Going into college, I made the decision that I would have at least three internships throughout the course of my studies. I wanted to do this because, even before I had one, I knew that internships would help me figure out what I like and don't like to do, determine my strengths, address my weaknesses, and build a solid resume.
During the school year, I had part-time internships with the City of St. Augustine and with a wedding planning business but it really was my full-time, summer internship at Unilever a few years ago that hugely impacted my life. It was a huge learning opportunity and incredibly fun, so I really love sharing my experience. In the future, I can also share a few tips for actually getting an internship but in the meantime, here are a few of my tips for being a successful intern.
Make your interests known.
In other words, ask for what you want. I worked in Customer Development at Unilever, so really I could have been given a project that centered around any of the company's many, many brands. Even though I would have worked hard and ultimately enjoyed any project, I wouldn't have been super thrilled to spend ten weeks researching mayonnaise or butter since I don't really eat either.
In early conversations with my manager, we discussed project ideas and I made sure to tell him that I was passionate about beauty (particularly hair, since that's a huge portion of their portfolio) and that I would love to work on a project that involved researching the sales data for mid-tier hair brands. Ultimately, I ended up doing just that---I researched sales data for Unilever and competitor hair brands in a specific regional channel and made recommendations for category management improvements. This not only appealed to my personal interests and made going into the office really exciting, but it also aligned with my professional goals and thus put me on track for a career in beauty. It also made it much easier to present my findings at the end of the summer to a room full of executives because it's actually fun to talk about something you love and easier to feel less nervous when you have a real opinion.
I know that it can be intimidating to start an internship while in college, especially for a huge company. But it's so important to advocate for yourself, your interests, and your goals by making those interests and goals known! It will probably be a huge relief for your manager, as well, because it makes assigning a project much easier for them.
In other words, break out of your own box. In any situation, it's easy to stay so far in your own world that you miss opportunities to grow. Try to break out of your specific department and learn to work in tandem with people from other functions. I worked specifically in the Customer Development function, but I often scheduled meetups with people from other areas in order to gain more perspective on my project. To put it simply, in order to create sales growth in a store, I needed to understand trade dollars, business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing, plus category management and merchandising. I also made a point to learn from interns in even more distant categories like R&D because understanding how a product came to exist can be a vital element in getting people to purchase it.
Collaborating with people across functions taught me that so much goes into placing that bottle of shampoo on the shelf at your grocery store. It's like art in a way because knowing the process (knowing the basics of drawing a human face) allows you to think more creatively and strategically (creating and drawing unique characters from your imagination).
Develop and maintain relationships.
In other words, you are there to make friends. In my experience, this was pretty easy because half of us lived together in a hotel and spent time together both in and out of the office. Developing friendships with your fellow interns is obviously just a friendly and fun thing to do, but it's also good for your career because you are all sharing an experience that will probably bond you for life. Even if you don't make a best friend, you will always be able to reach out to these people in the future if you move to a new city and need a job connection or perhaps if you work in the same industry and need some insight. It's like summer camp in that way.
For the same reasons, it's also good to connect with your mentors and manager. I admit, I could have done a better job at this, so I urge new interns to consider it.
Learn as much as you can.
In other words, attend the learning lunches. When you have a designated time to grow and learn, be it a few hours per week during the school year or a full ten-week summer, make sure to take full advantage of it by learning as much as you possibly can whether it directly pertains to your job or not. Of course, I participated in all of the mandatory training classes but I also made sure to attend plenty of other events that the company offered.
We were able to attend learning lunches and events with major executives as well as non-industry people like Michael Sam. A few interns and I went out for a meal with the President of US Personal Care. We attended the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center and learned about trends in the food industry. I had the chance to sit in on a meeting which included a really fascinating personal care trends presentation. We toured Unilever's Perfect Store, which has all sorts of crazy things like a model grocery store, virtual reality shopping, and even a model living room. Who even knew something like that existed? I even competed on a team in the intern cook-off and learned new recipes, kitchen techniques, and knife skills.
I'm really fortunate that I was part of a company that provided so many optional learning experiences, but this idea can translate to any company. Be open to learning new things, ask questions, and volunteer to tag along for as much as possible.
Take advantage of your surroundings.
In other words, look around. Pay attention to the details and commit them to memory! Whether you're on a corporate campus or in a boutique-type setting, feel excited and grateful that you're now living out your childhood imagination. I'm sure we all, at some point in our childhood, pretended to be a "business person" working in an office, writing memos and doing whatever "business people" do. So, if you're living it now, imagine how exciting that would be to your child self.
Also, get out of the office. I was so, so lucky that my internship was right outside of Manhattan. I was in the city every weekend and sometimes took a day or two to leave the office and work from somewhere in the city on my laptop---usually The Ace Hotel lobby, sometimes Birch Coffee (fun fact: those two locations are also where I started building this blog). If your summer internship takes you somewhere away from home, make sure to spend a lot of time enjoying your surroundings. Not only will this create really fun memories, but it can also help you determine what you want your life to be like on a macro scale. Internships are, in a way, like a form of roleplay. They help you determine what you want to do for work, but you can also use them to figure out how you want the rest of your life to look.
I'd love to hear about your internship experiences and tips so please feel free to share!