Virtually Seamless: Interning for Koch in the Pandemic Era

September 15, 2020

min read

After the pandemic forced his college to move classes online, Sam Berenji grew increasingly anxious about his summer internship at Molex. All spring, friends’ job offers were being rescinded and classmates’ internships canceled. “I knew there wasn’t any chance my internship was going to happen,” he said.

So Sam was shocked when he received a call assuring him the Koch internship was on. What he didn’t know was that internship teams from across Koch, Molex, Georgia-Pacific and Guardian Industries had assessed the pandemic’s potential and abruptly pivoted in March. Within a week, the four early-careers teams coalesced into a single unit, quickly working to design a new, enterprise-wide program to ensure that all 293 interns had a valuable — and virtual — summer.

As a strategic employee pipeline — the internship program receives thousands of applications yearly — it took little consideration before the decision was made to go ahead with the program, said Liz Hopewell, who led the team from her home office in Atlanta this summer. The internship program not only introduces Koch to high-quality potential employees but also helps students get a feel for the company and learn whether it might be a good fit.

“It was going to look different, but we were going to do it,” Liz said.

Plus, some pride was on the line, admitted Chicago-based team member Brenton Hard. “As we watched all these other companies around the country dropping their internship programs, I did feel a little competitive, like, ‘Watch us, we are going to make this happen,’” he said.

Creating a virtual program from scratch in about eight weeks was challenging enough, but the early-careers team also had to contend with working virtually themselves and with a group of people who in some cases had never met, much less worked together. “We had a mix of running around with our hair on fire and just putting our heads down and pushing through to get the program together,” joked Elizabeth Moss, who’s also based in Atlanta.

They decided from the start that to be successful, collaboration and trust would be vital. “We just didn’t have time to sit down and discuss every single decision,” said Colton Clark, from Wichita, Kansas.

“We made the call to trust each other’s capabilities.”

Because several of the internship team members had themselves been interns at various Koch businesses, they wanted to ensure that the 2020 cohort had the same memorable experience, from the camaraderie to the networking to the deep dive into Koch’s Market-Based Management (MBM) philosophy, which focuses on creating value for society and giving individuals the tools to thrive. The team’s goal wasn’t to adjust the traditional internship to fit a virtual environment, but to create an entirely new experience that would make this year’s internship meaningful — not despite being virtual, but because it was virtual.

An eight-week virtual program, versus the traditional 12 weeks onsite, took shape quickly with five pillars: enterprise learning, MBMGO!, KochU, virtual volunteer opportunities and an Intern Innovation Challenge. Throughout the summer, interns met with business leaders across the Koch enterprise, getting to know the work being done in each unit as a way to decide whether they were interested in the business and make any transition to full-time employment smoother. The MBMGo! platform allowed interns to learn about Koch’s MBM at a self-guided pace.

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Interns also were given paid time off to do community service. For example, Kiley Hemmy, an intern with Flint Hills Resources, made a tie-knot blanket for Soldiers’ Angels, a nonprofit agency that supports veterans and deployed soldiers. “That was a great way of experiencing the virtuous cycles (of mutual benefit),” she said, referring to a key tenet of Koch’s management philosophy. “I thought that was great.”

Kiley wasn’t surprised to learn the internship would be virtual, but she wondered how it would work. “They always say when you walk into an internship, no one expects you to know what you’re doing,” she said. “But I was nervous. If I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing, how is that going to change if I’m doing it virtually?” But those worries soon subsided. “Everyone was super nice and there to answer the questions,” said Kiley. “Having your mentor and supervisor there to ask even just a simple question made it a lot less nerve-wracking.”

The internship team made an effort to leverage knowledge, skills and capabilities from across Koch’s businesses. In addition to the coaches, Koch U, the company’s leadership development arm, collaborated with the team to create leadership training for the interns. Each intern was assigned a mentor, with whom they met regularly all summer.  

The innovation challenge — a traditional summer-long contest where interns explore solutions to large business questions and then present their ideas to leadership — was adapted for a virtual environment. Interns were assigned to teams where they developed ideas and managed programs across Koch. Employee coaches and advisers guided them. John Zink Hamworthy Combustion intern Andrew Call and his team worked with GP Pro employees to envision a foot-operated door for improving bathroom hygiene. “Working with GP on a product like that was something that I never imagined I would have been doing at the start of this summer,” said Andrew. “It was a really cool opportunity to really see how Koch takes ideas seriously when you put in the right amount of thought and as you create things that have value.”

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The virtual internship started before the traditional program’s official start date, which was just one of the ways the early careers team took advantage of being virtual. They set up several video meetings to introduce the interns to each other and to key business leaders. No question, large or small, was off-limits, said Sam, who is a sales engineering intern with Molex.

“We were able to pick their brains and then sometimes they would pick our brains. It's really nice to be working in a place where even as an intern, your voice matters.”

Team members also met individually with interns to answer questions and help them prepare for the coming summer.

“My supervisor did a really good job of sitting down with me and asking, ‘Hey, what are your career path ideas? What are you interested in?’” said Madison Brown, Koch procurement intern. “They wanted to make sure that this experience was beneficial for both of us and really took time to get to know me.”

Like Kiley, other interns worried how a virtual internship would work, but being virtual was actually a benefit, said Brooke Bulloch, an intern with INVISTA. “I didn’t know how I would meet any other interns,” she said. “But I was able to connect with the others in a really fun way. I was able to meet more people because of it being a virtual platform, more than I would have if everyone was here in person. So it ended up being a positive thing.”

The team found most interns had the same experience. Throughout the eight weeks, interns experienced significant collaboration among their fellow interns and coworkers.

“Because we weren't able to work together in the same room at the same time, we learned delegation skills,” said James Kibbie, analyst intern with Koch Ag & Energy Solutions. “We learned to take responsibilities, set deadlines for each other and just to be able to work through this project without being in-person throughout the whole thing.”

And while they were spread across the entire enterprise, working virtually meant they were able to connect regularly and globally.

“I was able to start talking to people in the U.K., Singapore and India, and really grow my network,” said Andrew. “It's been a wonderful opportunity to travel the world virtually during the summer.”

All the stress and hard work — Colton joked he’s aged eight years since those March emails — seems to have paid off. Of the 208 reviews the team has received so far, 207 interns said they’d recommend the program to a friend. And at the end of the summer, a judging panel of industry experts and public voters recognized the program as a Top 100 internship program in the U.S. It was so successful, in fact, that the internship team already is planning to incorporate aspects from this summer’s program into future programs, with a mix of virtual and in-person experiences.   

Sam, back for his second Koch internship, said he never doubted the program would be successful. “Knowing the Koch culture, I was very confident,” he said. “And I was right: We learned a lot.”