LITE Memphis connects budding entrepreneurs to network through internships

LITE Memphis is using its system of local businesses to connect young people to the right network through a new internship program called City of Tomorrow. The nonprofit is placing students in intern positions that will help them garner skills, knowledge and social connections.

For young people seeking internships, it’s more about whom you know than what you know.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult for young people to secure internships unless they are privileged enough to have access to the right social and professional network, according to Hardy Farrow, founder of LITE Memphis, which stands for Let’s Innovate Through Education.

He said roughly 90 percent of internship opportunities are not advertised. Companies recruit interns primarily through word of mouth. And when college students do apply for advertised open positions, the competition is fierce.

Farrow described internships as “a credibility piece. They’re being exposed to new ideas. Half the battle is being taken seriously.”

LITE Memphis is using its network of local businesses and influencers to break down those barriers through its new internship program called City of Tomorrow. The nonprofit is placing students in intern positions that will help them garner skills, knowledge and social connections to give them equal footing as they enter the workforce.

“This allows students access to experiences and to a network they wouldn’t otherwise have,” said Farrow, who launched LITE Memphis in 2013 while working as a teacher with Teach for America.

The organization’s mission is to equip minority students to be future entrepreneurs.  Through the program, young people begin participating in LITE’s unique multi-year model at age of 17, continuing through age 25, with the goal of helping them successfully launch their own Memphis-based businesses by the time they complete the program.

Cinthya Bolanos, a rising sophomore at Rhodes College, spent the summer break at Regional One Health Care's Innovation Center, where she worked to create a culture of innovation in the hospital.

LITE Memphis’ long-term model tackles three major challenges to launching a business: experience, networks and funding.

They’re also tackling poverty and barriers more often faced by minorities when launching a business. Students come from areas of the city that include Midtown, Cordova, Hickory Hill and South Memphis. Ninety percent of LITE participants are African-American and 10 percent are Latino.  

So far, LITE Memphis, operated with the help of mentors and volunteers out of the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis, has taught entrepreneurial skills to more than 1,000 students in neighborhoods across Memphis.

There are currently 75 young people in the LITE program pipeline and 75 new students starting the program this year.

“The long-term outcomes are that these students have the tools they need to be future entrepreneurs, working to solve problems and start businesses right here in Memphis,” said Frankie Dakin, LITE Memphis board chair and Manager of Strategic Partnerships at New Memphis Institute. “And regardless of whether or not they choose to start businesses right after college, they will have the resources to embark on a meaningful career path in their city.”

Dakin said the students’ ideas were far more innovative than many of the ideas he’s heard discussed in Memphis boardrooms. Still, students were frustrated because, despite their academic achievements and talent, they weren’t having luck securing internships.

“Unfortunately, paid internship opportunities in their chosen industries are often difficult for first and second year college students to secure - even those with as much to offer as LITE Alumni,” Dakin said. “So LITE steps in and works with our diverse network of hiring partners to make sure that the students have a paid opportunity to grow their networks and skill set in their hometown over the summer.”

LITE Memphis raised money for internship stipends form funders and matching alumni with high-growth internships at organizations such as Start Co., Regional One and City Leadership.

Ten interns have been placed -- freshmen and sophomores in colleges such as Rhodes, University of Memphis, Sewanee and Middle Tennessee State University. 

“What separates LITE internships is our intentional work to help the students leverage their internship experience to overcome the two fundamental challenges to starting a business: experience and networks.”

Cinthya Bolanos, a rising sophomore at Rhodes College, is working at Center for Healthcare Innovation at Regional One Health, where she strives to create a culture of innovation in the hospital, developing ideas that cut costs, save time or improve the patient experience.

“We hope to achieve this by launching a "shark tank" for hospital employees, where they submit their own ideas,” Bolanos said. “Part of my job is to organize the ideas as they come in and find new ways to get employees excited about innovation by going to meetings and speaking about the steps to innovation, creating graphics for the innovation center, researching new ideas and writing a step-by-step innovation manual for employees to reference.”

Ten students were placed in internships, which conclude this month, through City of Tomorrow. Farrow said he wants students to use the network they established this summer to find their own internships next year.

Bolanos said the internship has helped her develop strong organizational and time-management skills.

“The skills I’ve gained this summer are transferable to nearly any field, so I think that it will make me more marketable when looking for a job,” she said. “The connections I’ve made through this internship have expanded my professional network as well.”

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Read more articles by Aisling Maki.

Aisling Maki is a writer and editor with awards from The Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and Public Relations Society of America. Her work has appeared in publications in more than 20 countries and she has written locally for more than a dozen publications, including The Commercial Appeal, Memphis Flyer and Memphis Parent Magazine. She previously worked as a digital producer and weekend reporter for Action News 5, Memphis correspondent for the Agence France-Presse (AFP) and staff reporter for Memphis Daily News.