(The Root) — A debate is raging right now about internships, the lifeblood of many small businesses, and also a lifeline for many young people trying to break into difficult-to-access industries. A big question being contemplated in courtrooms as well as in the court of public opinion concerns the legality and fairness of countless unpaid internships that swell to astronomical numbers in the summer months.
I get it. Why should someone work for free? That's a fair question that is being litigated in the courts right now. Cases have been brought by interns against a number of media companies, including the production company for Charlie Rose (where there was a settlement), Hearst Corp.'s Harper's Bazaar (where there was a decision in favor of the interns that was recently thrown out) and Condé Nast's W Magazine (which is pending). Also, interns who worked on the set of the blockbuster film Black Swan recently successfully sued Fox Searchlight Studios for wages. And so there is uncertainty about the future of internships as many have previously known them.
I will watch with interest to see what happens. I am 100 percent sure that if I had not had the two unpaid internships that I designed for myself right after I graduated from college, I would not be where I am today.
When I was in school, as an English major, internships did not exist. You were supposed to get your B.A. and immediately go to grad school. That was not my preference. But because I had not exactly prepared myself for the career I had envisioned — some employable role in the space of fashion and writing — I was pretty much stuck without a real chance of getting to my goal. (I had worked both as a model and as a salesperson in clothing stores. Oh yeah, and I had written about fashion for the school newspaper, but those credits didn't quite cut it.)
My scenario is ironic, considering that I was a Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude college graduate. Without proof of my ability through viable work, however, those credentials added up to just about nothing. Sadly, having a good education is not enough.
My first official job after graduating from Howard University was on Capitol Hill, thanks to my boyfriend, who hooked me up. I hated it. I was essentially a secretary, and I had to wear a blue suit, white shirt and blue bow tie — the standard back in 1983. Because I had been a model throughout my high school and college years, I was offended by the wardrobe requirements, matched only by my disdain for work that my naive mind thought was beneath me.
Trying my best to figure out how to get out and pursue my dream of writing about fashion, I concocted a plan: to convince newspapers in Washington, D.C., to let me write fashion columns for them — for free. That way I could publish a year's worth of columns and then move to New York City and begin my real career.
It worked, and two small free newspapers let me write weekly columns for them. This was before computers, so not only did I have to write and edit the columns, but I also had to deliver them. I was barely making a real salary, so it was expensive for me to execute my tasks, but I did it.
A year later, armed with a year's worth of published clips, I was offered two jobs. I took a position at Essence magazine, in the lifestyle department. And so my career began. I never forgot those two unpaid internships, either. They helped me prove what I already knew: that I could write well about a topic that I loved.
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.