Creating the Best Internships for Entrepreneurship Programs

This week, I’d like to talk about entrepreneurial internships and why it’s difficult for entrepreneurial programs to provide quality internships for their students. I recently published a piece about this subject in the blog of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. I got a pretty good response to that blog post – I’d like to enlarge on that subject a bit.

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Actually, since the year is ending, let me digress for a minute and recognize NACCE, the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. If you’ve never visited their website at, you really should take a minute and do that. They’ve got all kinds of amazing resources there, and their blog by itself is just a fascinating series of perspectives. I’ve been a guest blogger there for this year, and I’m grateful to that organization for providing me with that opportunity. I’ve met all kinds of new people and gotten just great feedback on the ideas that I’ve published on that blog. I know that the feedback I’ve gotten has made a number of parts of my forthcoming book a lot better. So, once again, I do want to give recognition to the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. It’s a terrific organization and it’s really not just for people in community colleges – the resources on the site go well beyond that narrow focus. There’s a lot of useful stuff there for anybody who’s interested in entrepreneurship education.

As many of you know, I’ve been doing a lot of research on entrepreneurship education. There are a lot of quality organizations out there that are working on this topic, because I think that there’s a growing awareness of the importance of entrepreneurial activity to the financial health of the United States ,and indeed to the well-being of our citizens, because true entrepreneurial activity, I think, provides a sense of empowerment and self-efficacy that often more traditional employment does not provide.

The research is really fascinating if we just talk about baccalaureate granting institutions in the United States. So there’s about 300 of them that have an entrepreneurship major of some type, some sort of focus on entrepreneurship. But in the community college arena, the data that we have (primarily supplied by NACCE) shows that out of the about 1,995 public, private, and tribal colleges across the country, about two-thirds of them offer at least one course in entrepreneurship, while about 14% of them offer a degree program in the subject of entrepreneurship. Another 19% offer certification in entrepreneurship, so you actually walk away with a credential. About 20% of all of these college have some type of small business development center.

Given the number of schools that have entrepreneurship programs of some kind, the scarcity of internship programs in which students work one-on-one with entrepreneurs is really fascinating to me. It’s surprising, and it’s definitely something to be examined because working one-on-one with entrepreneurs is often a fascinating and rewarding experience. And yet it’s surprising how rare that really is, so I’ve been examining why.

As I’ve talked about before, currently many schools offer credit for entrepreneurial activity. That credit takes a number of forms. There could be a traditional class, in which either a group or an individual entrepreneur projects are assigned as part of the class. You could have a directed study, in which the student proposes an entrepreneurial project and works directly with the faculty member or a committee. Or an internship in which the student works for an outside organization or may work within the school itself.

By the way, some of the most interesting internship opportunities occur at schools for whom creating internship opportunities externally to the school can be challenging, often because of geographic location. I find some of those are just amazing and I’ll give you an example just to show you what I’m talking about. In my home state of Kansas there is a town called MacPherson. MacPherson is home to MacPherson college. They have a minor in entrepreneurship, but they take entrepreneurship very seriously and they want to provide interesting entrepreneurial activities for students even when they are in MacPherson, Kansas, which is not a very big place. So beyond the minor, which is a very comprehensive minor to start with, they have a number of fascinating on-campus activities, some of which are actually relatively common in some way or another, and some of which I think are absolutely swinging for the fences.

I’ll give you just a couple of examples. They have something to hold the Horizon Fund, which provides mini-grants to help students explore or carry out an original entrepreneurial idea. Winning ideas have to identify a need and describe a creative way of meeting it. A winning idea should be tied clearly to some community value. And so students can basically apply to actually get their ideas funded. They have something called Etch, which is a student-run design and marketing studio. This is actually in some ways a lot like the Fab Lab on the campus of Independence Community College. It’s essentially a place where students can go beyond merely being creative. It offers professional graphic design and marketing services to both the students and to nonprofit organizations. There’s no charge for this. They ask for donations, but that’s not required. And probably most interesting of all is that the students at MacPherson manage over $300,000 of MacPherson’s endowment. The college board of trustees at MacPherson adopted in a resolution in 2011 that empowered the investment class to manage $100,000, and since that time, it’s grown because the students have done a good job with it. The class is now responsible for managing over $300,000 of the college’s endowment. That’s absolutely fantastic.

One of the reasons why opportunities like this are so good is because internships are rare at community colleges, and so it’s particularly important that when students go on to baccalaureate schools, there are rich experiences waiting for them. Why are internships rare at community colleges? Well, an internship requires time, which is something that’s inherently in shorter supply for a student seeking a degree of about 60 credit hours. And remember that’s 60 credit hours in the case of an associate’s degree – in the case of a certificate, it would typically be substantially less. Additionally, internships are typically conceived as higher-level student activities from which students will derive the most benefit if they’ve already acquired a body of knowledge. That’s why internships typically occur late in the core sequence of a program because presumably the student is going to put some core amount of knowledge that they’ve already learned in their major to work in that internship.

Internships at baccalaureate institutions appear to have some common features (often these are shortcomings) that present real opportunities for schools to provide impactful experiences for students. In preparation for my forthcoming book, I surveyed 50 institutions with entrepreneurship majors and minors, selected randomly from the entire list of institutions that offer such a major or minor. Some of the findings were these:

  1. Of those surveyed, 94% of the schools housed their entrepreneurship programs either in their business school or the program is run by business faculty. To me, that’s an opportunity for some kind of diversification, some kind of differentiation.
  2. Over two thirds of the programs described themselves as appropriate for students who may wish to start their own business, work in a family owned business or work for smaller businesses. Once again, I think this is an opportunity for differentiation because I strongly believe that even at very large companies when they’re looking for very well-educated people, they’re also looking for people who are able to think entrepreneurially. Is that a word? Entrepreneurially? Probably. How about “think in an entrepreneurial way?”
  3. In practice, a substantial number of enrolled students plan to take over an existing family business, with the second largest group being students who plan to start a business in a specific area, and they’re taking a minor or a second major in entrepreneurship to complement their first major, the one that is specific to their business.
  4. Many schools allow the internship requirement to be satisfied through work in the student’s existing family business if that work is evaluated or approved first. Let’s say that a student works at their family’s farm. Although the general population often labor under the view that farming is this quaint, antiquated activity, it’s not at all. It’s a very high-tech enterprise. It’s very difficult both financially and from a technology standpoint. The farmer today is obviously mastering a very wide range of skills. Students who come from families with farms tend to work on those farms, during the summer, during the breaks, or if their college is close to their home, they may be working on them every day. And schools have found that in cases like that they can actually give some level of college credit, provided that the person is doing some something that’s a part of the approved curriculum.

Although one might think that an internship in entrepreneurship would involve the student working one-on-one with an entrepreneur, I found that in most cases the internship was indistinguishable from a generic business internship, with the possible exception of an internship in an existing family business. In those cases, the student seems less likely to be exposed to particularly new ideas or new ways of doing business, since the internship is carried out in the presence of family with whom the student has may have worked with for years. These issues weren’t universal; I found some programs that strive very hard to create a personalized one-on-one internship that is distinct from what the rest of the business majors were experiencing. These programs tended to be at smaller schools and those programs tend to be less enmeshed with the business program.

My research suggests that many, if not most, schools are failing to provide truly distinctive entrepreneurship internships for their students. This not only represents a marketing opportunity for the schools that are able to provide quality internships, but it also points the way for existing programs looking for a straightforward way to improve. An ideal entrepreneurship internship would have the following elements:

First, some portion of the time spent would be one-on-one with an actual entrepreneur, focused on the creative process.

Second, the entrepreneur’s business or project would be deliberately out of the comfort zone of the student. The idea is not to reinforce the student’s previous experiences but to create new ones.

Finally, the entrepreneur needs to fully appreciate that the internship exists primarily for the welfare of the student and so the student needs to be given meaningful work and responsibilities. I probably should’ve put that one at the beginning because of course this is a misunderstanding about internships that is widely believed, which is that the intern is just some sort of low paid or unpaid unskilled worker who just comes and does grunt work. This is not how internships are allowed to work at federally-funded institutions.

I would say that the chief challenge that confronts an internship specifically for entrepreneurs is that, as I’ve argued before on this podcast, successful entrepreneurship programs treat entrepreneurship as a mindset, and an internship is typically placing you in a specific work setting, it’s not necessarily placing you in a mindset. A successful entrepreneur internship is one that’s basically going to further the mindset by linking the student up with entrepreneurs who have that mindset. That’s why the one-on-one activity with an entrepreneur that’s focused on the creative process is truly what would make the internship impactful from an entrepreneurial standpoint, and provide really meaningful work for the student.

Notice why this is so important – it’s because if this is the correct way to think about an entrepreneurial internship, then there isn’t as great a distinction between what a baccalaureate program and what an associate’s degree program can provide for that student. If the distinguishing feature is the one-on-one contact with the entrepreneur, that’s not necessarily something that has to wait until late in the student’s education. In fact, the argument can be made that in order to embrace that mindset, it might be advantageous to have exposure to that early. If the mindset is as fundamental as I’m claiming it is to successful entrepreneurial activity, then you would want to start that as early as possible and to have true mentors in that activity as early as possible. If community colleges were to provide these types of entrepreneurship exposure, it would be a win-win for the student, the institution, and the entrepreneur.