An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Engaging Intern Talent

Article originally published in SmallBizDaily

Is your startup prepared to get the most out of the interns you took so much time to recruit? With a little forethought and preparation, great results are easily achievable.

Learn the hows and whys of creating a plan that delivers a real-world business experience to the interns and real results (and experience with Millennial and GenZ employees) for your business.

  1. Internships create a vetted pipeline of future talent. Finding and hiring talent is always a challenge for a startup. There is no better way to road test talent and build a lasting connection with bright achievers than through internships. Prepare the organization to receive the intern as a potential hire; build this mindset into the culture of the company.
  2. Make each intern’s first day memorable. From a welcome sign at their workstation (and interns do need an assigned space to do their work) to a touch of swag—(a company mug, t-shirt, mouse pad, etc.) let summer interns know they are part of the team from day one. Introduce them around. Invite them to lunch. Have ready the tools they need to do their jobs (building access, badge, internet login, employee phone list, etc.) Match interns with a mentor (not their direct manager) for informal support and guidance. It’s good for the intern and the mentor as well. And don’t stop at day one. As the summer goes on, make sure interns experience the good things about your location—especially if it is a smaller city or town—local restaurants, festivals and events, historic locations, or outdoors activities.
  3. Assign interns meaningful work with measurable goals. Startups tend to think of all the things an intern can take off someone’s plate. Instead, create a mix of interesting work and mundane tasks. For every data entry project, like updating Salesforce or tabulating survey results, invite them to sit in on a marketing strategy session or to provide a competitive analysis. After they unpack brochures at a trade show, ask them to help work the booth. Interns feel connected to the impact of their work when they see how it impacts the overall company.
  4. Teach interns something they can’t learn at school. Show them by example what it means to represent a company to customers, partners, investors, and the general public. If they are in engineering, give them a customer service assignment. If they are in marketing, include them in product reviews and tests. Give them real-time feedback that is specific and actionable. Instill a teaching mentality across the organization. Leverage community resources for training and mentoring, from Startup Week to hackathons to half-day tutorials at entrepreneurial centers.
  5. Learn about your company through an intern’s eyes. Ask interns to suggest things they might change or improve. Encourage them to tell you something you don’t know about the company. What could the company be doing better for customers? For employees? For business partners? Ask the intern how they can become an ambassador for your company. Ask, then be quiet. Don’t defend. Don’t explain. Just make notes and listen.
  6. Build relationships with targeted intern sources in your region. Finding candidates inside the structure of a large university can be overwhelming. Narrow the search by targeting the appropriate college or department within the school. Seek candidates from organizations that advance inclusion and diversity, such as Future Business Leaders of America, Black MBA Association, Women Who Code, Women in Engineering, Student Veterans for America, or Association of Latino Professionals for America. Participate strategically in job fairs and speaking opportunities that are aligned with your talent needs. State and local economic development organizations may have cost-sharing programs that pay some or all of intern wages.
  7. Keep the connection after September comes around. A summer internship isn’t just another summer fling. In the short term, don’t assume interns can’t work during the school year. Many students can manage 10 hours a week. Longer term, when interns have a meaningful experience, they may come back as employees or at least refer a friend.

Research (by Gallup, Millennial Branding and others) show that majorities of Millennials and Gen Zers already have an entrepreneurial mindset—and that’s a good thing. For startups, summer internships are an excellent wait to tap into the pipeline of talent a growing startup needs.