How to Make the Most of Your Summer Internship (Featuring: Some TED Talks)
Updated: Sep 4, 2021
Two years ago, while interning at Validere - a North American energy tech startup - I was working through a thought-provoking challenge with the marketing team. Our group was laying the groundwork to define the mission and values that would guide Validere as it continued to grow its team and client base globally.
One source of inspiration that my manager shared with the team was a captivating TED talk presented by author Simon Sinek, called “Start With Why - How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” To summarize the talk in a few bullets:
Some of the world’s most successful leaders and companies are driven by a clearly defined purpose. They start by asking “why”?
The way these leaders and companies think, act, and communicate is from the inside out. Their why helps identify how they action their purpose, which in turn determines what they actually do (developing cutting-edge consumer devices, delivering urban mobility solutions, designing state-of-the-art kitchen appliances, you name it).
For a much more compelling explanation, refer to 3:25 in the video for an example of how Apple might deliver a pitch using this framework :)
As I applied my learnings from the talk in my Validere project, I started to think more broadly about the importance of purpose and intention. If you think about it, when making virtually any decision in life, we have the choice to act with intention or lack thereof. Where we live, how we spend our time, who we spend our time with, what we spend our money on… you get the idea.
Of course, while some decisions are more trivial than others (whether I order a poke bowl or burrito tonight probably won’t impact my life in a material way), intention ultimately makes life more meaningful and helps us reconcile our decisions with who we are as people.
In the spirit of talking about intention (and making this blog post relevant to an audience of keener Rotman Commerce students), I want to share some personal learnings on ways to spend a summer internship with purpose. The recipe is very simple:
Step 1: if you secure an internship, acknowledge that you’re lucky to be granted a valuable learning opportunity.
Step 2: stop counting down the hours before you can turn off your laptop each day, and start thinking about how you can make the most of your time to grow.
Step 3: Fold in the cheese!
With that said, I’d like to walk through a few lessons that I’ve learned through my summer internships (sometimes the hard way) about making it count!
Lesson #1: Push yourself to become a subject matter expert, even if it’s within something very small.
Because an internship is structured as a trial work experience with a firm, it’s easy to get trapped in the habit of “scratching the surface”, or accepting a limited understanding of the company, its products, or technologies - just enough to help you deliver on your projects in a short time frame. This isn’t because we’re trying to cut corners! Rather, it’s a natural mechanism we use to deliver results fast while simultaneously getting up to speed with the industry expertise of our colleagues, which can amount to decades-worth of knowledge.
That being said, a 3 or 4-month window of immersive and focused learning is an excellent opportunity to actually master something new. Maybe you want to feel more comfortable with a niche skill like building a credible client-facing deck for a B2B company. Perhaps you’re curious to understand how exactly your firm collaborates with other partners in an industry or ecosystem (“what do we have to gain?”). While interning this summer at Mastercard, my personal goal was to build a concrete understanding of the business model of Buy Now, Pay Later (BNPL) companies and how they might impact Mastercard’s core credit card business: both a personal interest area and useful insight for one of my projects!
Big goal or small, challenging yourself to become a subject matter expert will pay dividends because:
You’ll gain more value from team calls that are heavy with industry jargon or technical terms that may be foreign to you.
You’ll be able to tell a more compelling story about what you learned when seeking future opportunities, and perhaps offer a personal opinion on the subject area.
You will look back at your internship knowing that your learning had substance and that you didn’t simply skate through your summer.
Lesson #2: Don’t read into work coffee chats as ‘networking’. Be curious about getting to meet new people and learn from their lived experiences.
Regardless of whether you’re logging in from a laptop or visiting a physical office, as an intern you’re bound to have numerous coffee chats at work throughout your term. As I’ve learned through trial and error (many amazing and memorable coffees, and certainly some not-so-amazing ones), I make the most of a chat when I let my guard down to show my true personality and enter the conversation with an open mind. My rule of thumb is to ask questions that genuinely pique my interest, rather than questions I’m “supposed to be asking” (if your questions don’t interest you, they probably won’t interest the person you’re grabbing a coffee with either).
Some of my most meaningful coffees touched on topics like an individual’s decision to press the restart button and move to a new city, how to align personal values with career goals, and psychology in life and at work. Getting in the habit of asking authentic questions and being spontaneous is helpful because:
It will allow you to make a real connection that has a much higher probability of turning into a meaningful work relationship and unlocking future opportunities.
It will expose you to valuable lessons that influence your thinking beyond the scope of your internship, helping you build your personal narrative.
They will probably put a smile on your face.
If you haven’t already, I highly encourage you to watch Celeste Headlee’s TED talk, “10 Ways To Have a Better Conversation” which goes deeper into this discussion. Building on her point about always “being prepared to be amazed”, I will also add that who you speak with during your internship is equally as important. Don’t restrict yourself to your immediate team or people in a similar line of work to yours. Make time for coffees with colleagues with who you think you may not share anything in common (i.e. career trajectories). You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn if you pay attention.
Lesson #3: if it matters to you, go the extra mile.
This is probably the fluffiest of the 4 lessons listed, but the gist of it is this: if you really care about something at work (a certain project, a team, an interest group), put in the extra effort to show that you do. Not only will your enthusiasm be valued, but you’ll be pleased that you devoted additional time to something that you’re passionate about!
To share a personal example, when I was tasked with planning an overnight team-building getaway at Validere, I went the extra mile to organize an out-of-the-box itinerary because I wanted to thank my amazing team for their support throughout the summer. Rather than planning the conventional hotel stay with disjointed conference hall meetings and recreational activities, I came up with a “deserted island crash landing” theme that tied the entire trip together (everyone received a “travel pack” with themed goodies and t-shirts, our sales team MC’d the entire bus ride to the hotel as “flight attendants”... the whole shebang).
In retrospect, I’m glad that I channelled my creativity (and maybe spent a little more time planning the getaway than I needed to) because it went down as a summer highlight for the entire team, and remains a personal cherished memory from my first internship experience.
Lesson #4: Take a peek outside of your bubble, and contextualize your work within the state of the company and the world.
This insight is inspired by personal feedback that I got from my manager at Mastercard this summer which really resonated. As an intern, it’s easy to get tangled up in the logistical elements of your work and neglect how your role fits in the bigger picture of your company. Even if the impact you make at an early stage in your career is incremental, it’s important to check in with yourself every once in a while and ask yourself several questions:
What higher-order objectives am I helping my teamwork towards through “x” project?
What are the business implications of my insights and learnings from the project?
What salient trends are happening in the industry/world that can help me better understand why my work matters?
In other words - circling back to the Simon Sinek example - asking yourself “why?” is crucial because without posing the question, you’re essentially working in a void. Doing things for the sake of doing them yields little motivation in any situation.
This summer for instance, while conducting a landscape scan of emerging fintech across North America for potential Mastercard commercial payments partnership targets, it really helped me to look past the individual company metrics (i.e. payment methods supported) and think more broadly about the types of offerings emerging amongst fintechs in the accounts payable and receivable space, and why finding relevant targets is important to enabling Mastercard’s multi-rail payments strategy.
If you made it this far, I’m flattered! I hope this short piece helped spark some new thoughts about the power of intention, in your summer internships or elsewhere in life. The bottom line: whenever possible, act with purpose and don’t take anything for granted. :)