URx Founder Wahab Owolabi on the Importance of Inclusive Internships, and How Companies — and Employees — Can Support Students This Summer
With a career spanning university admissions and career counseling, venture capital, startup recruiting, and D&I, Wahab Owolabi has emerged as a leader in inclusive early career development. We recently caught up with him to discuss his organization URx, and to learn more about how it’s helping recruiters and companies think about internships — in the time of COVID and beyond.
For those who don’t know, what is URx?
URx is an organization that champions building a diverse and inclusive workforce. Our goal is to enable recruiters to practice inclusive hiring, increase their access to diverse talent, and stay on top of the changing recruiting landscape as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion. If we help a recruiter increase the representation of a minority group at their company, we feel like we’ve been successful.
In our first couple of years, we’ve focused on educating our community. Through our annual conference in San Francisco, as well as roundtables and meetups throughout the country and in Canada, we bring folks together to talk about their work and share best practices and learnings across companies. We’re seeing recruiters from companies that typically compete for talent and market share build bridges through collaboration and resource sharing — which is great.
What does the “UR” in URx stand for?
When we first started, the UR was for University Recruiting, but as far as I’m concerned it could stand for Universal Recruiting, because we’re ultimately thinking about inclusion across the entire workforce. We’ve primarily focused on the early career space, but for us that also includes non-traditional talent — so boot camp grads and community college students, for example.
“We’re seeing recruiters from companies that typically compete for talent and market share build bridges through collaboration and resource sharing — which is great.”
We recently launched a new website for companies called TalentBoard, with the goal of expanding into a number of areas — the first being employer branding. If we can help companies be more inclusive in how they represent themselves from a branding and content standpoint, that’ll impact D&I in the long run. We’re also planning to move into technical recruiting and support efforts later in the career funnel. Ultimately, we’ll likely leverage TalentBoard as an umbrella organization, and URx as a community within it.
What inspired you to start URx?
My first job out of college was as an admissions counselor focused on helping underrepresented high school students get into Carnegie Mellon University. I would go to Miami and Texas and California and meet students who were way smarter than me, but they had never heard of Carnegie Mellon. And it always felt inherently unfair to me that there were these brilliant, hardworking students whose lives could be forever changed for the better, but they didn’t even know the opportunity existed. They didn’t have a choice. I believe everybody should have the choice. If you want to go to community college, crush that. But crush that because it’s the path you chose, not because it was the only option.
“It always felt inherently unfair to me that there were these brilliant, hardworking students whose lives could be forever changed for the better, but they didn’t even know the opportunity existed. They didn’t have a choice.”
There was one student I recruited — Michelle, from Miami — whose story made this very real for me. Michelle didn’t know that she could pursue an opportunity like Carnegie Mellon until we connected. Ultimately she got in, got a full ride, and became a chemical engineering student. When she was a junior, I got an email from her mom saying “Thank you so much, you’ve forever changed our family,” and I’m just like “What? Me? How?” So I checked in with Michelle, and it turned out she was now an engineering intern at ExxonMobil. And in addition to providing her with housing and a stipend, the internship was paying her several thousand dollars a month, which she was sending back home to support her family.
It really hit me the impact that a college — and then an internship, and a job — can have on people’s lives, and I was hooked. I wanted to make more of that happen for families like Michelle’s. With recruiting, we really have the power to change lives by giving opportunity.
How is URx rising to the challenge of COVID-19’s impact on recruiting and internships?
Most importantly, our community has been a support system for those in the recruiting space who are helping each other get through this time both emotionally and professionally. We’ve been holding weekly calls for folks to discuss navigating the pandemic’s impact on recruiting, and our Slack workspace has been really helpful in keeping everyone connected. We’ve also hosted some fun virtual happy hours.
Tactically, we’ve been providing our community with resources to help move internships online, and then connecting teams with partners to help ensure those internship experiences are equitable and meaningful. We recently announced that all companies in the URx community will get discounted access to Symba, which is a platform for managing remote internship programs.
What’s top of mind for you, especially with regards to internships?
Right now, I think companies fall into two categories regarding internships. First, there are those that can just no longer afford to have an intern class for the summer. I feel very bad for those companies, because in that case people are likely losing their jobs, which is devastating.
Second are companies that don’t have the infrastructure to support a remote internship. Again, products like Symba can help, but there are so many logistical, legal, HR-related things to put in place in a very short amount of time. It’s a hard transition.
For both categories of companies — and really any company — we are launching a six-week program called InternHacks to make sure students still get to experience great mentorship and a team approach to projects. The idea is to combine the best parts of an internship (mentorship, technical feedback, getting a job offer) and a hackathon (iterative project-based learning , building a community) so that we can provide the most valuable pieces of both to a student and to a company.
One of the simplest ways to source for entry-level talent is to say “Hey, who interned at these great companies last summer? Let me interview them first.” We don’t want students who don’t get those great opportunities to be behind. We want them to be competitive come this fall. So with InternHacks our goal is a great experience — you end the summer a better engineer, a better product person, a better designer, a better business development person than you started it. And then you’re in a better position to get a great internship for the next summer or a great full time opportunity.
What does participation in InternHacks look like for companies?
Companies can get involved in a few different ways. You can provide employees — engineers, designers, and product people — to mentor and work directly with the students. Or you can sponsor a team. All of these options offer recruiting benefits. You get to know the student team, you get very quick access to their work, and you see them evolve over the summer.
Companies can also sponsor a project category or a track. For example, if you’re a crypto company, you can sponsor the crypto track and every student who works on a crypto project sees your company as a leader in that space. Companies can also host tech talks and workshops throughout the program. We’re excited to have companies like Netflix, Google, and Robinhood already on board to sponsor and participate.
How will companies benefit from participating in InternHacks?
For companies that don’t have an internship program, this is a great way to build and maintain their early career talent pipeline. And for companies that already have a program, it’s an opportunity to connect with a wider group of students, especially those who might otherwise have limited access to internships.
“For companies that already have [an internship] program, it’s an opportunity to connect with a wider group of students, especially those who might otherwise have limited access to internships.”
I also think people are looking for ways to help others right now. And the mentor piece is one of the most important parts of InternHacks. Whether a company has an internship program or not, whether they’re hiring early career talent or not, I’m hoping they will still encourage employees to give back by getting involved and mentoring.
It can be as simple as being in our Slack workspace and commenting on open channels, or answering questions as students post about projects and seek feedback. Or it can be as involved as meeting with teams every couple of weeks or hosting office hours. We’ve really designed InternHacks with companies in mind, because we want to provide value and enable them to offer students a meaningful experience. Pandemic aside, I think this is something we’ll continue to do every summer.