Even before Covid-19, it was difficult for students to get internships that gave them hands-on experience in the industries they were interested in. That was especially true for students from low-income communities without the experience or network to get their foot in the door.
Now the startup Paragon One is expanding access to student employment opportunities by turning company projects into remote “externships” that dozens of students can take part in simultaneously. Paragon One handles student onboarding, training, and evaluation, while companies get the final product of their work.
“Our virtual platform takes care of the whole lifecycle of a work project, from the training to the workflow,” Paragon One co-founder and CEO Matt Wilkerson ’04, ’05 says. “We also have mentors who answer students’ questions on behalf of the company in addition to regular webinars with the company. The companies wouldn’t have time to do this stuff at a large scale, so we enable many more students to have these experiences.”
By giving students real work experiences to include on their resumes and reference in job interviews, Paragon One is solving what co-founders Wilkerson and Byron Hsu ’06, SM ’08 call the “chicken and egg job problem,” in which new graduates can’t get the jobs they want because they don’t already have experience in those positions.
To date, Paragon One has helped over 1,000 students — mostly college undergraduates but also high school and graduate students — gain work experience at companies including Hewlett Packard, Facebook, and Zillow.
Paragon One’s projects can give students experience in fields like marketing, product strategy, financial services, business development, data analytics, and more.
Now, with Covid-19 forcing more organizations to embrace remote work, Paragon One is in position to further broaden access to work opportunities that students of all backgrounds can benefit from.
Inspired by MIT
The inspiration for Paragon One came from an experience Wilkerson had during one of MIT’s Independent Activities Periods (IAPs), in which MIT students get four weeks to participate in an array of activities not necessarily related to their regular coursework.
Wilkerson participated in an IAP externship that paired MIT alumni at different companies with students interested in learning more about the company or industry.
In 2015, after reconnecting during a reunion at their MIT fraternity, Hsu and Wilkerson began exploring ways to help students land their first jobs. After first pursuing a career coaching platform and going through the Y-Combinator accelerator, they eventually pivoted to creating virtual externship opportunities in the middle of 2019.
Using tools like Zoom and Slack to facilitate early projects, the founders began building out their own tech platform to make it easier for students to collaborate and receive feedback. They also devoted considerable time to making training modules to help students get up to speed on projects quickly.
More broadly, the company’s platform offers what Hsu calls a “library of skills” to help them with things like conducting business research, creating compelling marketing materials, and working as part of a team.
Paragon One has also put an emphasis on providing students with mentorship and guidance. Each week, Paragon One’s managers hold a Zoom meeting with students to check in and give feedback. In between each Zoom meeting, students can ask questions through Paragon One’s platform. Managers also give comments and ratings as students submit their work into Paragon One’s platform. The data the company collects is used to identify top performers, as well as students in need of further assistance.
“We try to make our service scale as well as possible to give every student an outcome as if they were getting one-on-one attention,” Hsu says.
Students enter programs by filling out an application and ranking their top choices out of Paragon One’s list of opportunities. Companies start by selecting from a set of templates, and then meet with a Paragon One representative to customize their project and make sure it aligns with their goals. Hsu compares the meeting to an onboarding interview the company would have with a new intern — but in this case, Paragon One uses the information to create content that will onboard dozens of students at once.
Unlike traditional internships, Paragon One’s externships can run at any time of the year. The average program lasts six to eight weeks and includes about 50 students.
The company partners with institutions and universities, which sponsor students. Corporate clients may also pay Paragon One depending on their project and recruiting needs.
“A lot of companies are interested in this as a recruiting funnel, and there’s value in seeing someone work on a project for eight weeks that you wouldn’t be able to get in an interview,” Hsu says.
Helping students in a changing world
As the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted everyone’s plans in 2020, Paragon One’s virtual externships offered an attractive alternative to the traditional internships that were being cancelled in droves throughout the spring and summer. The founders say Paragon One has grown about 900 percent since February.
That growth has allowed the company to broaden its efforts to level the playing field for underprivileged students. Paragon One has partnered with nonprofit organizations like The Opportunity Network to onboard students from diverse backgrounds.
“If you’re at a school like MIT, you’re going to get more attention obviously,” Wilkerson says. “But if you don’t come from a target school, you don’t have the same access to good internships. Maybe you don’t have the money to pay the rent to go spend a summer in a city, or you want to explore something outside of your major but they won’t take you seriously. There’s a lot of challenges.”
Overall, the founders think Paragon One is on the right side of a number of trends, such as a growing appreciation for experiential learning and a push to better prepare college students for the workforce.
“If we can bring education together with hiring in a more targeted, flexible way, that’s super exciting for us,” Hsu says. “There’s a problem that needs to be solved around increasing the flexibility of the early career job market. I think that was always going to happen, but Covid-19 accelerated that trend. Moving forward, the world is never going to completely go back to what it was.” Paragon One is hoping to better prepare students for the jobs of the future.