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The catalyst for a successful internship programme

The importance of internship programmes has certainly never been higher. The global pandemic has altered the employment landscape immeasurably both from the perspective of employers and candidates.

Five people sat around a table, having discussion.

by Sara Coupe, Internship Programme Manager & HR Lead, Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF)

The same can be said of internship opportunities – COVID-19 (coronavirus) has clearly impacted the availability of internship places as, quite rightly, firms and institutions have sought to “weather the storm”. 

When the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance (CCAF) was approached by the Catalyst Fund to design, initiate and manage its Catalyst Fund Inclusive Fintech Talent Programme (CFIFTP) there were some clear aims – to ensure that both sides of the employer/intern relationship were managed in a structured, enabling, and positive manner.

To that end, interns would benefit from a three-six month paid internship in a fast-moving fintech start-up, supported by training from subject-matter experts and tailored professional development opportunities, delivering a structured and rigorously evaluated experience. In turn, the development of their professional skills would provide a pathway into a career in fintech – whether in a technical role, business, or product development, strategic or data analysis, customer success or marketing.

Catalyst Fund portfolio startups would benefit from access to the brightest young talent, keen to gain relevant and practical experience, to showcase their abilities and from being able to assess the aptitude and attitude of potential employees. 

Flexing to a changing landscape

As with any start-up firm, the CFIFTP had to react quickly to changing circumstances. What was due to be an in-person programme had to quickly pivot to become a remote working scenario as the pandemic bit and lockdown became a reality. 

That ability to successfully react to a new landscape has seen 73 interns placed in roles within Catalyst Fund portfolio start-ups across Kenya, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Ghana, Rwanda, and Uganda in a little over a year and a half – a number that both the Catalyst Fund and CCAF are rightly proud – far exceeding initial plans and targets. Equally rewarding was the achievement of a gender split of 52% female and 48% male, in an industry that has traditionally lagged the achievement of gender parity. 

From interviewing to onboarding, all parties involved – candidates, portfolio startups, the Catalyst Fund and the CCAF – embraced the structure of the CFIFTP in a virtual environment. Whilst the delivery mechanism had changed, the processes and principles of the CFIFTP did not.

Intern training and goals critical to programme success

This commitment to creating a learning experience for both intern and start-up continued throughout each intern’s journey as we delivered 16 training sessions covering topics including an introduction to fintech, market deep dives on key geographies, social media, digital assets, and time management. 

Ensuring that each intern had clear personal development and professional goals that were supported by one-to-one coaching or mentoring sessions has been another central pillar to the success of the programme. This mentoring was further bolstered by ensuring that all interns were connected to a buddy – either another intern or a member of staff from one of the start-up firms – providing a more informal means of checking thinking or resolving challenges.

Signposting support and guidance opportunities

A support network is critical to the delivery of an impactful internship programme, so in addition to personal mentoring and the buddy system, monthly socials were held virtually. At these socials, interns shared experiences informally and through presentations on capstone projects that they were engaged in. In turn, these socials initiated contact between interns at different companies, in different countries, eager to develop their own longer-term networks and learn from other interns’ perspectives. 

All interns were also provided with a series of workplace tips documents covering how to make a good start, how to talk to your supervisor, time management, giving and receiving feedback, how to look good on video calls and how to become a social media influencer – all aimed at introducing some of the guidance that new entrants to the workplace would benefit from. 

In addition to the one-to-one mentoring, buddy system, peer networking opportunities, training sessions, workplace tips and the clear goals, the interns also benefitted from the guidance and processes that the portfolio start-ups had in place to mentor staff and to develop them personally, as well as professionally.

Evaluation and feedback to inform future programmes

Ultimately, the impact of the CFIFTP is best evaluated by the feedback from the interns and the portfolio start-ups. As part of an independent external evaluation of the programme, a sample of interns were interviewed at the end of their agreed internship period to assess how positively or negatively they had viewed it. Interns variously reported that they had felt that they had received good, clear supervision, invaluable real life work experience, the opportunity to make a direct impact in the start-up, positive exposure to entrepreneurs and their way of thinking and working, as well as the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology. 

As a result, in their exit survey 89% of the interns reported being either “very likely” or “likely” to pursue a career in fintech. From the portfolio startup’s perspective, the success of the CFIFTP was indicated by feedback that the interns were able to fill skills gaps within their organisations and made a positive contribution to their growth. Ultimately, the mutual success of the CFIFTP was highlighted by the fact that 64% of interns completing their internships were offered permanent roles at their portfolio start-up. 

As with any business or programme that has thrived over the course of the global pandemic, the key to success has been adaptability. This has certainly been the case with the CFIFTP. Adaptability in terms of the structuring and administration of the programme, adaptability from the interns to be able to embrace the challenges of remote working and adaptability in the creation of a toolset that ensured inclusivity.

A summary of programme deliverables can be downloaded.