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The good growth blog: The power of internships

I’ll start with a statement that should not be controversial: the future of our economy depends on talent, skills and a motivated and valued workforce. It’s people who drive progress. Young people, in particular, are the lifeblood of the economy. They will be the entrepreneurs, CEOs and leaders of tomorrow.

The UK has an enviable network of schools and universities providing academic training; however, more could be done to equip these young people with the skills they need in the modern workplace, and critically at an earlier stage. The UK has tried for years to get apprenticeships working, but there is still much to do. Reform of the Apprenticeship Levy is one area that has been much discussed. However, this is a big policy job that must be led by government. In the meantime, we in the private sector should ask ourselves what we can do, here and now, to improve things. I suggest we look at internships.

Internships – or, more generally, work experience – have existed for years, but are not as effective as they should be, for several reasons. Firstly, many organisations have arranged them informally, without making them properly open and accessible. The result? It’s not what you know but who you know that matters. Secondly, the quality of internships has been variable. Thirdly, internships have often been unpaid. That makes them elitist by definition, as you have to be able to ‘afford’ your own internship.

Hopefully, that was the old days and another world is possible. Many organisations now realise that their future depends on future generations and are designing internships more thoughtfully. They are drawing in a wide variety of candidates, making cohorts of interns more diverse and more representative of society as a whole. More thought is being given to structuring these programmes to ensure that interns are exposed to a variety of tasks and projects.

I’m happy to say that BGF has taken a lead on this. We recently organised our third summer internship programme. Sixteen talented interns worked with us, in eight of our regional offices across the UK and Ireland, in the eight-week programme. Each intern was placed in a team, including both investment teams and infrastructure teams such as marketing, IT, the Talent Network and finance.

As well as supporting their teams on the day-to-day tasks that make up life at BGF, interns have attended special workshops to teach them skills such as how to deliver an effective pitch. They have learned the career trajectories of our senior staff in special ‘career overviews’. They also collaborated with other interns on projects designed to give them a sense of what the investment industry is like.

We worked hard to make the internships as accessible as possible. This included collaborating with student societies and organisations across the UK and Ireland, including the formidable 10,000 Black Interns, to reach a wide range of young people.

I believe the BGF summer internship is working, but don’t take my word for it. Khadijat Ajonbadi, an intern who worked in the marketing team in London, has written an insightful blog post discussing what she learned during the eight weeks. She writes:

“On the second day of my internship, BGF held a communication skills workshop for us interns, which consisted of fun activities and challenges. My biggest takeaway was to structure a pitch with a ‘hook, line, then sinker’. I have identified that this structure is effective for any form of communication, whether it is a pitch, social media post, presentation or introducing yourself when networking.”

So, as early as the second day, the internship provided her with concrete, usable skills that are valuable in the workplace. Later on, she adds that:

“I was assigned a list of scheduled activities, tasks and responsibilities. But, wherever I saw an opportunity to help a team member, I volunteered a helping hand… being willing to learn on the spot exposed me to elements of marketing sooner, and consolidated my knowledge of topics I first encountered at university.”

Again, there is the focus on tangible benefits. By building on her university education, the internship helped build Khadijat’s confidence and competence in the workplace. Finally, she states:

“From the beginning of my internship experience, I identified that BGF has a fantastic culture. The work environment at BGF differs from the stories I’ve heard about the investment industry and the corporate world. It is not aloof, hierarchical and dictatorial, but in fact, collegiate, collaborative, purposeful and accommodating.”

What more can I say than thank you, Khadijat, for your kind words. It has been a pleasure to have you and the other 15 interns with us these past weeks. You have all breathed new life into BGF. We are grateful for your ideas and energy. I very much hope this programme will go from strength to strength and add not just access and experience but, crucially, self-confidence at the start of a young person’s career.

You can read Khadijat’s full article here.

So, what can we say in conclusion about internships? Let’s look firstly at the UK’s productivity gap, a longstanding problem afflicting our economy. Much has been written about this challenge, by myself and others. One thing we can surely agree on is that the productivity gap won’t close itself. I have two relevant suggestions, both based on education.

Firstly, let’s make entrepreneurship part of the overall curriculum. The newly launched All-Party Parliamentary Group for Entrepreneurship is calling for this, backed up by hundreds of the UK’s leading entrepreneurs, and I fully support the call. Education needs to include a more holistic and comprehensive view of the world of work. This is not a siloed topic but something that can be embedded in all subjects to help bring them to life in a practical and fun way. The UK needs to better promote entrepreneurship at a young age. I commend Philip Salter and Sam Smith for their initiative on this, and all credit to nations such as Wales that have already taken a lead. There is so much more potential to unleash which is a real opportunity.

Secondly, we should make internships more widely available across all sectors. This is an exciting, fair, and above all, smart way to invest in the next generation. Young talent has the ambition, aspiration and ability – our role in business is to foster that. Moreover, internships spur recruitment. They open up a channel of talented people who can invigorate an organisation. And, although interns are ostensibly there to absorb knowledge at one level, they inevitably contribute to the organisation too, with their ideas, their fresh insights and their energy.

BGF’s 2022 internship programme has been a great success. I look forward to next year’s and to following the progress of Khadijat and our other interns as they embark on their next steps. At a time of such gloom and uncertainty, this is a very large ray of sunshine.

BGF Insights 08.16.2022

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Stephen Welton, executive chair, BGF
Stephen Welton Executive Chair

Before taking on the role of Executive Chair, Stephen was the founder CEO of BGF between 2011 and 2020.