There’s a lot of debate surrounding the ethics of unpaid internships. Some argue that hiring interns without pay is just another example of businesses exploiting young workers with no promise of future employment. Others insist that unpaid internships enable learning opportunities for young workers with companies that otherwise would be unable to provide such value to inexperienced employees. For a long time, I felt a cognitive dissonance about this debate. As a teen leader in my community, determined to show that my age was no obstacle, I thought yes! We young trailblazers deserve compensation for our efforts and our work! But on a deeper level, my self-doubt and insecurities spoke louder: now, do I really have the skills, experience, or expertise worthy of being paid by an employer?
As a woman #notinstem, with little musical or artistic talent, I felt that most of my skills were quite intangible in the real world. The icebreaker “say your name, school, and something you’re good at” made me really nervous. I didn’t really feel like “Jewish youth programming” or “team leadership” was a very cool answer for a high schooler. But really, that is what I was good at, and still am. I’m a great motivator, and I love talking to people. I couldn’t really understand how that might translate into a job, though, so I went about assuming that at some point I would develop more concrete, tangible skills that would land me a killer job at a killer company, with a killer boss, and a killer salary.
But until then, I would happily take unpaid internships in social media and marketing positions, not feeling entirely fulfilled by creating generic Facebook posts for a consulting company, but working harder than I was expected to and putting my all in, trying to get the most out of each experience. At the end of my freshman year of college, it was really time for me to get back to Israel. I wasn’t sure how I would get there, and I knew if I did, a work permit was far too much effort to acquire. So once again I prepared for an unpaid internship, not too upset about it, because again, I wasn’t sure that I was yet worthy of anything more. I reached out to Lirone, a woman I had connected to when we both worked at the same startup company in Israel, when I was living there during my gap year. It was an exciting time, as she was just launching her own startup company, The Human Factor by Lirone Glikman. A Global Development Strategist, keynote speaker, and powerful as all hell woman, the prospect of working for Lirone was so exciting. She hired me as her intern, with a two-pronged goal: develop marketing materials, and help to adapt her brand to an international market.
What this really meant, at first, was “be the native English speaker.” I was editing blog posts, fixing grammar issues on the website, and tweaking the script for her video shoot. Even though I knew I was a pretty good writer, I was convinced that any bimbo who grew up speaking English could do my job. But then, Lirone took the time to really show me- show, not just tell me- how I was helping her. She couldn’t pay me, but she helped cover my summer transportation costs, and took me out to lunch regularly. At these lunches, she would ask for my feedback on our new campaigns and marketing efforts. When I shared my thoughts, which I often thought to be relatively basic, she would explain why my personal perspective and way of thinking was unique, and how my contributions were in fact original and relevant. She would remind me that the idea I thought was insignificant, or obvious, was not one that would have ever occured to her. It was my creativity, experiences, and hard work that really did offer her and the company we were creating, value.
Lirone wanted to mentor me, and that meant a lot. She gave me positive reinforcement, feedback, and showered me with kindness. She helped me develop a work/life balance, held me accountable for my work, and above all, made it clear that she wanted my experience to be one of learning and growth. I was editing her website, drafting emails, researching potential partners around the globe, and creating marketing materials, and Lirone was willing to meet me halfway. She wanted me to feel not just like her intern, but a real partner.
Throughout the summer, I was able to connect the sometimes mundane tasks of social media marketing to something I loved- and was genuinely good at. Marketing wasn’t all bad; I was able to be creative and push my artistic and graphic design skills, and develop an eye for aesthetics. But Lirone helped me bring the human aspect to these things as well. Lirone’s company is called The Human Factor, and that is just what she brings and what she advocates to the startups and companies she works with: bringing the human element to business and to life. I always thought my greatest skills came out when I worked with people, and Lirone helped me see how I could translate those skills into something that could make money, and that could benefit society beyond my own personal relationships. She showed me that these skills I possess are in fact something valuable to bring to the table, worth sharing with the world, and worth a paycheck if I could help others harness them, too.
This article is certainly not a plug for unpaid internships. There are many reasons in fact to insist that both employees and companies do better when interns are paid. But what I will say is that my unpaid internship in Israel gave my boss the outlet to find other ways to offer me value from my internship experience, and I would be lying if I said I would have wanted it any other way.