Are Unpaid Internships Worth It?

Working for free helped the author land a job at Essence and put her on the path to her dream job.

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Because I credit those articles as being the key to getting me into the world of publishing, I have always kept an open door for interns who may need a leg up. When I was at Essence, I consistently had an intern (who was well-paid because of a special program).

Later, in 1995, when I started my own company, and every year since I have had interns. They have come from far and wide. Often they are part of a formal program from their school through which they work for me in exchange for college credit. I have worked with one prestigious high school for more than 15 years through a program known as Senior Options, an experiential requirement for graduation. I have accepted interns from solicitations on Facebook and through recommendations resulting from connections as random as when my assistant met a young lady’s mother in the post office (the student ended up securing payment through a special program at her school).

And yet my interns have largely fallen under the now heavily argued category of “unpaid.” As I said, some get college or high school credit. When I was in a leadership role at Ebony, we did pay our intern, albeit a low wage. Generally speaking, though, the downside of internships is that you have to figure out how to be able to afford to do it without financial support from your “employer.”

The upside is that you can gain such a wealth of experience that it can catapult you into the career of your dreams. I have many success stories that prove it. One young lady interned with me about 15 years ago and recently wrote to tell me that she was named vice president at a large entertainment company. She credits her trajectory, at least in part, to her start in my company.

Another woman worked one summer for me and was hired to work in a PR agency the very next year, her job of choice, specifically because my company was on her résumé. My intern from Ebony, the jewel in my crown, moved from that below-entry-level position to her current role as the only African-American female beauty director of a major mainstream publication.

I know that interning works. Yet there are some who say that the standards for “unpaid” work are not as high as when you are formally hired. Not in my world. When my interns start, I give them clear guidelines regarding my expectations of them. I learned long ago that if you treat everything you do as if you are making $1 million, one day you will! I encourage them to be excellent always.

On the flip side, I consider it a key responsibility of an intern coordinator to teach interns concrete skills. Sure, they may have to get the occasional cup of coffee, but more than that, they should be learning the nuts and bolts of whatever is done at their place of business. I add the essential bonus of mentoring. I consider it my duty to support interns in any and all ways possible as they are defining their lives. One-on-one interaction over the course of our time together is as important as completing particular tasks. The covenant between intern and mentor should be based on education, respect and reciprocity.

When I was hoping and dreaming and imagining a future for myself as a writer and editor, it all seemed so far off. Thanks to the boost that my internships gave me and many subsequent years of focused hard work, I have published seven books, run multiple magazines and even launched my own accessories line. Nobody can tell me that interning isn’t worth it. As that popular advertisement goes, the experience actually is priceless.

Harriette Cole is the president of Harriette Cole Media and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.