Marvin Richardson knows how important college internships can be. Growing up on a ranch in rural Canada, he was the first person in his family to attend college.
He credits a computer science internship program for shaping his path to becoming senior vice president and CIO of Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC).
“It taught me so much,” he says of the internship. “It was my bridge from being a first-generation college student to having a successful career.”
But COVID-19 led to the cancelation of nearly half of internships in the U.S.
As most of HCSC's employees transitioned to remote work during the pandemic, the company pivoted to offer its first virtual internship program and welcomed 15 interns.
When Richardson's daughter’s internship was canceled, he wanted to help more young people avoid losing momentum as they took steps to explore and build their careers.
After a few phone calls and a viral LinkedIn post, a completely virtual internship program run by volunteers was born.
A call for help
Richardson reached out to acquaintances who were also passionate about educating future workers, Kate Neal, Claire Pedersen and Bhoopendra Singh, to assemble a board to build the organization.
Then he issued a call for help on LinkedIn, asking his network of connections if they would volunteer to coach and mentor college students who lost internships during the pandemic.
“I’ve never had a post on LinkedIn get more than about 1,000 views. This one got 33,000 views,” Richardson says.
That’s how Nicole Lynn-Walker, senior director and leader of HCSC’s innovation incubator, got involved. “It seemed like an awesome opportunity to instill hope and inspire college kids adversely affected by the pandemic,” she says.
Lynn-Walker was one of about 200 people who answered the call.
The flood of enthusiasm came “before we figured out exactly what we were doing,” Richardson jokes. With hundreds of volunteers secured, he and Neal, Pedersen and Singh worked quickly to form a nonprofit internship program called Driving Forward.
Its mission is to help students transition from college to a meaningful career through an internship program that provides professional development, mentorship opportunities and a business-focused curriculum, completely virtually.
“This was a startup,” Richardson says. “From concept to when we admitted our first interns and started, it was four weeks.”
Driving Forward established an eight-week long virtual internship program that drew 200 applicants, 70 of whom were chosen to participate.
Participants were placed into groups of four to six with two volunteer coaches. Each team selected a company or nonprofit organization and created a comprehensive plan for how that company would handle the health and economic risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Driving Forward has been more constructive and conducive to my growth than I ever could have imagined."
Lynn-Walker’s team chose a national coffee chain for their case study. Other teams chose completely different organizations facing unique challenges, such as car manufacturers and even an orchestra.
Weekly speakers shared their experience in data analytics, marketing, health care and other fields. Others covered topics like professional development or presenting professionally.
At the end of the eight-week program, each team presented their capstone case study to a panel of 11 judges, including Richardson.
“Seeing the capstone was so impressive,” he says. “You’d have someone from a state university handing off to someone from an Ivy League school to someone from a historically black university — the teamwork and partnership that was shown, it made your heart warm.”
Final product and beyond
Many of the 58 interns who completed Driving Forward’s first session have already landed their first jobs at consulting firms including EY and Deloitte or joined master’s degree programs.
“Driving Forward has been more constructive and conducive to my growth than I ever could have imagined,” one participant said. “I have learned so much.”
More college students will have an opportunity to participate in the future. Though Driving Forward originated from the challenges brought on by COVID-19, it is evolving to provide internships for students who face financial or other challenges. A virtual winter internship opportunity will start in January, and planning is underway for another summer session.