While pursuing an MBA from the University of Michigan —Stephen M Ross School of Business back in 2011, Joy Sharma landed an internship at a mid-sized company in the US specializing in electrical components. “On my first day, I was handed a corporate credit card and asked to find out if the company should enter the global batteries market. To have been given that much responsibility was amazing," he recalls.

Cut to the present. Sharma and Sudeep Gupta, founding partners of social sector consulting start-up Impactify, are looking for interns to scale their business, which is based out of GoWork, a co-working space in Gurugram. Sharma, who has worked at McKinsey & Co., has adjusted his expectations to source talent for his current venture. “We are looking for someone who has a good academic record, can write decent English, and is eager to work in this sector," says Sharma, who believes a student with good grades will also be serious and dedicated.

Joy Sharma with his partner Sudeep Gupta, at a co-working space in Gurugram. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Joy Sharma with his partner Sudeep Gupta, at a co-working space in Gurugram. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Sharma isn’t the only entrepreneur working hard to find students to fill summer openings. With Indian millennials prioritizing job security when looking for work—94% consider it important, according to a 2016 ManpowerGroup survey—the allure of start-up companies appears to be fading. There was a time when students from B-schools and top colleges were choosing start-ups over big brands, but layoffs, closures and tightening of investments have made them more cautious. In these times, early-stage, bootstrapped businesses like Impactify may find it challenging to gain the attention of students.

Which is why entrepreneurs like Sharma believe in playing up their strengths, even to recruit interns. Impactify has some key advantages: For one, the nature of the business, which aims to digitize and streamline workflows across India’s NGO sector, may appeal to purpose-driven, millennial college-goers. “There is a strong social consciousness now, and a lot of interns are attracted by the idea of doing something that is, in some way, nation-building," Sharma says.

The fact that Impactify’s first intern, hired in October, came on board for exactly that reason proves his point. “Divya (Ahuja) is passionate about social causes, had participated in college projects and quit a job with a large multinational consultancy to focus on gaining experience in this sector. For me, that was a clear sign that this person is genuinely committed," Sharma says. Ahuja, a graduate from Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women, was among five candidates shortlisted from 50 applicants on Internshala, a platform that helps students land internships.

“In a large corporation, the work tasks are too repetitive, there is no autonomy, and it’s difficult to make connections with your seniors," Ahuja, 23, says. At Impactify, she had a ringside view of how a social sector consultancy is set up, and the founders involved her at every stage of decision making. “I didn’t do this internship for the money. Good experience, and career direction, was what I was looking for," she says, adding that she refused a full-time offer from the founders to move on to a more rigorous assignment once the two- month internship was up. “Both Joy and Sudeep were aware of my goals and encouraged me to pursue them, even if it meant leaving their company," she says.

To hire summer talent, the Impactify founding team also leveraged its top-tier B-school education and corporate experience. “People have a lot of aspirations, and believe they may not grow professionally if they are not working for the right kind of person," Sharma says. Another intern keen on studying at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) was happy to join after learning that Gupta is an alumnus.

So, even if the pace of work at a start-up does not encourage it, ensure mentorship is part of your pitch, because that’s what students want. “I tell candidates that you have to learn the job, but also learn what a job is. Simple things, like if you’re not showing up, just let me know. Coming straight out of college, people appreciate that," says Sharma.

Valuing a student’s contribution through remuneration is equally important, and an Impactify internship pays Rs15,000-20,000 a month. Interestingly, Sharma’s contact at the Management Development Institute (MDI) Gurgaon asked him not to emphasize remuneration in the internship posting. “Instead, they said I should mention students will interact with people from good business schools and corporate backgrounds," he says.

Impactify’s success with Ahuja and two other interns, hired to help onboard 200 NGOs into their database, has encouraged them to set up an ambitious digital corporate social responsibility programme that will be manned by 40 interns. This time around, the founders have widened the recruitment net, through non-profit, youth-run organization AIESEC, which facilitates social development and professional internships, college placement cells, and an internship fair organized at GoWork. “We have created a short promotional video about what we are trying to do and what youngsters will get to learn, and the response has been good," Sharma says.

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Hiring interns for start-ups is challenging

A 2018 Internshala report shows that 85% of the organizations using their website to recruit are start-ups and small- to medium-business enterprises. The top challenges they face, says Sarvesh Agrawal, Internshala founder and CEO, are that their brand is not established, and the stipend and perks they offer may not be able to match those of big companies.

In addition, internship programmes may not be as structured as they are in big firms. But, Agrawal says, “start-ups offer a more informal environment and great mentoring (since you have direct access to senior leadership), which appeal to students. Highlight these aspects of the internship to attract the best talent".

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