Embracing the #InternLife at a Startup

If you’re in college right now, you’re probably faced with the daunting task of finding the perfect internship that will offer the best mix of real workplace experience and prestige to polish up your resume for future employers.

A lot of students searching for intern work immediately throw their job applications at well-established, big-name companies, thinking that it will guarantee a solid job offer after graduation.

While that may be true, there’s also a lot to be said for bypassing the pull of prestigious corporate experience and exploring what it’s like to work in a startup setting.

There are a lot of differences, but the skill set and knowledge you gain in a startup environment can develop your workforce experience in a way that is unique and valuable in the eyes of employers.

As a student going into my senior year of college, I can understand if this all sounds a little precarious.

Why would I give up my opportunity to gain corporate experience for time at a startup that may or may not succeed?

It’s a valid question.

However, the answer lies not in where you want to put your time in as a future contributor to the workforce, but rather what skills you want to develop in order to be an asset to any company you’ll join throughout your career.

Startups are definitely different – they’ll make you embrace a unique mindset that those in a corporate environment maybe wouldn’t have. In other words, your internship experience at a small business can be a great advantage!

The truth is, your intern work for a new company can be an enriching experience that goes beyond fetching doughnuts and coffee. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned as an intern in the startup scene at Techstars for the past year.

Embrace your responsibilities.

One of the most important principles I’ve noticed while working around startups is that your work really counts, no matter how far down the ladder you think you are. Because newer companies often don’t have a lot of extra resources laying around, taking on any employee shows an immense amount of faith.

That expectation brings a lot of responsibility that can seem a bit intimidating to a college student with no real work experience, if I’m being completely honest!

As a marketing intern, I started off by simply posting social media messages on the company accounts. I was relied upon to find relevant articles and craft messages that best reflected our company voice. If you think about it, that is a tremendous amount of trust in an intern that didn’t know much about entrepreneurship and venture capital.

However, that trust developed into setting a high bar for myself, motivating me to push to learn new things and take on new projects.

It’s true that it may seem like an overwhelming amount of information you’re given at first, but you can remedy that by asking questions, doing your research, and listening to those around you. In gaining responsibility, you’ll acquire the tools you need to succeed – it’s just a matter of how you apply those tools to your work.

Creativity is key.

A special thing about interning at a startup is that your co-workers and employers are most likely learning alongside you in developing the best approach to building a business. Because they’re brainstorming and thinking through new ideas, it’s probable that they will be interested in hearing your ideas and suggestions on how to best contribute to the company vision.

This is something that is pretty cool about startups. Working with a small team to develop a unified plan for the company encourages creativity among everyone – even the interns!

This unique concept will allow you to grow in your understanding of business and expand your ability to make a difference in the company (See what I was talking about when I said it’s more than getting coffee and doughnuts?).

Like I mentioned earlier, startup life allows you to develop a unique mindset that will benefit you as you transition from a college student to a full-time employee.

Take advantage of this opportunity to embrace your creativity! Write down your ideas, push your limits, and think outside the box. You won’t regret it!

Learn, learn, learn.

Although this has already been stated previously, it’s imperative to always be learning as an intern at any company. You’ve been hired to help those around you to the best of your abilities, and it’s a good thing if you have a clear understanding of your role at the startup.

However, if you’re anything like me, you didn’t know a lot about entrepreneurship or startups. That’s not a bad thing; it’s truly a world of its own.

That’s why learning is paramount when working in your startup internship. Start off by asking questions. Read the all-hands emails, and talk to your manager or co-workers about what they mean for the company overall. How will it affect you? How will it affect your team? This is one of the ways that I began to get an understanding of how I can best contribute in my role as an intern.

Another way to learn is talking to your employer about working with other people in your team. As this is an internship, it will be your boss’ priority to get you involved in learning more about how the company works from different perspectives. In a small business setting like a startup, you can easily work with people in diverse positions and different paths of expertise to really expand your horizons.

I initially worked in social media marketing alone, however, my manager saw that it was imperative for me to start branching out to enhance my learning process as a student in the workplace. At a company like Techstars, which has a worldwide network, I found myself collaborating with regional program managers in Afghanistan, Thailand, France, China, Brazil, and more.

It really broadened my perspective to see how others within the company approach their work and contribute to the overall company vision. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn not only about your own role at the startup, but from those who are working around you.

Don’t give up on the process.

Unfortunately, not everything about working at a startup is going to be fun. You’re going to have to do “intern tasks,” like at any other internship. For my marketing work, this could include transcribing a video, organizing a spreadsheet, inputting event dates and locations to WordPress, or editing blog posts.

These tasks aren’t always enjoyable; sometimes they can seem pretty boring. However, those projects allow you to gain perspective as you begin to take on more responsibility.

If I hadn’t edited many blog posts, I might not know what to look for now when I’m helping construct a post with my team. If I hadn’t organized spreadsheets, I might not understand how to construct my own marketing strategy when managing social media content.

Learning the basics is what will allow you to gain trust, respect, and competence.

So, don’t give up on the process. It’ll take you far both in your internship and in gaining later employment experience.

Moving forward.

Hopefully by now you see that there are a lot of great benefits to working at a startup while still in college! Diving into the world of entrepreneurship can be intimidating, but doing well in your position can be fairly straightforward if you follow the right path.

Ask questions to gain a better understanding of how you can contribute. Utilize your creativity in a way that contributes best to the company vision. Get to know people as you work with them, so they’ll know how to help you grow. Take advantage of the unique opportunity you’re offered in being a part of a simple idea that’s becoming a business right before your eyes.

Work hard, help others, and keep learning. With these qualities, you’ll be set for an enriching internship experience that will benefit both you and those around you for years to come.

Are you ready to learn, network, startup? Find a Startup Weekend event in your region today!

Why the employment process in the Arab world is broken, and 4 ways to fix it

This piece was originally published on the Huffington Post.

Let me state the obvious: the employment process is broken.

It is especially broken in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where the region continues to lead the world in the percentage of youth not on the path to a stable career.

Regional leaders and public figures often point to entrepreneurship as having the potential to drastically impact MENA’s job creation plans. The belief is that as entrepreneurs work to satisfy the needs and wants of different consumers regionally and globally they will also create jobs as a result. However, more and more entrepreneurs in the region are tackling the employment challenge head on — making the creation of jobs the key metric of their business model.

Fadi Sawaqedy first thought of the idea behind Amman-based Shabab Jobs back in 2010 when he won second place at regional digital summit ArabNet for his idea.

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Sawaqedy noticed that there was a clear lack of focus within the job-matching space on the substantial number of underprivileged and uneducated Arab youth, who usually “didn’t even have a resume.” Lack of investor funding meant that the website wouldn’t go live until earlier this year, but the response from both employers and job seekers has been very positive and the revenues have been coming in.

With a similar focus on youth, Dubai-based Gradberry launched in 2011 out of a realization by co-founder Iba Masood that most of the jobs advertised through popular channels focused on candidates with work experience, leaving fresh graduates to fend for themselves.

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Positive feedback on the platform that focuses on job seekers with zero to two years experience, has encouraged Masood and co-founder Ahmed Syed to launch a new section of the website, Gradberry Academy, that focuses on delivering needed skills to young job seekers online.

Of course it’s not only the youth that are having a difficulty finding jobs. Our entire notion of employment will need to change if we are to overcome the unemployment challenges that face the region. Suad Abu Srour launched StayLinked in Ramallah, Palestine earlier this year with several of her co-founders.

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StayLinked works to bring the concept of “microwork”to Palestine in the hopes of “leveraging Palestinian talent to serve the region and the world.”

Srour got the inspiration for StayLinked when she graduated with a degree in computer information systems and realized that most of her female peers, in spite of representing almost 50 percent of the graduating class, were usually forced to stay at home due to mobility issues and other difficulties. With funding from an angel investor, StayLinked has been in able to come in to play a brokerage role between employers and freelance workers, while adding a layer of coordination and, most importantly quality assurance. Palestinian workers at StayLinked have already served clients from Bahrain to the United States.

These are of course not the only startups directly tackling the unemployment challenge; several popular regional startups such as Nabbesh and Glowork are also tackling the crux of the matter from different angles. Speaking to several of these startups it became clear that there at least four important steps to supporting startups working in this space.

First, legislators will need to show they are serious about solving the unemployment challenge by reforming regulation surrounding freelance work and creating specific visas for internships that provide regional job seekers with vital work experience. In cases where the regulation is already available it will need to be simplified and communicated clearly to the public to avoid any confusion.

Second, a cultural and educational shift that normalizes internships and promotes apprenticeships in several fields will need to closely follow any shift in legislation. Even when the law permits it, several of our SMEs, and even larger companies, still do not know how to create internships that are beneficial for all parties involved. Public educational campaigns, and tax breaks for hiring interns are potential starting points.

Third, like all startups in MENA (and sometimes globally), startups in the unemployment space suffer from a lack of funding and investment in proven business models, especially after receiving angel investor funding and before qualifying for venture capital. International organizations like the IFC and the World Bank have begun to pay attention to this space but it is only a start.

Finally, the lack of transparent and clear data surrounding education and employment in the region is a serious hindrance for startups in this space as they try to pivot.Regional governments need to be more transparent about the data they collect (assuming they are collecting the needed data) so that entrepreneurs can play a more effective role in helping them overcome challenges they face.