In a world where competition for the best jobs is fierce – and the playing field is not always level – many young people see work experience and internships as the key to getting a foot in the door. So what has happened over the past 18 months, when employers have often been unable to welcome their own staff into the office, let alone bring in interns?
Enter Virtual Internships, a business founded three years ago by Daniel Nivern and Edward Holroyd Pearce to connect interns and employees virtually, which has just raised $2.5m of capital.
Nivern and Holroyd Pearce had several years of experience organising in-person internships for businesses across Asia, but well before the Covid-19 pandemic had been thinking for some time about how to make such programmes more accessible and scalable.
“We launched a pilot programme with a number of forward-thinking employers in 2018 and 2019, and 100 young people took part,” recalls Holroyd Pearce. “Then the pandemic arrived, and we increased our numbers to 1,700; this year, we’re on target for 6,000 internships.”
The concept is simple. Virtual Internships matches employers all around the world with universities and other educational institutions that have students looking for internship opportunities. The business acts as an intermediary, effectively vetting both sides – ensuring employers are able to offer meaningful placements and helping them choose the right candidates for the job. Virtual Internships also handles the administration of the internship, including monitoring placements to ensure that both sides are happy, and working with both parties to ensure they are able to make the most of the opportunity.
The company has found itself in the right place at the right time over the past year and a half. The concept of the virtual internship was not developed as a response to pandemic – but has proved hugely valuable in the face of Covid.
“We certainly didn’t anticipate Covid,” says Nivern. “But we had seen the rise of trends such as remote working and the use of workplace technologies, so we saw a need to mirror that.”
Virtual placements, assuming they are well-managed, have several advantages. For one thing, the traditional internship model, which requires interns to work full-time in an employer’s premises, limits the field of applicants able to participate, since they need to be financially independent and local; working virtually, and not necessarily full-time, students can fit in other work. Also, using virtual working relationships, Virtual Internships is in a position to collaborate with employers in every corner of the world, enabling it to increase the number of opportunities it offers much more quickly. “This is something we have been able to roll out really quickly,” observes Nivern.
Virtual Internship’s business model is to charge universities a fee when their students take on internships. Employers pay nothing, but must be able to show they have good-quality placements with real work to offer.
The return on investment for education providers is significant, argues Nivern, given the way they compete for students. “They know employability has become the number one factor considered by students when picking courses,” he points outs. To that end, 36% of students taking part in Virtual Internships placements so far have either been offered further work at the end of the internship or a full-time job.
Virtual Internships’ task now is to roll out its programmes so that more young people get access to such opportunities. The National Association of Colleges and Employers estimates that having completed an internship increases a student’s chances of getting a job more quickly by 16%. The business currently works with 4,000 host companies in 70 countries, and more than 100 universities and educational institutions worldwide, but sees scope to grow even more quickly
“We believe the positive advantages of virtual internships are such that they are here to stay, even after the world beings to return to a post Covid-19 normal,” says Nivern. “Our ultimate aspiration is to be working with 1 million students in five years’ time.”
The company’s capital raising is crucial in that regard. Led by Sequoia Capital India’s Surge, with participation from 500 Startups, iSeed, Arc Impact and the Hustle Fund, the round has given the business $2.5m of additional capital. The money will underpin further investment in the company’s technology, as well a build-out of the teams it employs to worth with universities and employers.
“We see our role as helping to create global pipelines of talent,” adds Holroyd Pearce. “It should be as easy for a student in Vietnam to intern with an employer in New York as for an intern in London to work at a business in Shanghai.”