How to Make Virtual Internships More Inclusive, From AnitaB.Org CEO Brenda Darden Wilkerson

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April 15, 2024 at 2:40AM UTC
On June 2, CEO and President of Brenda Darden Wilkerson joined Fairygodboss President Romy Newman for a timely conversation.
For the foreseeable future, typically in-person experiences like internships and new employee onboarding have gone virtual. We know these changes can have a disproportionate impact on women and individuals from underrepresented communities — the same individuals who are currently speaking out about their experiences with institutional exclusivity. 
So, how can leaders make these programs more productive, educational and motivational? And how can interns make the most of a job experience completed entirely from their computer? 
As CEO and President of — a nonprofit organization working to shape public opinion about issues of critical importance to women technologists in academia, industry and government — Darden Wilkerson was perfectly prepared for the conversation at hand. She opened by sharing she hopes the change spurred by our nation's current civil unrest won't stop at internship protocol. And she hopes the change will happen soon.
"Until those who enjoy privileges that are denied to Black people in America join me and others in our righteous indignation and demand true justice for all, the conditions that begot  the terror that we’ve all experienced this week will continue," she said. "We have to understand that Black people who live through these racist acts of my grandmother’s grandmother’s time are weary to our soul and unwilling to wait for others to catch up."
She implored leaders to consider their hiring practices, especially for internship opportunities, "because internships are a lever for those who are traditionally denied economic equity." She also called people who aren't Black to educate themselves using resources available online. 
However, she mentioned much like with managing during COVID-19, there is no playbook for managing during civil unrest. She told Newman inclusive leadership during this time requires intentionality. This means finding ways to stay connected with each team member as an individual and determining what they're managing holistically. She points out each direct report may have unique circumstances, from concerns about their family members to living situations, and leaders should seek to  support them accordingly. 
To encourage open discussion of these individual challenges, Darden Wilkerson suggests leading by example and being vulnerable about your challenges. She says she regularly addresses what she's dealing with as a mother and a leader with her team to encourage them to do the same. 
"It begets understanding and ease," she shared. 
As they discussed leading by example, Newman shared that she regularly says this challenging era is the time to forget your job description and remember anyone can be a leader. 
When asked how junior employees can seize the opportunity to lead, Darden Wilkerson encouraged being deftly in touch with the needs and priorities of others. She says interns should reach out to other, more senior team members to make connections and ensure they're understanding their responsibilities, even if reaching out just means repeating back what you heard in a meeting to make sure you understand or to ask questions. 
Darden Wilkerson said it's critical for leaders to model the behavior of making casual connections. She's mentioned that she's building a loom to her teams — and was encouraged by the points of connection she's made with them about the pastime. 
Newman raised that with the lack of ad hoc, water cooler conversation, many people may feel disconnected from their colleagues and casual conversations like these. Darden Wilkerson agreed  COVID-19 and the lack of in-person communication has challenged all leaders to be more intentional about communicating — and she hopes that lesson sticks. 
"When we think about the water cooler, we weren’t being intentional," she said. "We have the opportunity now to be intentional; we can intentionally create water cooler activities." 
Those intentional conversations are bound to be more inclusive. She said has also created additional channels on Slack that provide employees with a place to catch up, share resources and chat. By using Slack channels, employees with flexible schedules can participate at any time instead of feeling left out of a call or scheduled catch up. She also encouraged teams to take time to chat, when appropriate, during meetings.
Darden Wilkerson also posited that technology like Slack may be the key for junior employees to gauge what page they're on with their manager, even if they are no longer working with them face-to-face or seeing them as frequently as they might during an in-person program. She said leaders can help bridge this relationship with encouraging directives angled as lessons. 
"Encourage young folks to reach out and do their communicating even when they don’t hear back," she said. "It's good practice and there's an opportunity to build social skills."
Other skill-building possibilities are also important to a strong internship program — virtual or not. Darden Wilkerson suggested creating a project for interns to flex these skills, like asking for an internal blog about the goings on at your organization. 
"Give them chances to build those skills," she said. "Then give them feedback and chances to iterate on their work."
However, communication is a two-way street. Darden Wilkerson said managers should "set a timer" and remind themselves to reach out — and make sure it's not always serious. 
Setting communication standards starts at onboarding. When it comes to starting a new cohort, Darden Wilkerson advocated for "lots of touch points" and opportunities for hires to talk to employees,  ask questions and gauge what it's like within the organization. She also said establishing an "orientation that people can start and stop" and several employees who can check in with hires about their progress is best practice. 
She shared that AnitaB's  partner companies have been shoring up resources to ensure their interns have the tools they need to work, such as laptops. However, some of the most important tools for interns are their human connections. She suggested helping interns find mentors or coaches and tasking them with checking in with their mentor. 
Newman shared that when she was an intern, picking up on social cues of the workforce was one of the most important lessons she learned. She said interns may find value in connecting with a "buddy" — a more junior employee they can ask the basic questions about the workplace more generally and the organization they're interning at more specifically. 
Darden Wilkerson agreed finding someone to ask about social cues, like when to use Slack versus when to send an email, is helpful. Again, she said it is leaders' job to make sure lessons and connections like these are as readily available as possible. She suggested leaders remember their own internships, empathize with their interns and think of what would have set  themselves ahead in the interns' shoes. Then, impart those lessons on them. 
Ultimately, the women agreed, today's world calls for more intentionality and self-reflection like this. Now that excuses of busyness and distractions are falling away, Darden Wilkerson said, we should be reorienting ourselves to the role we have to play in today’s reality and what can we do today, tomorrow, next week, next month to do better. 
"Normal wasn’t good. Normal was not inclusive. Normal was, in many ways, toxic to women and to underrepresented groups," she said. "Take this opportunity to stop and say 'What can I do? What did I not notice I was doing?'," Darden Wilkerson said. "I really call on leaders to be vulnerable and just admit to what we’ve not done and what we could’ve done better in the past."
To foster inclusivity, she says now is the time to listen to what other people have to say about how our environments may not have been conducive to inclusivity and make changes based on those experiences. 
"It’s a time for sensitivity like we’ve never done before. It’s a time to listen and not be the expert."
When it comes to empowering employees, especially interns, to open up and share these important ideas, Darden Wilkerson shared that an individual, intentional approach was again best practice. 
"Give them an assignment," she advocated. "Create new, different environments."
Darden Wilkerson said she reached an employee she'd never heard speak before by creating a brainstorming group, something along the lines of "Brenda’s Leadership Thought Group."
She found a new leader by being intentional about communication and creating space to listen. In a way, that's a lesson for the world. 

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