication as opposed to face-to-face communication. Communicating with friends and colleagues behind a screen isn’t something new to this generation, especially when considering the increasing use of virtual classes many are currently partaking in.

Take myself, for example (the narcissist that I am) - I create content for Fullest Media in the UK, despite them being founded in and operated from India with a diverse team of members from a range of different countries. I’m able to write content from my kitchen table at a time that suits me. And, through the power of Zoom, our team is able to have weekly meetings and catch ups.

The ability to operate efficiently and communicate instantly with a remote team from around the world is perhaps the most enticing feature of startups as this allows them to be just as accessible and accommodating for interns. Across the globe, startups are utilising technology to give opportunities to students, who traditionally would never have had them.

Working from home, relaxing atmosphere

What’s more, this environment and style of working is incredibly popular with younger generations; we strive for a work life balance that sees us complete projects and tasks according to our own schedule and when we know we work best. The level of flexibility and independence that startups offer is something only a few traditional, 9-5 jobs are waking up to.

There is a great appeal amongst students and younger audiences for startups and companies like Seedstages. They offer people like myself and other aspirational students opportunities to get experience with companies all over the world that we would almost never have managed to obtain on our own.

Disrupt the Status Quo

Team working on project ideas

However, what does this student and youth-based shift towards startups mean? It will certainly disrupt traditional hiring giants and large corporations who rely heavily on hiring students. (Though let’s get real, when has this generation ever cared about disrupting the status quo?)

But maybe that’s just what we need: disruption. Allowing these traditional big companies to become too comfortable could stagnate innovation. Internships with startups pose students with challenges and various roles that they do not experience when they are thrown into a faceless corporation, stuck with only one team or division that’s limited to a single function.

These startup interns are entering the job market far more prepared than those that interned with larger companies and had a limited role. They’re more equipped to adapt when needed and work with different teams across a variety of functions, not to mention they’ve become expert problem solvers.

The workforce that’s being nurtured and taught by startups has incredible potential in reimagining our understanding of what the best business culture should be. Your job shouldn’t be something that fills you with dread and consumes your life. However, this is how much of the current workforce feel. Instead your job should challenge and inspire you.

Students and young people are seeing the stress their parents go through and are subsequently turning to startups in an effort to achieve a better career path - one that prioritises the wellbeing and work/life balance of their employees.

Startups also appeal greatly to students as they, generally, boast a more informal workplace; they aren’t bound to the formalities of traditional big companies. Younger generations enjoy seeing a brand and business that doesn’t worry about taking themselves too seriously - they want brands that are relatable.

This doesn’t mean that we are witnessing the end of the large corporations. However, an apparent cultural shift towards startups puts traditional business in a predicament: adopt a similar work-culture as startups and completely reshape their business, or be left in the past, with a dwindling talent-pool of possible employees.

The Future for Interns?

Startup business seminar, helping small businesses grow

The increased number of students taking a gap year this academic year may very well result in a boom for startups looking for interns, as well as the startup industry, as a whole, moving forward. In a post-Covid, remote working world, the operational model many startups follow appears to be best equipped in dealing with the future challenges we may face. Many students today are hungry for success and strive for innovation - they aren’t going to let a global pandemic stop them.

This is a generation that knows what they want and often don’t settle for less. Businesses should take this as a sign that they have to change to suit the startup based work style of the future generation. For those that cannot feasibly adapt, they risk failing to attract top quality students as interns and employees.

But do startups have a future in the world of student internships? Looking at Seedstages, the answer seems to be yes. A constantly growing number of startups are already listing internship opportunities on the platform, which has also already amassed hundreds of eager students looking for experience. Startups are certainly here to stay and be taken more seriously in the business world.

When it comes down to it, startups offer experience that is unmatched by traditional big companies in their current state. Employers should be paying a great deal of attention to applicants who have experience in a startup. These are candidates that are quick to adapt and ready for new projects and objectives, they face challenges head on and are quick to solve them.

If you’re looking to hire someone with startup experience, don’t underestimate the skills they possess simply because they interned with startups instead of a big, traditional corporation.

And, if you’re searching for an internship, why not look into opportunities with startups? They offer so much more than you’d imagine.