IYB Internship on Demand 050622 02-05092022121257

From left to right, Internship on Demand co-founder Ryan McKernan, CEO Keegan Moldenhauer and director of business development Kit Chow are pictured in downtown Madison.

In spring of 2020, as restaurants switched to curbside pickup and schools switched to virtual lessons, many companies wrote to the college students they’d hired for summer internships or co-ops to say there’d be no virtual version. The professional experience they were counting on to launch their careers was canceled.

Watching from the sidelines, Keegan Moldenhauer knew it was a heavy blow. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2019 with a degree in engineering, and during college, he led a student organization called Insight Wisconsin, which brings together UW-Madison students to solve technical problems for local businesses. 

Lying awake one night in spring 2020, he wondered if he could help fill the gap. “I hopped out of bed, jumped on LinkedIn and messaged the career services director at UW-Platteville. And I said, ‘Hey, I led a student org while I was at UW Madison that helped engineering students find their first resume experiences. Seeing all the students who are losing their internships, is there a way that I can help? I'd love to talk.’ I felt good about that and went back to bed,” Moldenhauer said.

“I got up in the morning, and she had responded. And I said, ‘Oh, crap. OK. Now we’ve got to build this thing.”

He teamed up with fellow engineering alum Ryan McKernan, and the two began designing Internship On Demand, an virtual “pre-internship” to help college students gain the skills and industry experience they’d need to succeed in their future careers. They launched the program with four students in June 2020 and ran a second cohort of seven students in January 2021, drawing participants from across the state and the globe.

But the pandemic wasn’t the only reason students were struggling to get internships, the founders soon realized. Often companies will select interns who already have relevant experience, meaning that even the most entry-level role becomes less accessible. 

“This is bigger than COVID. This is a larger systemic issue,” said Moldenhauer, who’s now the startup’s CEO. “The internship model that everyone is used to is broken. And that's when we said, OK, we can turn this into a business. Let's figure out how we do that.”

In November, they placed second in the Elevator Pitch Olympics at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium. 

Soon they’d contracted with two companies — Middleton-based manufacturer Spectrum Brands and Sheboygan Falls-based Bemis Manufacturing Company — to run company-specific cohorts designed to prepare students for a company’s existing paid internships.

The programs, which typically run four to seven weeks, include general professional preparation on things like email writing and office-appropriate attire. A 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggests that such instruction is needed. Just 43% of surveyed employers said they thought graduating college seniors had sufficient professionalism and work ethic, and just 42% thought they were proficient in oral and written communication, though students ranked themselves much higher.

The sessions also include preparation tailored to the specific workplace, like meetings in the agile or waterfall style, depending on the company’s project management approach. In addition, the students network with company staff and work on a company-specific project. One team is designing a tea kettle. 

“What we're trying to do is make it easier for those companies to offer those students an opportunity to prove their merit and prove their worth,” Moldenhauer said. “We can kind of solve that chicken-and-egg problem for students who need resume experience in order to get resume experience, (which) unfairly leaves out those from underrepresented and underappreciated backgrounds.”

The startup pays all participants at least $15 an hour for the 10 to 15 hours per week they spend in training, mentoring and working projects, and they won’t work with companies that don’t already pay their interns. 

“We know there's a lot of problems with unpaid internships,” said director of business development Kit Chow, who joined the company earlier this year. 

Unpaid internships are often legal under U.S. labor laws, which classify interns and employees differently, but the practice has received growing criticism in recent years for exploiting students and providing an unfair advantage to those who can afford to go without pay. 

According to the startup, 70% of its applicants and interns self-identify as female or from a minority group.

The founders hope that the virtual pre-internship will not only make participants better able to compete for limited internship slots, but that it will offer a “taste test” so students can figure out which companies or industries are a good fit for them before they commit to a full-time summer internship — or even a full-time job. 

Looking ahead to summer of 2023, the startup is aiming to run 20 separate cohorts for 20 different companies, including in sectors outside engineering. Last month, they announced that they’d raised $60,000 from friends and family, money they plan to use to hire additional staff and develop an internal job posting platform to make it easier for employers to hire participants.

In July, they plan to open a pre-seed funding round to seek funds from institutional investors. So far, the startup has generated around $10,000 in revenue, but by next year, the founders hope to hit $500,000.

The four questions 

What are the most important values driving your work?

Chow: Transparency and accessibility. Transparency in showing both students and companies how to find these opportunities, and accessibility in making sure that people who are deserving of these opportunities are able to get into them and showcase their skills.

Moldenhauer: I would add authenticity. I think it's hard for a lot of college students to say, “Man, it sucks to find an internship. I don't know what to do.” (Meanwhile) companies know it's hard to have a successful internship program. Just embracing that challenge has been big for us.

How are you creating the kind of community that you want to live in?

Chow: (Our work) will really help people get a stronger understanding of how different industries and companies work in the world. We also are continuing to work towards solving the brain drain issue, being able to show to students that there's so many awesome opportunities right outside the front door.

Moldenhauer: The great thing is, if we're putting a college graduate into the job that they're the right fit for, that's a win-win for them. It's a win-win for the business. Everyone is happier and more successful when they like what they do.

What advice do you have for other would-be entrepreneurs?

Chow: Really focus on a problem that you feel passionate about and then do literally anything to try to solve it. That’s the best first step you can take. The rest is just like a barreling train coming at you: You just hold on and keep going.

Moldenhauer: I'll add, “Ask for help.”

Are you hiring?

Moldenhauer: Yes. We just just hired a part-time marketing associate. We’re planning to do another part-time hire and then make another full time hire in the next few months (probably in business development and sales). 

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