Is the Internship the New Mailroom?

We all have to start somewhere; and many of us have to start at the beginning.

Some of the world’s most famous tech billionaires started at the bottom of their entrepreneurial ladder, as a dishwasher (founder of Dell), technician (founder of Oracle), and a salesman (CEO of Microsoft).1 In the early 1980s, Martin Davis reinvented the company Gulf & Western “from ragtag agglutination of about 100 businesses to a thriving corporation.”2 Davis started in the mailroom and worked his way up the company to CEO.

Ursula Burns was recently interviewed on Morning Edition about her journey from an intern at Xerox to the CEO of Xerox. Over her 30 years at the company, she sometimes faced obstacles that came with being the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 500 Company, but her biggest obstacle was her age. She says as a young woman taking on bigger roles in the company than people expected of her, she got pushback. However, she rose to the top of the company and is more concerned with keeping her paper business alive and relevant in the digital age.3

All these success stories started with motivated people who were willing to start anywhere in the company to get their foot in the door.  Starting in an entry-level position has just as much value today as it did 30 or 50 years ago. Today, an internship is the way in for many college students and college grads looking to land a job and climb the ladder at their ideal company.

I recently spoke with someone who works for a major tech company about the company’s recent interview process for interns this summer. 75 people applied for the paid internship. The applicants were then cut down to several candidates who were asked to come in for an interview. The average time the interviewers spent with the candidate was under an hour. However, one candidate set herself apart. On her resume, she listed things like coaching a volleyball team, which started a conversation where the interviewers found out she didn’t have a background in volleyball before but was asked to be a coach because of her outstanding teaching skills. Her interview went on for nearly an hour and a half.

Students and new grads have to start somewhere. They can learn something about how to get promoted within a company by those who have done it before. Starting at the bottom isn’t degrading; it’s the first step in their professional life. Finding even an entry-level job in this economy isn’t always an easy task, but like the new intern at the tech company, college students and new grads can makeup for a lack of experience by highlighting other experiences that make them standout.


1“From Stock Boy Shares to Billionaires,” by Colin Dobrin. 25 May 2011. MindFlash. Accessed on 23 May 2012.
2“Sharpening the Focus,” by Paul Richter. 12 April 1989. Los Angeles Times. Accessed on 23 May 2012.

3“Xerox CEO: ‘If You Don’t Transform, You’re Stuck'” by NPR Staff. 23 May 2012. NPR: Morning Edition. Accessed on 23 May 2012.

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