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Carolina interns experience virtual startup summer

A creative collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill innovation and entrepreneurship programs connected students with startup companies looking to solve complex problems.

Four people on a Zoom call.
A team of UNC-Chapel Hill students working as interns with Greg Hedgepeth (bottom right), president and editor-in-chief of Substantial Magazine

Like many other student opportunities, internships are being reimagined at UNC-Chapel Hill in the midst of COVID-19. With the pandemic disrupting and eliminating many traditional internship experiences this summer, the leaders of several of the innovation and entrepreneurship programs at the University teamed up this spring to launch a new type of internship program – one that could still provide students with quality, hands-on learning opportunities, while allowing for collaboration in a virtual environment.

Using the same innovative mindset that they instill in their students, program leaders from Innovate Carolina, the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship and the Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler Business School pulled together – and then partnered with District C – to create a virtual, summer consulting internship pilot program.

The Entrepreneurial Consulting Internship Program is designed to provide students with a hands-on learning experience, connecting them with startups and business partners to solve complex problems within a condensed timeframe. The launch of the program is an example of teamwork itself, with the four program partners working in concert to develop the program in less than 45 days.

Through an interdisciplinary approach, the partners worked to tap into the strengths of two of the largest entrepreneurship education programs on campus – the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship and the Entrepreneurship Center.

“Right now, it’s a critical situation with many students losing their internships. We developed this program to support the students,” said Sheryl Waddell, director of the Innovate Carolina Global Network. “We had to think differently about what was needed for the students by coming together and collaborating on something we didn’t expect we’d be doing.”

To successfully complete the undergraduate experience, many degrees, such as the Shuford Minor in Entrepreneurship, requires completion of a summer internship. For many students, losing an internship at this point in their educational experience had the potential to be very detrimental to their ability to graduate on time.

The internship program provides the infrastructure needed for the students to work with companies to help solve specific problems outlined by the ventures — all through online communication and collaboration. The students benefit from real-world experiences that will prep them for their post-graduation professions. And the companies get a boost from the fresh thinking and hard work that students bring to business issues that the companies want to crack.

A total of 40 students were selected for this summer’s internship program: 30 from the Shuford Program and 10 from the Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“This novel internship program allows students the opportunity to participate in an enriching summer internship experience,” said Susie Greene, UNC-Chapel Hill entrepreneur-in-residence and professor of the practice with the Shuford Program. “We are bringing together a diverse group of smart, talented students to help tackle and solve real challenges facing their partner companies. The students will build real-world skills, and at the same, cultivate relationships, both with the companies and their peers, through being part of this experience.”

Modern work model for students and startups

The internship program is administered by District C, a Triangle-based organization whose trained coaches specialize in preparing the next generation of students for modern work – guiding them on how to collaborate as a part of diverse teams that solve complex problems.

The program, which kicked off in mid-May and will run eight weeks, is built around four-person student teams, each of which includes one Kenan-Flagler Business School student and three Shuford Entrepreneurship minor students. The Shuford students minor in entrepreneurship, but major in a wide variety of academic disciplines. Each student team will dedicate 20 hours per week to provide deliverables that meet the needs of their companies.

“Each student applied for the internship by conveying why they wanted to participate in the program and the experiences they wanted to build upon,” said Anne Jones, co-founder of District C, which is operating the program as a connection point between students, companies and coaches. “The students understand that having an experience that’s a little new is hugely valuable.”

The inaugural class of students come from a wide array of majors and minors, including advertising and communications, business administration, economics, film studies, interdisciplinary studies, philosophy, political science, public health and sports administration.

“This internship will benefit students with a rich set of experiences and skills for their toolbox, including consulting, critical thinking and problem solving,” added Greene.

Deep bench of coaches and companies

Student teams are focused on scopes of work framed by the program and companies and meet regularly with their startup business partners. Along the way, the students also receive guidance from experienced professionals and District C-certified coaches.

“As coaches, we’ll provide guidance to the teams as they look to manage a complex problem,” said Jones. “We’ll push the students to think as a team and answer questions such as ‘How do I read cues from the business? How do I get a sense if it’s going well or not going well?’ It’s about adding value.”

The participating companies span a range of diverse industries, from sports administration to fashion to technology.

Learning for the long term

Coming out of this pilot program, UNC-Chapel Hill program leaders will examine how the companies, students and coaches gained value – through their experiences and the business outcomes that were realized. Looking ahead, the program will seek to form relationships with additional companies so that the program can continue to serve as a great learning experience for students and a pipeline for cultivating future talent.

“Each of our UNC partner programs is bringing the best of what they have to offer to this internship program,” said Vickie Gibbs, executive director of the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Entrepreneurship Center. “By working together, we’re creating a really rich and cohesive experience for students. This type of program – built through the strengths of multiple innovation and entrepreneurship units – is a model for teaching, guiding and leading students in creative ways that we believe will provide a framework that Carolina and other universities can put into practice for their own aspiring entrepreneurs in the future.”