Much has been written about the plight of the unpaid intern. In order to get your first job, you need some experience in your field and in order to get said experience, many young people resort to applying for unpaid internships in the hopes of somehow morphing that into a profitable, fulfilling career.
However, it’s hard for most people to afford to spend up to 40 hours a week working for free — especially when these internships are offered in major cities with high costs of living such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
It’s a problem Alexis Mood, founder of the non-profit Shatter the Ceiling, encountered while she was in college. A rising junior studying advertising in Columbia, South Carolina, she applied to a prestigious internship with an Atlanta agency. It would be the first time she didn’t land an opportunity she’d gone after.
“I was so used to applying for things on a smaller scale — applying for things in Columbia, applying for things in South Carolina — and it was just a completely different playing field. There were people who had interned at other large agencies who had done so much great work. And not that the stuff I was doing in Columbia wasn’t good. It just didn’t hold the same weight,” said Mood in a June phone interview.
It made her realize that she was going to have to go after bigger fish in more expensive cities like New York and Chicago. Mood was shocked at how expensive it would be to spend the summer in a major city. Since far too many internships are unpaid or dreadfully underpaid, she realized that would leave many students to either let a potentially career-making opportunity pass by or to accept the internship and spend months struggling to get by. Shatter the Ceiling, which began in 2015, serves to bridge that gap by helping multicultural young women afford to take unpaid or underpaid internships that could potentially jumpstart their careers.
Mood, who currently works in marketing and lives in Atlanta, was able to get support from the Minority Advertising Internship Program (MAIP). The program provided her with vital financial support to make it easier for her to focus on work, rather than finances, while completing a summer internship in New York.
For example, one of her friends was offered a summer internship in New York and was unable to accept it simply because couldn’t afford to live there. When Mood talked to her about it later, the friend said that she felt kind of “limited” because she was only able to pursue opportunities in South Carolina.
“Not to say that you can’t get the job of your dreams doing smaller internships, but at the end of the day, quality internships are really what make the difference when you’re looking for positions. We live in this crazy world where you have to have experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience and no one wants to hire you. So, how do you get it and afford it and all of that stuff?”
“I got lucky in that way,” Mood pointed out. “Also, I had my family to kind of lean on and help me out a lot, but a lot of people don’t have that and it sucks because the majority of people don’t have that. The majority of people don’t find an internship program that offers them the kind of assistance that they need.”
For a while, Mood was hesitant to launch Shatter the Ceiling. “The other part of it is, especially with multicultural women, there are all of these self-imposed feelings. We create all of these limitations for ourselves and everything just seems so big. I think when you’re not from a privileged background, or when you haven’t been fed things on a silver platter, sometimes you see walls that aren’t really there,” she added.
Suffering from that same mindset and worried that she wouldn’t be able to pull her idea off, and so, Mood reached out to the same college friend who was forced to turn down that New York internship. With her help and advice, Mood decided to launch the project, aiming for 30 applications.
“Honestly, even 30 applications seemed far-fetched. I said, we’re going to set the bar low because I don’t know what to expect from this.”
Sixty applications is what she received before the deadline even passed. With an extension she received 15 more.
Mood described her Shatter the Ceiling team as “very lean,” consisting of herself and a “few people that [she knows] who are passionate about this kind of thing” and who helped her review the applications.
Mood actually funded the two $1000 stipends from her own pocket, using money she’d set aside each month for that specific purpose. Now that she’s proven that there’s a need for Shatter the Ceiling, she hopes to eventually land corporate sponsors in order to increase the amount of money awarded to future winners.
Because of her own background and the experiences of women she knows, Mood said that she initially expected the first round of winners to be from the marketing and advertising fields because she knew that pay could be “spotty” in those areas. However, because Shatter the Ceiling is not targeted toward interns in a specific industry, they received applications from young women working in every industry from civil service to art museums and who were studying at such prestigious institutions as UCLA, Yale and Stanford.
The winners of the 2016 Shatter the Ceiling Grant were Zainab Khalil, who is interning with the United Nations Development Programme and Emma Kennedy, who is completing two unpaid internships this summer, one of which is at the Smithsonian.
While Mood is glad that Shatter the Ceiling has been able to alleviate some of the winners’ financial stress, her goal is to expand the team for next year in order to work toward completely covering all of the expenses for one, or more, unpaid interns.
“I can’t do that on my own, so we’re looking for people now currently to help with fundraising and development, looking for people to help with marketing and awareness to come up with a strategic plan — the nuts and bolts of how to get there and what to do and how we can secure corporate sponsors and all of that stuff,” Mood explained. Eventually, she wants Shatter the Ceiling to function as a sort of “diversity pipeline” where potential employees can seek out eligible interns.
Mood called the reaction to Shatter the Ceiling both “exciting and alarming.” She was pleased that the program got a solid amount of applications in its inaugural year, but she was also bothered by the fact that there is such a need for it.
“There shouldn’t be this many girls that have to apply for something like this. It’s because they’re not getting paid what they deserve to survive.”
Mood has heard stories of students struggling through unpaid or underpaid internship programs by going hungry or getting a second job to get by. After all she has witnessed, and experienced, she believes that many organizations only offer unpaid internships because they can.
“I think there are some [companies that] simply can’t afford it and they want to give people experience and opportunity, but I think a lot of [the underpayment] is because they can [find help elsewhere]. For example, if I can’t afford to apply to an unpaid internship, somebody can.”
This hurts diversity in the workplace because it makes it difficult for many people of color from even getting in the door. For Mood, her internships helped to set her on a path that eventually led to her full-time job, each experience snowballing into something greater. Without those internships, Mood is not sure that she would be where is is today. Now she hopes that Shatter the Ceiling will not only bolster the winners’ budding careers, but also put them into a position in which “we can all reach back to help those behind us because we have ourselves in that position where we’re able to do that.”
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