Rob Khoury ’90, founder and CEO of Agile Rainmakers, thought hosting an intern would be lots of work for little reward — until he tried it. The experience changed his perspective so much, he's writing not one but four books about internships. He says he’s out to bring dignity to the internship idea by showing both interns and companies that well-designed, well-thought-out internship programs can bring tremendous benefits to everyone involved.
LIZ DAUGHERTY: Internships are a staple of the business world, and a step almost mandatory for young people entering many areas of the workforce. But how many are full of busywork? How many are unpaid? Rob Khoury, who founded and runs his own consulting company, Agile Rainmakers, wants internships to reach their true potential, as fulfilling experiences that mutually benefit both hosts and college students — including the Princeton alumni who host their alma mater’s current crop each summer. He’s partway through a plan to write four books on the subject crammed with advice on how to thoughtfully design internships that really work.
So Rob, thank you so much for coming on the PAWcast.
ROB KHOURY: It is my pleasure Liz, thank you for having me.
LD: So you’ve become very passionate about the internship idea, but you write in your books that you weren’t always. How did you feel about internships in your previous life, and why do you think you felt that way?
RK: Well, like many others, I thought having an intern come in would mean a lot more work for me as an employer. And internships occurred to me as yet another thing on my busy to-do list. It was something that I thought had little upside in terms of the work product that could be generated, and a lot of downside in terms of time and attention spent managing someone who may be working somewhere else in a few months, who was — it also seemed a bit daunting, you know, to take on someone much younger, and to provide guidance.
So that was there for me in the background, and the other thought there was, even if I gave them time and attention, there was no guarantee it was going to turn out, so inviting a new project called managing an intern would invite the possibility of failure if not tended to properly, and if things didn’t go perfectly well. So the easier thing to do was just to avoid it completely, and that’s pretty much the mode I was in for a while.
LD: So what changed your mind?
RK: I’ve done a lot of work with the Princeton Club, and in particular I’ve cohosted the Princeton Club of Chicago’s annual summer intern luncheon, where we would invite parents and alumni who have internships, or want to give advice around internships, we’d invite them to a luncheon, and we’d invite Princeton students who wanted to intern in Chicago, so they’d be at the luncheon too, and they would meet. And we did this for about nine years, and not once did I think maybe I ought to hire an intern. You know, there was just, to me, again, a lot of risk to it.
When I started my new company in 2018, Agile Rainmakers, I needed to hire somebody to help me grow the company, so I said you know what? I’m going to bite the bullet, I’m going to take a risk, I’m going to hire an intern. And I ended up hiring a very mature and capable sophomore, and he was absolutely extraordinary. He could research subjects extremely well, he could research key players in an industry, he asked deep questions that got me thinking about my consulting firm in ways I hadn’t fully considered, like how do I manage work/life balance, how do I consider the digital footprint of various clients of mine — things I had never really thought much about. And I ended up learning quite a bit myself that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Mainly, he was a digital native, and he had a lot of great ideas.
And so I got passionate, because I got to see that there could be lots of possibilities here working with an intern — that that one intern, you know, a Princeton sophomore, had me turn the corner on all of that.
LD: What can hosting an intern bring to a business — you listed a couple of things there — and how can that be mutually beneficial for the intern? Like what can they get out of it, if the internship works as well as you think it can.
RK: What an intern brings is a fresh perspective. They don’t have as many preconceived notions about work being done, they are bringing beginner’s mind. And that is wonderfully refreshing. And what they notice, and what they think, is totally wide open, and as a result, their research generally doesn’t have a bias, and if it does, it isn’t the same bias that I have, or a company would have. They also can expose things like new trends that have been unseen for some time, even though they’re like, right in front of you. As a result, the combination of this fresh perspective and new ideas make the possibility of new solutions possible and available. So that’s one thing that a company can get, as, you know, with good work done too, that they haven’t been putting their time and attention to, because they don’t have the manpower or the time, those things can get done, certain projects.
And the other thing, too, I noticed, is that interns give me an opportunity to practice managing. So, knowing I have an intern that’s about to join my firm, it’s kind of like I’m getting my house ready. I make sure everything’s organized, I make sure anything that needs attention, to be fixed, or you know, to make it work, I make sure these things are addressed. It could be like, access to certain files, or updating certain documents, things like that. And it makes me, knowing they’re coming, I have to get crystal clear in how I communicate my purpose and intention. So it’s a wonderful way to, as a company, to kind of reset who you are, and get organized and ready. Stuff that you normally wouldn’t do. And that’s a wonderful thing, in my mind.
You asked what does an intern get, and the intern is learning about the company and the industry, and they’re learning about it from the inside, they’re learning how an organization works, and they’re doing so not in theory, but in actual practice. Which is a tremendous, tremendous opportunity. They’re also learning something that most of us take for granted, which is how to work an eight-hour day. We work an eight-hour day, no problem. Students aren’t like that. They have class, they have a break, they go do sports, they have lunch, you know, they mix it up quite a bit. They may go three hours without anything, and then have a three-hour lab. Not a straight eight-hour day. So they learn how to adapt to an eight-hour day, something that they are not used to. And they also learn how to produce results during an eight-hour day using the skills that they’ve developed at school. So they actually see how they can implement what they’ve learned at school to a job opportunity.
And this is knowledge in action versus knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Both noble, but an internship allows for the action piece and the results piece to show up. And as a result, the intern has a boost in confidence, and they also get a taste of self-discipline, doing the work the way it’s designed, on time, these things.
LD: When you describe internships, I can’t help but think of my own experiences as an intern, and it was quite some time ago. But I will tell you, the busywork label you put on it really resonated with me. And I worked for good people, you know, but there was definitely a lot of, “Hey can you stuff these envelopes, hey we don’t know what to do with you, how about you update this big list of names and addresses?” Stuff like that. And what you described just sounds so much more interesting, and fulfilling, and really just beneficial for everybody.
So clearly, your internship is not what my internship was. So tell me about these design elements that you’ve created. When you put together your internship, like what are you thinking about? How do you make this experience happen?
RK: There’s so much I’m thinking about when I design an internship. So the first thing I know, like in my mind, is if I don’t have a design, it’s going to drift. And the design piece is, it’s just very important, not just for the company, you, but for the intern to get the most out of it. So if you don’t have kind of a timeline, what you’re doing when, what, all of that, it’s going to be a real challenge to get the most out of it.
And what happens when you design it, just so you know, it’s like, it opens up other ideas in other parts of your business. So the mental exercise of actually designing an internship, has you start thinking about how you welcome certain people into your company, or how you take on certain projects, or how you organize yourself, or what tools you use, so you start to really think about, really the soup to nuts, what you’re working on in other areas as well. So you’re really evaluating and looking at your own company from another angle, and that, the angle of internship, and that’s actually helping you be more creative, and more empathetic, and more prepared for other challenges you might have in your business.
So what I like about that, in designing it, is you’re actually exercising creativity. You’ve got a problem to solve: A college student or a grad student is showing up, what do we do with them? And how do we do it? Well that’s a wonderful problem to bring some creative thinking to. And with that, you’ve got to be prepared. The days of, “the intern just showed up, we don’t know what we’re going to do with them yet,” need to end. And that’s, I hear that a lot. This is, you know, months, weeks in advance, preparation, planning, you want to, you know, when you’re designing an internship, you want to put yourself in the intern’s shoes. Make the intern’s entry into the organization as smooth as possible. Give them books to read, you know, before they show up, so they hit the ground running, you know? Think about how much stress and anxiety they may have coming into your organization where there’s three people, 10 people, 50 people, 100 people they’ve never met, they don’t know, they are the most junior, and here they are. So how can you alleviate stress and anxiety before they come in? And when you do that work, the results that can be produced by the intern are really fantastic.
LD: In your books, you share stories about some of your interns, and some of the adjustments you made to your program as you kind of learned lessons along the way. Can you describe a time, or tell a story about when perhaps you learned something unexpected?
RK: The thing that surprised me most is, so this is really, I think a societal challenge that we’ve got. A year ago, one of the interns, early on in the internship, was quite stressed out, and I asked, what’s going on? And he was, in June, interviewing for an investment banking summer internship for next year. I could not believe it. And I thought, “my gosh, they’ve moved the process so much,” and he was a sophomore. And that junior year internship can be important, it can lead to a full-time job. So if he doesn’t get the internship he wants, then next summer, chances are he’s not set up well to get an investment banking job that he wanted when he graduated.
So I was just so surprised to see the stress happening for a student, you know, intern, at such an early age, and at that time. I scratched my head about it, and I think what it basically says is that the competition is just so fierce to get an internship, you know, the numbers are unbelievable, by the way. Like it is harder to get an internship at Morgan Stanley, for example, than to get into Princeton. I mean, and Amazon, and Google, and Facebook, it’s the same. It’s, we’re talking under 2 percent, and in a lot of cases, under 1 percent of applicants. So the stress — if that’s something that you really want — it can be quite real. And now, what I learned is the timing of this is at least five months before it would have happened, and so early that it’s frankly interfering with the internship at hand.
So how did I handle that? Like I handle everything else. I remember first and foremost, these are students, they are between the ages of 18 and 22, typically. They need empathy, they need guidance, they need support, and I just asked, what do you need? What will help you with your interviewing, with this, let’s get through that, and we’ll figure out how to work with the work we’ve got to get done as well. But let’s be partners in this. You’re not alone, and there’s no point in you stressing out by yourself, let me help you do the best you can. And by golly, he did.
LD: That’s really interesting. That’s a lot of stress on these kids. You know, I wonder, I hope that those internships are as well-structured as the ones that you’re putting together, you know? That they do for the kids everything that you hope they would, you know?
RK: They are not, Liz. So I’ll tell you how it actually goes. They, a lot of times these students will tell me that when they interned at these other large, reputable organizations, most of the day, they don’t do much. And then around 4 or 5 in the afternoon, they’re given work to do. And so they start doing their work at like, five o’clock at night. And I know this, because after the interns work with me for about three weeks I ask, you know, how’s it going, you know, have you talked to your friends, how does your internship with me compare? And they said something that was absolutely telling. “Rob, we appreciate that you have us work during the day. Our friends get called at night, they get called over the weekends, they have work.” And this is an internship for a 20-year-old, you know, adult. That’s the world we’re in when it comes to these internships.
And so, some of the, like, some of the design principles that I have. I like to keep things simple. So one of the simple rules that we have is when an intern works with me, you work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and you are not allowed to work before 9 a.m. or after 5 p.m. You’re also not allowed to work during the weekend. You do get lunch, you know, a half hour, 45 minutes, you know, a reasonable lunch. And you’ve got to get your work done. And so what happens is, there’s no texting, surfing the web, chit-chat, there’s a lot of work to do, that they can do, and they’ve got to put the time in, and they focus intensely on doing that.
So simple rules, as you design your internship, can make all the difference in having the intern be present, enlivened, and then I tell them look, at five o’clock, you stop, do not work, I want you to go and enjoy your summer, you know, be with your family, your friends, I don’t care what it is, go do that. And then the other thing that we do, as a design, is half-day Fridays. So Fridays, we finish work at two o’clock, and from 2 to 3, we have either a book discussion, or we’ll go through an exercise that’s enriching. So they get to see themselves and understand how they’re developing in their internship, and in their careers. So we have a good hour of reflection and review. It could be about my company, how I’m doing, it could be about clients, it could be about a book we’re reading, a whole mix of things. Then they’re done at 3, and same rule, you can’t work after 3.
And I’ve got to tell you, when you’ve got a college student, or a grad student, and it’s three o’clock on Friday during the summer, it’s like you just added a whole other day. That two hours, they beat the traffic, they’re refreshed, they’re great, they go out and they enjoy themselves, and then they come back Monday totally energized, ready to go. It’s beautiful. And that’s another aspect of design, you know, where if you know that that’s what you’re setting up for them, then you manage with them.
LD: Something else I was curious about was sort of a pandemic-era question. Which is that, you know, during COVID, a lot of jobs went virtual, and so did a lot of internships. That, I think, would be a different experience, you know, doing like an internship where you’re not actually in an office, you’re not actually seeing the people you work with. Do you have any thoughts on the value of virtual versus in-person interning?
RK: Yes, I think the difference between virtual and in-person, in a lot of ways, has been overstated. So the first intern I had was in-person, and then the next three internships I hosted were virtual, 100 percent, and then the last one I decided to do hybrid, where the interns came in four days a week, and one day they worked at home.
So, what are we really talking about when we are talking virtual? Mainly, if we can focus every day on the mission, the values, the vision of the company, and operate with integrity, just do what we say, we can get a lot of work done either in-person or virtually. It’s not an issue. It’s just a matter of integrity. I have an assistant manager right now, she’s a Ph.D. student in the UK, I have never met her in person. The work we get done when we work a few hours a week is extraordinary because we are in tune with what the vision and mission of Agile Rainmakers is. We have values we follow, and we operate with integrity with each other, we are on time. If we don’t get something done, we communicate it didn’t get done, and we work through that.
The biggest missing piece, in my opinion, between the virtual and the in-person, is the possibility of a depth of relationship being greater, you know, through in-person. You get to know some of the, you know, idiosyncrasies is maybe the word, but you get to see like, kind of the whole person. That is tremendous, and that really is important. And I just don’t know that it’s that, as big a factor, if you’re focusing on getting the work done, as sticking to the mission, the vision, the values, and operating with integrity. And I also say that I’ve developed very deep relationships with these students who interned with me, that I’ve never met, or I ended up meeting like a year after we completed our internship. And you know, and the relationship is deep, that they will call, text, email, Zoom, chat, whatever, when they need a reference, they need advice — whatever it might be.
So, I think we’re doing this virtually now, managing people, managing projects, you can do it virtually, you just got to have your heart in the right place, and that just means a little extra time and attention to make sure that your heart is in the right place. So the last thing is like, you know, we’ll do our morning check-in, we’ll do an afternoon check-in when we’re in-person, and when we’re virtual on that one day, we throw in an extra check-in midday, just to see how things are. That’s that.
LD: That’s really interesting. Well you know, we’ve gone through a lot of my questions. You know, is there anything else you’d like to discuss, or anything else you think that our audience, Princeton alumni, would be interested in knowing?
RK: Absolutely. If you haven’t hosted interns, do it. You will grow and learn, and it will make you better. And if you have hosted interns, you can always improve on what you’re doing, just give it a little more thought, and care, and attention. When you give your intern How to Intern Successfully, this book I wrote, if you give them that book from the offer date until the start date, and you say hey, read this, what you’ll find is, you’ll find that intern shows up far more empowered and far more with it, like more mature. And I’m writing, the second book is almost done, and it’ll be out this fall, Designing Internships: Dignifying Interns, that’s for you, the manager. And that in conjunction with How to Intern Successfully, will lead to some of the most amazing internship experiences that you’ll ever have. That’s what I’ve been experiencing for years now.
And the couple other things I want to share, Liz, is one is that, you know, 40 percent of internships are unpaid. Internships are often used as a joke. Only recently did the White House decide it’s going to start paying interns, and so many interns have had abominable experiences. And I’m out to bring dignity to this whole world of internships. This is all about dignity, it is about honor, it is about respect, and it is about supporting the next generation of leaders. And as a Princeton alum, you can do so much to bring dignity to young people’s lives, and you can do it with well-thought-out and well-executed internships.
And the only other thing I want to say is, I like to make myself available to various Princeton Clubs around the country to do talks about this. I’m very happy to; I’ve given talks for the Princeton Club of Northern New Jersey, in Virginia and Chicago, and I’m more than happy to do so to support the next generation of leaders.
LD: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about all of this.
RK: Liz, I really can’t say enough — thank you, it’s such an honor to be able to do this, and I love the whole idea of the PAWcast, I wish you so much success with this. Thank you.
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