How I got 6 Internships in 2 Years

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.

1. Branding

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.

2. Networking

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.

3. Proactivity

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).

In Summary…

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

How I Landed an Internship in Tokyo

One of the unique selling points of ALU is how work experience is built into our degree programmes via our annual four-month internship period. After a successful first year at ALU spent garnering various leadership, project management, data analysis and soft skills, I opted to do my first internship at a top-tier management consulting firm. This cut-throat industry provided an ideal environment to develop an aspiring entrepreneur and business student such as myself.

To my delight, I earned an offer to intern at the consulting firm again in my third year. However, this left the unavoidable question of where I want to do my second-year internship.

My moonshot aspiration for my second-year internship was to work on a different continent so as to broaden my experiences and challenge myself to deliver high-quality work in a completely different environment. Global relations is a crucial skill for world leaders and this is a skill I wanted to begin developing while still in college.

Early in the year, I created a list of international opportunities based on the list of partner companies the ALU Career Development Team shared with students as well as my own research (and the help of LinkedIn’s job search feature!).

I narrowed down the list to ensure it only included options which could equip me with skills relevant to my broader life ambitions in addition to providing an international experience. Given that I have a burning passion for social impact, particularly women empowerment; fashion and a keen interest in business strategy, there were a variety of opportunities for me to explore.

Expectedly, there were also a variety of challenges. The largest being that our internship season is during the fall which is an off-peak season (most international internships take place in summer). The global economic downturn also caused a number of companies to cease hiring interns temporarily, while many international opportunities require a prior work permit in that country.

Despite these challenges, I landed an international internship using three key tools/strategies:

  1. Proactivity

The ALU Career Development Team is in the process of developing a transparent system which matches students to internships. While I leveraged the system by completing all the necessary assessments to ensure I qualified to be matched to top-tier partner companies, I did not rely on it fully.

I was pitched by ALU  to a variety of companies, however, there was one organisation which was among the top options on my list of international opportunities which I was not pitched to. Upon inquiry, I was informed that ALU would not be able to pitch me. To make matters worse, the international companies I was pitched to opted not to take interns due to various internal and economic challenges, while my self-sourcing efforts were impeded by the aforementioned issues.

Nonetheless, I decided to apply one of my favourite tools which we had explored in our first year Entrepreneurial Leadership class: proactivity. In the spirit of fearlessly and unrelentingly pursuing my ambitions, I reached out to the said organisation independently, targetting all four of their regional offices with a well thought-out email and a carefully constructed resume.

Notably, I was aware of the fact that not being part of the group of students ALU had pitched to them could negatively affect my application, if not invalidate it completely.

Despite this, I maintained a proactive spirit, following up with the two offices who were open to hiring interns during the fall while enduring seemingly delayed responses and overlooked emails.

The more I learned about the opportunity, which is centred on business strategy in Africa, the more I wanted it.

After several weeks of communication with the organisation, I secured an interview. Only two days after my interview, I received an offer to a fully-funded internship in Tokyo, Japan!

  1. Melissa-Njeri-KariukiPersistence

This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity required relenting persistence in addition to proactivity.

I began my quest for an international internship in May and secured my internship five months later in September. During that period, I felt as though I was on a rollercoaster… I fiercely pursued and invested my energy into opportunities which slipped through in the last moments, I got rejected and I felt disappointed time and time again.

But what I refused to do was give up.

  1. Positive Energy (consisting of confidence & rechannelled negative energy)

A crucial aspect of my persistence was the spirit in which I conducted it. I consciously decided to remain positive.

When I was informed that ALU would not be able to pitch me to this organisation despite my keen interest, I was extremely disappointed. But I did not allow that disappointment to deter me, instead, I rechanneled that negative energy into motivation to succeed.

Importantly, I did not perceive this setback as a reflection of my abilities and/or worth and thus maintained a healthy amount of self-confidence.

Underlying all my efforts was the belief that I deserved an opportunity of this nature and I would put in the necessary work to achieve it. I was also familiar with the reality that it would not be easy but I did not doubt that it would be worth it.

Additionally, in all my internship-centred interactions, from those with the Career Development team to those with local companies, and even with my peers, I maintained a positive aura. I believe this was a crucial aspect of my journey as when companies consider who to employ, over and above skills and experience, they also consider culture-fit which is essentially a professional way of describing the vibe a person would add to the office environment. On a personal level, my positive energy feeds my sanity and pushes me to avoid complaining and remain solution-orientated.

It was my conscious positivity that allowed me to be proactive and persist in good faith and land an internship in Tokyo. I encountered uncountable challenges, I faced the temptation to indulge in negativity and finger-pointing. However, I fought to realise my ambitions and succeeded by applying proactivity, persistence, and positivity!

I originally posted this article on the 5th of October 2017 on the African Leadership University’s website.

Dressing the Part; Fashion as Work

When I was 14, I had an uncanny love for my mother’s weekday wardrobe. From her black skirt suits to her personalised collared shirts neatly cuffed with sterling silver cufflinks- I adored it all. Every now and then I’d nip one of her blazers and pair it with jeans to create a casual yet chic look. I envisioned myself entering the corporate world wearing such clothes about a decade later before branching out to pursue my entrepreneurial ambitions.

A few years have passed and with the priceless support of my beloved university, I am already making strides in building my fashion empire centred around liberation; particularly empowering women.
After eight months of ALU’s Leadership Core, I’m interning at one of the world’s leading consulting firms, Bain & Company.

Naturally, as my first day approached I started to deliberate on what I should wear. I thought of the classic black skirt suit that I previously adored, but I wasn’t satisfied. I didn’t want to simply tick all the professional dress code boxes, I wanted more. I wanted my dressing to embody my personal brand and my vision for the future of fashion. This desire had a lot to do with me viewing my internship not as a destination but as a stepping stone. Management consulting is a cut-throat industry which throws new joiners onto a steep learning curve as they work in results-orientated teams, in the pursuit of actionable solutions to global problems. Sounds like a mouth full, I know. But for an aspiring young entrepreneur like myself, I could not think of a more growth-conducive environment.

Back to the fashion – how did I dress in a way that was consistent with the office norms and my ultimate aspirations? I’ll show you!

Day 1
My first day was centred on getting acquainted with the office and networking with the group of 20 new hires that I’d be training with. I was well aware that I’d meet a large number of highly competent and influential people, almost all of whom were older and more qualified than I was. If anything, that motivated rather than intimidated me. I was determined to look the part.

My outfit of choice: Red is a bold colour that many fashion magazines may encourage you to shy away from or limit to accessories in the workplace. This passion-filled, loud colour also happens to be my favourite colour. What I love most about these deep red pants is not their colour nor their ability to elongate my legs. What I love most is the brand behind them, Zara, which was founded by the richest retailer in the world. Zara’s founder Amancio Ortega is an entrepreneur I inevitably look up to. As I strode down the hallway in my carefully-chosen outfit and surprisingly modest black heels, I was ready to conquer the week.

Day 2

On the second day, we started to dive into the meat of consulting, the strategy frameworks, you name it. It was an exciting mixture of intellectually stimulating and overwhelming toolkits. We enthusiastically immersed ourselves in the minds of consultants. Despite the intellectual stimulation, appearance remained a priority.
On this day, I sported a knee-length white dress topped with a long black coat, classic black heels and my personal favourite, bright red, bag. This was definitely one of my more conservative looks, however, I relished in a sense of royalty stemming from the long coat and high-necked, pure white dress.

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Day 3

On the third day, work was becoming more engineered and it was starting to all feel strangely normal, I guess I had fully settled in. But fear not, I was still experimenting with dressing for the job versus dressing like Melissa. On this day, I felt most like myself. I embraced my personal style while incorporating my professionalism. I also revealed another one of my favourites, my dainty black heels.

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Day 4

Thursdays are always tricky in that it almost Friday but not quite there yet. The exhaustion and weekend anticipation that comes with the end of the week often makes it tempting to dress down.
On days like these, I like to step it up a notch. (I even took the photos one notch up!)

My fitted black and white dress with red accessories guided me through a content-filled day.

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Day 5

I have taken it upon myself to rename casual Fridays to not-so-casual, dress-up-and-make-others-feel-underdressed casual Fridays. Fridays are the only days I am allowed to decide to bring out my comfy jeans. To my surprise and delight, some people seem to dress UP on Fridays (hence the renaming). While I enjoy indulging in their killer outfits, I still opt to take it easy. Not too easy though, it’s still a corporate office after all.

I opted for high-waisted white skinny jeans, a deep green top with a classic red coat.

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There you have it, week one of my internship at a top consulting firm done in style!

I chose daring yet professionally customised outfits which embodied my personal brand. Needless to say that my intellectual confidence and belief in my ambitions has inherently been propelled to new heights. This tactic was full-proof because if you’re strutting around the office dressed like the Founder and CEO of a fashion empire, then you sure do start to believe it!

Originally posted on the 2nd of November 2016 on the African Leadership University’s website