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.
Table of Contents
- Intro to Sumeru Scaling X Podcast
- Meet Jialin Zhang and the Sumeru Fellows
- A Time for Action
- How does the fellows program benefit Sumeru?
- What is the format of the Sumeru Fellows program?
- A Variety of Backgrounds and Opportunities
- The Importance of Diverse Experiences and Backgrounds
- Applying to Be a Sumeru Fellow
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.
Yeah, thanks for having me.
Tell me about 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 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 do internships abroad were no longer able to go abroad.
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.
We sat down in July 2020 and brainstormed a way to open up more educational internship opportunities for students that summer.
We promptly launched two weeks later and did a full-blown interview process with 100+ candidates who applied at the last minute for internships starting that summer. We were able to finalize an eight-week program.
It was really born out of recognition that there was a need in the ecosystem for more opportunities within technology, finance, and business.
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 it together in July for July effectively. It was a lot of thinking quickly on our feet.
People who may not have run internship programs before, but of course 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, especially with targeting groups that historically had been underrepresented within technology, finance, and business.
It was definitely a large amount of work to do pretty quickly.
I imagine the conversation of the underrepresented had happened at Sumeru before, but with the confluence of the pandemic and some of the social justice issues at the time, 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. We recognize that.
We were discussing, as a team, ways to address the systemic problems and where we sit in the ecosystem. We can’t hire all these people directly, or 25–30 people total.
We were thinking of a way to really scale that impact across our footprint.
Our view is that education and opportunity have been open to all of us at Sumeru and we wanted to open that up to even more students. We see a lot of opportunity within the ecosystem of technology, software, and business.
Unfortunately, schools aren’t as focused on educating those students about opportunities that might exist outside of traditional finance or traditional engineering type roles. We wanted to help fill that gap a bit.
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.
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 those underserved populations.
Jialin Zhang: (00:05:30)
100%. We started this as an internship program designed for an educational opportunity.
From there, we extended that even further, where fellows have joined the companies that they were working with in long-term types of roles, working there during the school year or for another internship, have been really value additive to the companies.
We also recognize that we need more diversity in the workforce and our companies, which are growing very quickly, may not have had the opportunity to set up a formal internship program.
Then, 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.
Can you explain 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.
What that entails is the bulk of the work is being done either with Sumeru or with portfolio companies in a specific role. That could be anything from sales and marketing to operations, finance, and HR.
We had fellows cover a pretty broad spectrum of potential roles within companies. That’s their day-to-day work.
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, and invest in businesses to come and speak about how they ended up where they are.
Those conversations, for me, are actually pretty fascinating as well because people’s careers are very nonlinear, and it’s always helpful when you’re earlier in your career to learn that careers can take many shapes and forms. It’s really about hustle and drive that gets them to be successful in the future.
These are 20-person conversations that are not recorded, so they’re very candid — probably more candid than they would be in a public-facing interview.
As a result, they can ask questions that they might not be comfortable asking in a normal conversation.
So these aren’t necessarily just kids who are looking to get into business, tech, and software and product-led companies?
No, these are students who are looking for professional experience. They may have been interested in technology or business in general.
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 and want to learn what it could be like and go from there.
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)
I think the most surprising thing to me was that most of the roles today in most companies are actually on the business side. That can include sales, marketing, operations; some of the roles that we talked about earlier.
A lot of students aren’t aware that those opportunities exist or what it really means to sit, for example, in a marketing analyst role or to work as a sales development representative at a company.
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.
When they think of technology, it’s programming or engineering, but there’s actually a lot of business aspects of it that come into play. That’s one big gap.
Perhaps that’s something that universities are changing to adapt to today.
When we talk about diversity, it’s not just about economic opportunity, race, or religion. It’s often about diversity of experience.
Do you find that a lack of that kind of diversity is also a problem and something that needs to be worked on in the industry?
Jialin Zhang: (00:09:30)
We see it in some of the challenges that technology companies face with AI and machine learning.
At our companies today, it’s super valuable to have people who 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.
To your point, diversity comes in many forms: socioeconomic, racial, et cetera. Making sure that we’ve captured the full bound of it as well as we can is pretty important to us and our companies.
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.
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.
It’s just something that we’re increasingly aware of day in, day out.
As we’ve implemented these kinds of initiatives across the portfolio, people are already seeing improvements. We’re in the early days, but we’re hoping that Sumeru Fellows really opens the aperture of what’s possible for students.
I like that metaphor of opening the aperture because that’s really what it is. It’s exposing talent to a variety of options for the future.
How long do people have to apply?
The applications are being reviewed on a rolling basis now, and they’ll be open through the end of February. We encourage people to apply as soon as they’re interested because we are reviewing those pretty frequently.
It’s a great program, and as you’ve stated, it’s really important to open up those lines of communication and that awareness and access to as broad a group of people as possible. 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.
Explore next Scaling X podcast by Sumeru: What it takes to scale a product-led company with John Brennan