Unpaid internships: Worth considering

heatherBy Heather Kipnis ’11

This summer I worked in Managua, Nicaragua with Agora Partnerships, a nonprofit whose mission is to unleash the potential of high impact social entrepreneurs to fight poverty in Central America by providing small and midsized enterprises (SMEs) with strategy consulting, leadership development, networking, and access to growth capital.

I decided early in my Thunderbird career to pursue an internship where I could contribute to the development of Central America’s private sector. The opportunity to facilitate the flow of capital between impact investors and Central American SMEs seemed to be the ideal experience to achieve my career goals, and a summer internship with Agora provided an immediate opportunity to do so. But there was one catch: the internship was unpaid. Three months working without an income was a bit daunting, especially as I anxiously observed the student loan barometer climb higher each month.

In the end, my determination to implement a market-based solution to poverty, and the potential impact I could immediately contribute, outweighed any financial compensation I could have been offered elsewhere.
The statistics are stark. The combination of a lack of access to financing and an undeveloped small business sector inhibits the growth of 82 percent of SMEs within developing countries.

SMEs are the core drivers of job creation, yet they face a significant challenge in accessing “missing middle” growth financing. They are too big to access the resources of microfinance institutions and yet too small and risky to access commercial finance or private equity. As a result, a country’s job creation potential is reduced, opportunities for innovation are never realized, social infrastructure development is stunted, and demand for sales of goods is lost.

In a country where taxi drivers hold Ph.D.’s, security guards are former accountants, and the unemployment rate is the highest in the region, I was able to make a contribution to increasing Nicaragua’s job creation potential. By coaching and preparing growth-stage entrepreneurs to present pitches at Central America’s first impact investor conference and by developing a suite of financial services from due diligence to post investment management to reduce transaction costs for investors, I helped Agora Partnerships generate $3.5M in potential investments.

For anyone that is embarking on the internship search, I encourage you to consider an unpaid internship. In my experience, the rewards of making a sustainable contribution, developing a strong network of contacts, and interacting with industry leaders will prove far more valuable than a more lucrative but less promising opportunity would have offered.

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