Jialin Zhang and the Sumeru Fellows Program: How students from underrepresented backgrounds get access to the world of finance

In the summer of 2020, Sumeru placed 25 college interns per year across more than a dozen of its portfolio companies in just two weeks. Sumeru Vice President Jialin Zhang explains how —and more importantly why — they did it.

Jialin Zhang:              
We sat in July 2020 and brainstormed a way to open up more educational internship opportunities for students that summer. And promptly launched, I think, two weeks later and did a full-blown interview process with a 100+ candidates that applied, and were able to finalize an eight-week program.

Mark:  (00:00:30)                    
Hello, and welcome to Sumeru’s Scaling X, the podcast that’s all about growth. Here on Scaling X, we dig deep into life’s essential questions, including this one, how do you scale a growth stage company without losing its soul? Today we’re talking to Sumeru Vice President Jialin Zhang, who joined Sumeru in 2019 and was instrumental in creating and running the Sumeru Fellows Program. We’re going to talk about that program and why it’s so important to Sumeru and the companies it partners with.

Thanks for joining us today, Jialin.

Jialin Zhang:              
Yeah, thanks for having me.

Mark:   (00:01:00)
Tell me about what was the genesis of the Sumeru Fellows? How did it all come about?

Jialin Zhang:   (00:01:30)            
We originally started the program in the wake of COVID in 2020, recognizing that a lot of students actually had their internships canceled as a result of COVID. A lot of places said, “We can’t accommodate remote work. We don’t know how to do that.” People who internship abroad were no longer able to go abroad. And we were sitting here in the wake of a lot of social unrest and also unrest from COVID saying we have these portfolio companies that are awesome and could probably each take on two to three interns.

So we sat in July, 2020 and brainstormed a way to open up more educational internship opportunities for students that summer and promptly launched, I think, two weeks later and did a full blown interview process with 100+ candidates that applied pretty last minute for internships starting (00:02:00) that summer and were able to finalize an eight week program. But it was really born out of recognition that there was a need in the ecosystem for more opportunities within technology, finance, business. And we wanted to help fill that as a small piece of the pie that I guess that we are today.

And so you were able to pull that together in March or April for the upcoming summer?

Jialin Zhang:  (00:02:30)
No, we actually pulled together in July for July effectively. So it was a lot of thinking quickly on our feet. People who may not have really run internship programs before, but of course pretty participated in them saying what would be the best experience for college students who haven’t had exposure to technology or business? It was a lot of learning on both ends.

Wow. You were able to stand that up very fast?

Jialin Zhang:   (00:03:00)     
Yeah, very quickly. We did it with the help of a couple people who used to work in recruiting and helped, especially with targeting groups that historically had been underrepresented within technology and finance and business. But it was definitely a large amount of work to do pretty quickly.

Mark:   (00:03:30)                    
I’m imagining the conversation of underrepresented had happened at Sumeru before, but the confluence of the pandemic and some of the social justice issues at the time, and that now it’s just you recognized it was a time for action?

Jialin Zhang:   (00:04:00)           
It’s a conversation we have had internally previously, and we should have been doing much more to address it before. And we recognize that. And as we were discussing as a team, ways to really address the systemic problems, where we sit in the ecosystem, I mean, we can’t hire all these people directly or 25, 30  people total. We were thinking a way to really scale that impact across our footprint. And our view is that education and opportunity has been something that has been really open to all of us at Sumeru and something that we wanted to open up to even more students. And we see a lot of opportunity within and the ecosystem of technology, software and business. And unfortunately, schools aren’t as focused on educating those students about (00:04:30) opportunities that might exist outside of traditional finance or traditional engineering type roles. And so we wanted to help fill that gap a bit. But it is something that was born out of recognition that we needed to be doing more to address the systemic problems that unfortunately exist today.

Mark:  (00:05:00)                    
And I think it’s tempting to look at that as a measure of altruism on behalf of Sumeru, but really, it benefits you as much as it benefits the actual those and the underserved populations?

Jialin Zhang:  (00:05:30)        
Oh, 100%. We started this as really an internship program more designed for an educational opportunity. But from there, have extended that even further where fellows have joined the companies that they were working with in longer term types of roles, working there during the school year or for another internship, have been really value additive to the companies. And also recognizing that we need more diversity in the workforce and our companies who are growing very quickly may not have had the opportunity to set up a formal internship program. And then from there as well, we even built out an analyst program that will be starting this summer to leverage that as well, recognizing that there’s very strong talent coming out of school today.

Mark:    (00:06:00)                  
If you can explain to me the format a little bit. Some of them probably worked at Sumeru itself, but they also worked across the businesses that you partnered with. Is that right?

Jialin Zhang:   (00:06:30)         
Yeah, that’s right. The program is structured really in two parts. The goal is for it to be an academy style internship. And what that entails is the bulk of the work is being done either with Sumeru or with portfolio companies on a specific role. So that could be anything from sales to marketing, to operations, to finance, to HR. We had fellows cover a pretty broad spectrum of potential roles within companies. And that’s their day to day work.

(00:07:00) Alongside that, fellows also participate in a weekly speaker series where we bring in leaders in their respective fields, people who have started businesses, run businesses, invest in businesses to come and speak about how they ended up where they are. And those conversations, for me, are actually pretty fascinating as well because people’s careers are very non-linear and it’s always helpful when you’re  earlier in your career to learn that careers can take many shapes and forms, and it’s really about hustle and drive that gets them to be successful in the future. And these are 20 person conversations that are non-recorded. So they’re very candid, probably more candid than they would be in a public facing interview. And as a result can ask questions that they might not be comfortable asking in a normal conversation.

Mark:   (00:07:30)                   
So these aren’t necessarily just kids who are looking to get into business and get into tech and software and product led companies?

Jialin Zhang:              
No, these are students who are looking for professional experience. They may have been in interested in technology, in business in general. But we’re really trying to make it a pretty broad spectrum of students and open it up to people who want to get working experience, want to learn what it could be like and go from there.

Mark:   (00:08:00)                   
I mean, it seems like all of the different pieces of the fellowship program work together  to create a spectrum of awareness that might not have been there. Were you surprised at all about their knowledge gaps?

Jialin Zhang:  (00:08:30)           
Yeah, I think the most surprising thing to me was that most of the roles today in companies are actually on the business side, for most companies. And that can range from sales, marketing, operations, some of the roles that we talked about earlier. And a lot of students aren’t aware that those opportunities exist or what that really means to  sit, for example, in a marketing analyst role, or to work as a sales development representative at a company. And they’re not aware that those are even options open to them. People haven’t told them in college that you can actually go and pursue this coming out versus going into computer science engineering, or going straight to an actual… When they think technology, it’s programming, engineering, but there’s actually a lot of business aspects of it that come into (00:09:00) play. So that’s one big gap, I think. And perhaps that’s something that universities are changing to adapt to today.

And when we talk about diversity, it’s not just about economic opportunity or race or religion, it’s often about just a diversity of experience. Do you find that a lack of that kind of diversity is also a problem and something that needs work on in the industry?

Jialin Zhang:   (00:09:30)            
100% I mean, we see it in some of the challenges that technology companies face with AI and ML learning. But at our companies today, it’s super valuable to have people who have come from a different set of experiences to opine on strategy, goals and operations, to make sure that we have everyone sitting at the table. And to your point, diversity comes in many forms, socioeconomic, racial, et cetera, and making sure that we’ve captured the full bound of it as well as we can is pretty important to us and our companies.

Mark:   (00:10:00)
What’s the risk of going forth into the future and not doing anything about diversity and maintaining a fairly homogeneous group of employees?

Jialin Zhang:  (00:10:30)            
If we did that, and if our portfolio companies did that, we would suffer a decline in performance, frankly. I mean the best companies today, the ones that are performing the best have the best cultures and are the most on top of these kinds of issues, because they recognize they’re not going to get the best work from their teams as they would if the team was more diverse. And it’s just something that we’re increasingly aware of day in, day out. And as we’ve implemented these kinds of initiatives across the portfolio, I think people are already seeing improvements. Earlier days, but we’re hoping that Sumeru Fellows is one that really opens the aperture of what’s possible for students.

Mark:   (00:11:00)                    
I like that, the metaphor of opening the aperture. Because that’s really what it is, it’s exposing talent to a variety of options for the future. And how long do people have to apply?

Jialin Zhang:              
The applications are being reviewed on a rolling basis now, and they’ll be open through the end of February. But we encourage people to apply as soon as they’re interested because we are reviewing those pretty frequently.

Mark:    (00:11:30)                 
Well, I really, I think it’s a great program. And I think that it’s, as you’ve stated, it’s really important to open up those lines of communication and that awareness and that access to as broad a group of people as possible. So I think it’ll pay great dividends and it’s a great program. I really appreciate you coming on Scaling X to tell us all about it. And good luck with the future.

Jialin Zhang:              
Thanks Mark.

Thank you.