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Why You Need an Intern

I thought I wasn't ready to hire my first intern. She showed me I was wrong.
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College freshmen used to think about exploring their interests, figuring out their major, or just how to manage their time while carrying a full load of courses and establishing a social life. Life has changed. I recently spoke on a career panel at the University of California at Berkeley, in front of an audience of freshman and sophomore chemistry students. Yes, they wanted to hear about the entrepreneurial career path, which is why I was invited to participate. But the burning question was far more tactical: what exactly do I need to do, right now, so that I will be able to get a job when I graduate?

College freshmen are already worried about becoming boomerang kids. I was floored.

And that’s where you come in. Many of these students believe that their path to a good job starts with an internship. Maybe with you. And this is the time of year they're starting to look seriously, and maybe even interview, for internships over the summer.

If you’re like many business owners, you’ll have one of two reactions to hiring an intern:

  • I’m swamped. When can they start?
  • Please. I can’t even figure out what I’m supposed to do. How I am supposed to explain it to a kid who has no experience in my industry and for whom showing up on time may be a novelty?

I wasn’t ready to hire my intern. But she approached me, and it was hard not to be impressed by the effort she took to find me in the first place. Still, I was concerned. What could she do for me, really?

More than I thought. And the intern helped me understand what types of tasks she could handle and how much she could bite off.

Our first intern (you can see I’m already sold on the concept of another) is hard-working, curious, and smart. She has adapted quite naturally to the realities of a start-up. She knows which questions to ask, enabling her to run things independently when we can’t be there for her. For example, I asked her to find optically-oriented companies in the medical devices industry that were exhibiting at medical device trade shows. I gave her one example of such a trade show and its list of exhibitors, and she was off and running.

She communicates progress frequently with email updates, phone calls, and text messages. She conducts herself professionally with all visitors. She is willing to take on anything that needs attention, even if it is not sexy and exciting. If I need someone to enter data into Salesforce.com, she does it happily. She learns unfamiliar skills quickly, as evidenced by her newfound ability to read the cryptic designations on boxes of optics.

Best of all, we can give her somewhat nebulous tasks and she can use her judgement to find her way through them. She recently did a physical inventory of our laboratory materials, equipment and supplies, then used her own judgment to categorize them correctly. Then she learned how to present the information in a useful format to our accountant for year-end close. Not bad for a freshman in college.

My intern is returning to college in Los Angeles for spring semester, but we have figured out how she can continue to work remotely. She is the first in her family to go to college, and it is inspiring to watch her journey while also being a small part of it.

Last updated: Jan 11, 2012

LAURA SMOLIAR | CEO, Peppertree Engineering

Technology expert. Global entrepreneur. Mentor. Laura Smoliar, with over 15 years professional experience and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, specializes in the commercialization of technology.




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