To many college students, the prospect of a year of school during a pandemic — with virtual classes, restricted movements and no parties — is a huge bummer. Some Silicon Valley startups, hungry for young talent, see it as an opportunity.
Over the past few months, several companies have presented an alternative to school: a remote internship, aimed specifically at young people looking for alternatives to a dismal school year.
Dozens of Silicon Valley startups are looking to hire fall interns, according to a list assembled by startup accelerator Y Combinator. This month, venture firm Neo organized a virtual career fair for 120 students and a range of startups, hoping to match pairs for internships during the upcoming academic year. And venture firm Contrary Capital is offering to invest $100,000 in five teams of entrepreneurs if they take a gap year from school to build a company.
Such arrangements allow interns to get paid and learn on the job, while avoiding paying tens of thousands of dollars for online learning. It also means that companies willing to improvise on hiring and gamble on younger workers may get new access to fresh talent. Ali Partovi, Neo’s chief executive officer, said the firm surveyed 120 students who are part of its mentorship programs and found that 46% of them are interested in taking a gap semester and 21% are interested in taking a gap year.
“There’s a potential for a big shift right now,” said Alexandr Wang, the co-founder and CEO of Scale AI, a startup that helps people train computer vision. He said Scale would hire up to 10 gap-year workers if they found the right people. For many students he talks to, school this year seems like a “suboptimal” option, Wang said.
Companies have varying approaches to what gap year hiring would look like. Food-delivery service Postmates said it’s considering extending the tenure of the summer interns in its robot-delivery team to allow for those who want to take time off school. And Lumos, a six-person web security startup, is offering around $80,000 to four full-time “fellows” to work on different projects during the academic year.
Students, meanwhile, are trying to make sense of a dizzying array of choices, as on-campus options lose their appeal. “Everyone is uncertain,” said Evani Radiya-Dixit, a rising senior at Stanford University who is considering taking a gap year, and who recently interned at X, Alphabet’s research and development lab. Stanford recently announced that it was ending most on-campus housing for students for the fall quarter. “I’ve heard people say Stanford is going to be like a prison,” said Victor Cardenas, a Stanford sophomore and computer science major, now debating taking time off to build a company. “You’re only allowed to be in your dorm, and someone not in your dorm can’t be there. You have to eat 6 feet away from everyone.”
Startups are particularly well-positioned to capitalize on COVID-19 campus jitters. Bigger companies often don’t want to take on the legal hassles of bringing on students beyond regimented internship programs, said Scale’s Wang, who is 23 and has been working in tech since he dropped out of college.
“A lot of students are thinking about it, and hopefully a lot of companies are willing to take a risk on these students,” Wang said. “If you’d hire them a year from now, you should be willing to hire them now.”
Nimbler startups willing to experiment could gain access to star students who might otherwise have wound up in summer jobs at giants like Facebook, Alphabet or Apple, managers say. “Usually you would fight to get on the radar with people, and here people are reaching out,” said Emmanuel Straschnov, the co-CEO of Bubble, an app design service. Compared with regular recruiting, he said, “It’s like night and day.”
The ultimate payoff isn’t just the student labor. “With recruiting you always play the long game,” said Nick Schrock, CEO of Elementl, a developer tools startup that’s planning to hire three gap-year workers this fall. “A great intern who has a great network can often yield compounded returns later down the line.”
Students are assessing the trade-offs critically, and trying to decide if what they’re getting from schools is worth the cost, especially if classes happen virtually. Levi Villarreal, who will be a senior at University of Texas at Austin, pays his own tuition. He previously interned at Adobe and Google, and had been looking forward to living in New York City for his internship this summer. Instead, he worked remotely from an apartment in Austin and his parents’ house in Dallas. He’s open to the idea that his disrupted school year could lead to something new and interesting, but he also wishes things weren’t so upside-down.
“I really want to have one normal year in college before I leave,” Villarreal said. “That’s my hope.”