Two years ago, I relocated to a tiny island in Africa, called Mauritius, to attend the African Leadership University (ALU). I was ready to unleash my potential coupled with my entrepreneurial ambitions and drive change in our beloved continent! But I knew that, eventually, I would need a job.
The problem? I had zero working experience. So, I opted to explore getting an internship.
As an aspiring young professional, a great way for you to launch a career is by getting an internship in a field of your interest. Internships are a great way to explore an industry and grow your professional network, all while learning new skills! What’s not always so great is the process of getting an internship. To make your journey a little easier, I have detailed below the three keys to my internship-hunting success.
Branding is about being aware of and actively shaping how people perceive you. While we are multifaceted beings, people tend to remember and associate a few key things with us. So we have to ask ourselves some questions in order to understand what we’d ideally want people to think of when our name is mentioned in a professional context. Questions such as: What type of work do I enjoy doing? What do I have experience in? What skills do I have or can I get which uniquely position me to do my ideal job? Once you’ve established that, you can actively build your professional brand.
In my case, I knew I enjoyed strategy, creative problem solving, collaborative work and all things artistic. I also suspected I would enjoy graphic design, sales and advertising. My experience, however, was in finance and accounting but also in building and leading teams, fundraising and pitching. I leveraged the skills I was learning at ALU and the startup nature of the environment to gain more experience. Initially, I wasn’t particularly picky about the type of experience I got. If it was something I genuinely enjoyed and it presented an opportunity for me to learn and grow, I would jump in.
From co-founding the art department, Arts@ALU, to holding the university’s first fashion show and leading the decor for ALU’s Awards event, I was having the time of my life working with different people and growing as an aspiring professional. What I noticed later was that I also positioned myself as an enthusiastic, go-getter who gets things done. This ‘branding’ led to my first internship which I was invited to without the need to apply (surprise, surprise!) and it enabled me to earn another internship at ALU (which I had to apply for). Not to mention, I was also invited to work on a number of other high-stake projects.
This is the power of branding. The risk of not actively branding yourself is finding yourself associated with skills and areas you do not enjoy. The key is to make sure that your social media persona (especially on LinkedIn), your resume, your experiences and even your professional interactions are all geared towards telling one cohesive story – the story being the embodiment of your ideal professional brand.
If you’re thinking I’m going to tell you to print a stack of business cards and start regularly attending conferences, you’re wrong.
Networking is the art of strategically forming professional connections. There are 3 key things to remember when it comes to networking: select, connect and follow up.
Select: It’s important to be selective of the people you choose to network with. Prioritise people who work in fields of your interest and/or have achievements you aspire to. That way you’re more likely to come across opportunities where you can learn from someone while contributing intellectually to the dialogue and even teach them something they did not know.
Connect: At the heart of networking is forming authentic connections. In order to do this, we have to reject the notions of being professional robots and having Q&A style conversations. Instead, we should show our personalities, speak freely (but respectfully) and not be afraid of speaking about non-work related topics. Once a connection has been formed, it ought to be maintained via following up.
Follow up: This can take many forms but my personal facourites are a LinkedIn invite and/or a follow-up email expressing gratitude for the interaction. From then on, if you come across a resource you think may be of use or interest to them, you can share it. Later on, you could also update them on what you’re up to professionally.
At my university, we regularly have distinguished guests visiting our campus. One day, I attended a lunch with a guest speaker who recently graduated from a business school I was considering (notice the careful selection? 😉 ). Prior to the lunch, I thoroughly read up on him and identified areas of shared interest which I then delved into at the lunch. The knowledge I had of his background enabled me to ask informed questions resulting in a flowing conversation. I followed up with a LinkedIn invite and an email. After some back and forth conversing, I scheduled a phone call to gain his input on a project I was working on. A few months later, he invited me to intern on a project he was working on. Months after that, I interned with his startup. Just like that, I got two internships from one connection.
It’s important to remember that networking is not about what you can get from others. It’s about forming genuine professional connections with people, often based on shared passions and interests, where you care about one another’s professional and personal growth. Notably, how you brand yourself guides how people in your network interact with you.
Proactivity is the art of making active efforts to impact a situation rather than simply responding to it. What I have done in the first two points is essentially outline how you can be proactive in your personal branding and in your networking experiences.
While memorable branding and seamless networking may lead to some opportunities, you’ll likely have to take a further step in order to ensure an ideal career opportunity. You’ll need to actively seek opportunities through a variety of methods and platforms. My personal are: using LinkedIn Careers (set up an alert for new opportunities related to your search), creating an opportunity dashboard (populate it with all interesting opportunities and track your progress) and of course, the Careers section on the websites of your dream companies.
During my first year of ALU, I was lucky enough to be pitched for an internship with a leading bulge-bracket consulting firm. My proactivity in thoroughly preparing for the case interviews and acquainting myself with the company culture earned me an offer for the internship role I had applied for. I took it a step further by actively branding myself during my internship (read more about that here) while constantly maintaining a high standard of excellence in my work which earned me a return offer at the firm.
In my second year, I aspired to intern on a different continent and I proactively sought out and maximised opportunities to realise that goal (read more about how I landed an internship in Japan here).
Branding, Networking & Proactivity are essential in crafting that career you aspire to. Branding allows you to strategically position yourself in the professional world. Networking allows you to meet the right people who can share knowledge and skills with you and link you to opportunities. Lastly, proactivity allows you to identify and seal growth and career opportunities. These are the 3 high-level skills I leveraged to go from having no work experience to completing 6 internships in 2 years. Funny enough, each one of the three skills bore 2 internship opportunities, however, they are most powerful when used together.
Originally posted on the 17th of April 2018 on my LinkedIn.