When COVID-19 hit earlier this year, huge portions of the economy came to a screeching halt. Some businesses went into preservation mode, stopped hiring, and even laid off huge numbers of workers. One of the groups most heavily impacted by the downturn was students–many of whom saw their engineering internships disappear, losing critical real-world experience in the technology sector.
In response to the upheaval, URx, a community of university and early career talent professionals, set out to create new opportunities for the impacted students, creating the InternHacks program. Supriya Sanjay, one of the driving forces behind InternHacks, joined Karat’s Portia Kibble Smith for a conversation about the program.
Portia: Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today, Supriya, can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you got involved with InternHacks?
Supriya: Portia, as you know, it’s all about networking! I had just finished up my senior year at Tufts when Iris Oliver (InternHacks student experience lead) and I started planning a Women in Tech conference at Tufts University. That’s where we met Wahab Olowabi, the URx Community founder.
I started participating in URx events with him, and when March hit, we all saw this incredible challenge for students. So I joined the InternHacks organizing team. Initially, it was in response to COVID-19, but we also saw it as a way to lift up some of the underrepresented communities that we were serving at URx.
Portia: What were your goals for the program?
Supriya: We were mainly focused on making sure the students were able to grow academically and to give them the opportunity to gain experience building something.
Each student was part of a team that had a project to work on for the full six weeks, and that’s something that will be incredibly valuable to resume building and even project discussions in future interviews compared to a resume gap due to the pandemic.
Additionally, we saw the networking opportunities as being really valuable. Not just in terms of the mentor relationships that they were able to build, but by giving our students a broader network of peers. Even if they don’t all go to the same school, hopefully, they’ll stay in touch and have a strong foundation for a professional network.
Portia: Networking is so important to building a career. You had mentioned going through computer sciences classes at Tufts. Was it harder for you to network with your peers as a woman in those classes?
Supriya: That’s an interesting question. I started my college journey as pre-med, with a focus on cognitive brain sciences. As part of that, I had to take two computer science classes. I took my first one over the summer and had a fantastic professor who ended up becoming a mentor of mine, and asked me to TA that following semester. They basically said, “I know you’re pre-med, but this is something you should really consider.” And they were right!
But to the question of being in the minority, that’s something that evolved as I got deeper into the field. My first couple of courses were probably a 50/50 gender mix, but by my senior year, it was probably under 30% non-male.
Portia: And that’s something that I think is really valuable about InternHacks, even more than traditional software engineering internships. It gives the students a network of people who look like them and can make them feel like they belong professionally. I can’t understate how powerful that is for early-career software engineers.
Supriya: That’s exactly right! One challenge that a lot of students have is around that first push to go and start your own side project, and having a team to do it with.
The whole side project conversation becomes a barrier to entry for both engineering internships and careers. As a college student, your side projects are all you have to show. However, it can be hard to convince yourself to spend your free time doing a side project alone, which inspired the InternHacks group-project format. I wish I had this in college. It would have been a much more engaging way to build a side project to put on GitHub and have something to show recruiters.
Portia: Those relationships are going to serve the students well for years to come! And I know that the mentors made a huge impact as well, what were you looking for in that role?
Supriya: The mentoring element really set InternHacks apart from other programs I’ve seen. We were hoping for something like 50 mentors, but we had over 150 from 20 different companies. There was a huge constituent from Netflix and others from big names like Robinhood and Capital One — and of course great startups like Karat. We were really looking for mentors who could offer expertise in both professional career development and answer technical questions, and it couldn’t have worked out better.
Nobody walked away with a bad mentor!
Portia: What stood out to you about the students’ projects?
Supriya: The projects all had an amazing civil tilt to them. We were going to give an award for the most civically-oriented project, but we ended up having a really hard time deciding because every project had a civic, social-justice problem that it was solving. The fact that we gave them the resources and the teammates to work on a side project that was so personal and fulfilling is something that will empower their careers.
And one of our teams actually ended up forming a company to tackle food insecurity at food banks! So impressive.
Portia: So what’s next for InternHacks?
Supriya: Well for the students, this year is going to be so different from anything we’ve seen. We talked about virtual career fairs and gave them a chance to meet with recruiters to ask questions. It’s funny, in a lot of ways the students are more prepared for this than the recruiters are. There’s no better generation to figure this out, and virtual fairs are way less stressful than being in a sweaty crowded gym.
As far as InternHacks is concerned, the community is staying in touch, and we’re hoping to have some events throughout the fall–likely hosted by companies that are recruiting. Aside from that, we are gearing up to host InternHacks again next summer!