In the Late Spring of 2020, Envision was contacted by Skills for Rhode Island’s Future (SFRI) about an internship program they were planning to run in early Summer.

It was going to have to accommodate the social distancing guidelines and uncertainty brought on because of the COVID-19 pandemic, so this internship experience would be much different than the prior year. The program was pivoting to become fully virtual, and SFRI had reached out to ask about creating a “scoreboard” as part of the gamification elements that the organization wanted to add to the program. This is when I was brought into the conversation, specifically to consult on how we could use Power BI to drive some of the data elements that would be needed to bring it to life.

Seeing an opportunity to partner in a more meaningful way, and to help build something truly unique and transformative, I scheduled a strategic brainstorming meeting between myself and some key members of Envision, along with Skills for Rhode Island’s Future’s Executive Director, Nina Pande, and other members of her team. Nina is a big thinker, and tremendously visionary. As we all began discussing what the program could be, our imaginations took center-stage and the ideas came faster than we could process them. We all left the call excited to take the next steps. Personally, in the face of all that the pandemic was becoming, I thought that this was a perfect for Envision. This was the kind of project that I WANT us to be engaged in – where we can leverage technology to deliver something unique and innovative which makes a difference in the lives of real people.

SFRI’s internship program, which came to be called “Empower Interns”, ended up being one of, if not the largest paid internship programs to ever run in the state of Rhode Island. Nearly 500 interns from high schools across the state, plus over 100 mentors, sponsoring companies, and other experts from the business community participated in this “COVID-19 Challenge” program. Again, this was all done during a time when many other internship programs were cancelling because of COVID. Instead of closing up shop, SFRI and Envision found a way to actually grow the program. How did we do it? It started by Reimagining the Internship Experience.

You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

I see so many initiatives, technology-related and otherwise, that fail to realize their full potential because of limitations placed on them because “this is the way it has always been done.” It’s helpful to understand the historical context of a process or a program, but to really transform and think big, you often need to push those past processes aside and not allow them to hinder your ideas. For the Empower Interns program, we started by asking one question:

“If internships had never existed, and we had to create a program TODAY, how would we build it?”

We didn’t want to just take what had been done in previous years and “make it virtual”. We wanted the experience to be enhanced through new interactions and technology-enabled engagement. We wanted something that would solve for the challenges 2020 was presenting, but that would be extensible to future programs.

For Empower Interns, we embraced the opportunities that a virtual model could provide – including the ability to greatly expand the number of interns that could participate! If COVID had not happened, many of these interns would’ve had other obligations over the summer. Additionally, we might not have been able to find physical locations that could host over 600 people between the interns, mentors, and staff. Thanks to a virtual-first approach, those limitations of capacity and space were gone. It’s a good thing too, because Skills for Rhode Island leaned into the idea and was able to bring in more than twice the number of interns than the program has initially planned to host.

At the end of our brainstorming session, we came up with a list of requirements for this program & technology:

  • Had to be fully virtual with no in-person elements
  • It needed to feel like students were part of a larger business community
  • Could not feel like simple video meetings or webinars
  • Needed a high level of engagement & inter-student collaboration
  • Gamification elements would be used to keep it fun and help drive that engagement
  • There would be coaching / education around ideation and innovation
  • Collaboration with external businesses needed to be easy
  • Solve real world business challenges those businesses were dealing with because of COVID-19
  • Work in a single ecosystem as much as possible
  • Students should have the full range of tools available that any business would have for operations, collaboration, research and development, prototyping etc.

Introducing Skills Village

Microsoft Teams, along with the rest of the 365 ecosystem, was chosen as the platform to run this program. Understanding that a core aspect of the initiative was to give the interns real business experiences, SFRI decided to break the group, which numbered nearly 500 students in all, into 20 different “corporations.” Each of these corporations would be assigned a company sponsor and a problem statement that they would be working to solve.

One of the drawbacks with many internship programs is they primarily involve low-level tasks. That was not what we wanted this program to be. After being provided very complex problem statements, students received prototype and development training, business coaching, technology support, and mentoring from their corporate partners. To create prototypes of their ideas, students were trained and given access to a range of Microsoft tools like Hololens, Power BI, Power Automate, Power Apps, Planner, and Forms. Students even leveraged some external tools like Wix and Moqups for planning prior to prototype development. Empower Interns participants built holographic replications of their designs, developed mobile apps and websites, shot videos and communicated and collaborated in powerful ways – all within a customized Teams deployment we built called “Skills Village.”

This deployment was a full spectrum, virtual business ecosystem. In order to mirror what interns would find in a normal company setting, we set each corporation up with departments including marketing, HR, R&D, and even a C-suite led by a CEO. Each of these departments had dedicated channels within their team, allowing for department-specific communication and collaboration alongside their corporation-wide messages and the program-wide communications directly from SFRI.

Going beyond the individual corporations, we also wanted Skills Village to include other resources that you’d find in the business community. We built a Post Office where interns would submit their work, a Convention Center where large events would take place, and even an area where they would be able to interact directly with Rhode Island College’s Blackboard deployment and submit their portfolio for college credits.

Every day, the students got up, got dressed for work, reported to their online corporations, checked in at the virtual PrepareRI Holding Company corporate office for updates, then moved into their appropriate department channel within the company to begin work for that day. Together with the client, we gave them an experience that did not just mimic what they would have had if COVID-19 had not necessitated the cancellation of the “in-person” internship approach, but we improved upon that experience in so many ways.

The business community largely runs on a Microsoft platform. Most of these students came from schools that were running a Google classroom, so for many this was their first exposure to the Microsoft ecosystem. To say that they adopted it quickly would be a vast understatement. In the short time the program ran, the interns produced an unprecedented amount of content through almost every media channel offered in the platform. These interns also got a crash course in working with others to solve some of the biggest business challenges any of us have seen in a lifetime, and they did it without ever needing to interact in-person with any of their colleagues. (Note – you can read more about the historic engagement these interns had with Microsoft from the start right here).

I can just imagine these interns interviewing for college placement or for a job opportunity and talking about the summer they used Hololens to design, visualize, and prototype a solution to the global pandemic for their corporate partner. Even better is that some of these students will talk about how that corporation went on to work with their team to further develop the idea and roll it out to their employees and clients. I don’t know that there’s a better talking point for an interview than how you took a hands-on approach to course correction for a business before you even graduated high-school.

In Closing

I could write about this project, and the incredible work that the engineers from Envision did on it, almost indefinitely. However, I was asked for an overview, so it’s time to wrap it up. Sufficed to say, my team and I enjoyed collaborating with the SFRI staff to do something so meaningful at a time when we all needed it. We will be posting more articles and videos about this project in the coming weeks, and will be digging deeper into some of the specific technologies and customizations we did during the course of this engagement. Additionally, we’ll be talking with some of those aforementioned engineers from Envision that made this whole thing possible. You can find all of that content here, and you can always contact me directly if you have any additional questions or simply wish to chat about a program or process you’d like to reimagine.

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