The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Are virtual internships the new internship?


Ten student entrepreneur teams from UNC-Chapel Hill joined a new virtual summer internship program this summer. One team discusses its collaborative, online work life with a North Carolina magazine that spotlights influential minorities and issues affecting Black and Brown communities.

Story by Shellie Edge
The intern team working with Substantial met virtually throughout the summer

Internships are a rite of passage for many students. What better way to gain valuable real-world experience, while making connections and building a network? As many traditional internship experiences were cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it became quickly clear to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill innovation and entrepreneurship leaders that they needed to quickly develop a new type of internship program.

Program leaders from Innovate Carolinathe Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship and The Entrepreneurship Center at Kenan-Flagler Business School (KFBS) pulled together – and then partnered with District C – to create a virtual, summer consulting internship pilot program.

Officially launched this summer, the Entrepreneurial Consulting Internship Program provides students with a hands-on learning experience by connecting them with startups and business partners to solve complex problems within a condensed timeframe. The pilot program was a tremendous success, benefitting 40 students and ten participating companies that span a range of diverse industries, from sports administration to fashion to technology.

“Without our innovation and entrepreneurial partners coming together, this program would not have been possible,” says Sheryl Waddell, director of the Innovate Carolina Global Network, who worked in concert with leaders from the Shuford Program, the Entrepreneurship Center and District C to quickly launch the virtual internships this spring. “We are so pleased with the results of the program, the learning experience it provided, and the work the students and companies were able to accomplish together in such a short timeframe.”

One company that participated in the inaugural program was Substantial Magazine, a premier minority magazine headquartered in Greenville, North Carolina. The magazine worked with a team of four students: Connor Folk (Shuford Program), Emmanuelle Garcia (Shuford Program), Yingxi Huang (Kenan-Flagler Business School) and Becky Ug (Shuford Program).

“We were tasked with helping Substantial Magazine transition into Substantial Media, a multimedia company for minorities in eastern North Carolina,” says Folk. “As part of our work, we gave recommendations on advertisement pricing, pricing models, social media presence and youth involvement programs. It was a very wide-ranging problem, so we were really able to be very creative with our suggestions and research.”

“Without our innovation and entrepreneurial partners coming together, this program would not have been possible,”

Sheryl Waddell
Sheryl Waddell, director of the Innovate Carolina Global Network

The student team gained valuable experience by tackling work through an interdisciplinary approach, combining the strengths of two of the largest entrepreneurship education programs on campus – the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship and The Entrepreneurship Center.

“I think doing this internship virtually was a blessing in disguise. I had so much going on, but somehow I was able to do it all this summer due to the internship being virtual than trying to drive from one place to another,” says Ug. “I learned a lot from this experience, like working better with others in a team and also useful skills that I will continue to use in the future. Seeing how people in the business school think and solve problems through Yingxi was very helpful and I will be utilizing it in the future.” 

“It was very beneficial to have a diverse group of students as Shuford students and Kenan-Flagler students bring different strengths and ideas to the table,” adds Folk. “Shuford students usually have much more experience in idea generation and design thinking, while Kenan Flagler students are very strong at practicality and the logistics of the process. I really benefited from the diversity as Yingxi, a Kenan Flagler student, would reel me back in when my ideas started to become a little unrealistic.”

The students focused on a scope of work framed by the program and Substantial Magazine and met regularly with their startup business partners. Throughout the eight-week program, the students received guidance from experienced professionals and District C-certified coaches. Dezbee McDaniel, a Carolina alumnus and founder of the boutique small business and early-stage consulting firm McDaniel Consulting, coached the Substantial Magazine team.

“As coaches, we were concerned we wouldn’t be able to build relationships with the students since we were not face-to-face,” says McDaniel. “But it wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated because the students were so invested and willing to be vulnerable and open to building and learning from one another virtually.”

“I loved having a coach and especially having Dez,” says Ug. “He was always very excited to meet with us and was always very transparent and honest. I loved that we even created a weekly mental health day that we used to discuss and destress which was extremely helpful and needed during the time of the internship. It created a safe space and psychological safety among my teammates, Dez and me, which I very much appreciated.” 

The program uniquely combines the internship work for the startup company, weekly skill building instruction work (team building, problem solving, etc.,) as well as on-going guidance by the coaches. Although the students were working in a virtual environment, they gained key takeaways and skillsets to apply to class projects or even future job experiences.

“In an in-person environment, it is easy for you to find someone and communicate directly with him or her,” says Yingxi. “In a virtual setting, it usually takes a while for you to arrange a Zoom meeting, so communication is more difficult. We took advantage of Slack, and we had a facilitator for taking meeting notes and updating people. We really respect each other’s time and we did not leave anyone behind by taking active approaches in communication.”

Substantial Magazine also reaped the benefits of working with a diverse, focused and proactive team of students who were ready and willing to take on the complex challenge of Substantial Magazine transitioning into Substantial Media.

“Let me start by saying what an amazing program/initiative this is. As a long time higher ed and student affairs professional, I love the experiential learning that took place during the program,” says Greg Hedgepeth, president and editor-in-chief of Substantial Magazine. “It was an honor to support the UNC/District C Entrepreneurial Consulting Internship program and participate in this timely opportunity for students to develop the mindsets and protocols needed for the future of work. It was evident how invested these substantial young people were in the continued success of our business. I enjoyed the energy, young brilliance, and I’m excited for what’s in store. We can’t wait to execute some of the innovative ideas.”  

“In a virtual setting, it usually takes a while for you to arrange a Zoom meeting, so communication is more difficult. We took advantage of Slack, and we had a facilitator for taking meeting notes and updating people. We really respect each other’s time and we did not leave anyone behind by taking active approaches in communication.”

Yingxi Huang
Yingxi Huang

The internship culminated in a final meeting with a hand-off of ideas and work from the students to Substantial Magazine.

“Substantial has been very supportive. It was amazing,” says Yingxi. “We can easily feel that they really respect our ideas and value our opinions. It brings a huge sense of achievement for us to know that we contributed to supporting minorities in North Carolina by helping Substantial to grow substantially.”

For Ug, the final meeting with Hedgepeth and the Substantial Magazine team brought immediate validation of a summer’s worth of hard work, plus fresh perspectives for the future.

“At the end, it felt good presenting all our deliverables and receiving such great feedback and critiques and seeing how well they loved and received our ideas and suggestions,” adds Ug. “I appreciate this wonderful opportunity and will take everything I learned in this process and continue to apply in different aspects of my life and career.”

For information about the internship or if you’d like to apply for next summer’s cohort, please contact Sheryl Waddell.

Screenshot from Substantial magazine's story page
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