biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: hiring interns

by Grace Bonney

today’s biz ladies article comes to us from the ladies of the boston design salon– a group of professional women who work in design related businesses and meet once a month to talk about design, business and all things in between. today six of their members will be sharing their thoughts on hiring interns and how they’ve gone about it in the past.

inspired by their ideas, i actually added a small paragraph (at the bottom, after their great advice) about my experiences hiring interns here at d*s. i’ve had some really amazing interns (some have gone on to become regular contributors here at d*s) and some not so amazing interns, so i thought i’d share some of the mistakes i’ve made (and learned from), as well as the ways i’ve tried to set up programs to help people find jobs while they’re interning at the same time (i always felt that was the least i could do if i wasn’t the position wasn’t high paying or paid at all).

CLICK HERE for the full post after the jump!

Interns can be a blessing for small businesses, especially to those with a small (or non-existent) employment budget. To find out what some Biz Ladies were doing with their internship program I asked members of the Boston Design Salon.

The Design Salon is a group of professional women, (sorry boys), who work in design related businesses who meet once a month to talk about design, business and all things in between. We began in 2007 as the brainchild of Jill Rosenwald and a handful of designers. We felt that there was a need for female designers who worked in creative fields and were interested in making money to meet and get to know each other. Members have been learning from each other, sharing business tools, connections, tips, etc. We don’t collect dues, so the Salon is run by volunteers who are invested in future growth. Design Salon has grown from 6 people at the first meeting to upwards of 90 members today.

Jennifer Hill :: owner :: JHill Design

I first started an intern program at JHill Design about 4 years ago. Our interns brought in fresh ideas, affordable labor and all the “cool new music”.

When looking to hire an intern I first posted the position with all the design programs / schools in Boston. Timing is important, you want to have to the position posted before students have had to finalize their schedules, which is usually a week or so after the semester starts.

I have found that we had a more qualified pool of applicants to interview when offering a paid internship vs. an unpaid one, (even though it isn’t a lot – it is still something).

We made sure that our interns were learning and that we were “open books” to any questions about design and business they may have had.

The difficulty that I ran into was that I needed someone with a reliable schedule, and that is something that students can’t always have since school needs to be their number one priority. Our busiest time of year is the holiday season of November through early January and this coincided with finals and winter break for our interns.
In the end relying on interns wasn’t the best choice for us and I hired a recent college graduate with design skills to run our office and marketing program.
Our interns did add to the growth of our business and it has been great to watch them graduate and start their own design businesses. It is something that I am sure we will return to in the future.

Kate Saliba :: owner :: Smudge Ink

Over the past few years, we’ve hosted interns on and off here at Smudge Ink.

So far, the interns have approached us with a desire to learn about a small, growing business in the creative field. In the past, we’ve left the positions unstructured —
the intern would help out with whatever we needed assistance with. However, with our current internship, we (the business owners and the intern) have developed a set of goals for her to accomplish while she’s here. In addition, we’ve also discussed with her what she wants to get out of her intern experience at Smudge Ink and we’re making a concerted effort to make sure all goals are met. In general, we feel very appreciative of anyone who wants to volunteer their time here, and because of this we are trying to make sure they get something out of it for themselves.

Recently, we’ve identified a need to find a marketing intern, so I will be looking to fill this position in the coming months. I will start my search by tapping into local colleges and universities for students who may be interested. I’ll also post the opening on our Facebook page.

PROS of having an intern: It’s a great way to get help with short term, tactical projects and projects that no one can get around to tackling.

CONS of having an intern: It’s another person and project to manage, and you never know when they might not be able to come in.

Stacey Kunstel :: owner :: Stacy Kunstel Productions

For the past five years I have had a summer internship program and have hired an intern to add an extra layer of support to my styling/producing/writing and editing business. I work for national and regional publications such as Country Living, Traditional Home, Better Homes & Gardens, and New England Home. I can’t afford a full-time person to help me, so having an intern has been particularly helpful and more affordable.

The most effective way of finding a new intern has been to let my existing intern find her replacement. They know the job, they know what is required and they are very savvy about finding candidates who will live up to my expectations. They immediately know if a potential candidate will be able to handle what I throw their way.

My goal with any intern is to let them be and do as much as they can. I treat them as an equal and teach them organization, time management, and professional social skills and am always open to any question they have about what I do in my job and how I do it. I was lucky to have a few important mentors early in my magazine career who taught me that competition among teammates is detrimental to the end product. It is my goal to provide interns with experiences that will help them in their own life and careers.

Shirley Walsh :: owner :: Kalembar Dune

Kalembar Dune is a vintage home decor and accessories shop, and we adopt a casual approach to bringing on our interns and assistants, and largely rely upon networking and personal referrals. What we focus on most in someone starting out whether or not the individual has a real passion for the skills they are trying to acquire during their stay with us. The advantage of interns is that the young people bring fresh ideas, new skills and act as a conduit to their age group, the downside is that they are just starting out, and therefore require more time, patience and assistance than someone who’s been in the business for a few year

Shelley Barandes :: owner :: Albertine Press

We nearly always have one or two interns in the shop. It’s a very informal process, with interested folk appearing on the doorstep (so to speak) at times when we could use an extra pair of hands. Most move on after a few months, but as the company grew and we needed to hire permanent staff, I’ve been able to hire from the intern pool.

The upsides of interns is that they’re cheap (often free) labor, and have enthusiastic attitudes and fresh perspectives on your business. The biggest, and often most underestimated factor is the time you need to spend on training someone new every few months, from the most basic shop routines to the finer aspects of the craft.

Since our interns are unpaid we feel it extremely important to make sure we’re taking time to teach them and not just give them the mindless drudgery we don’t feel like doing (though they do their fair share of those tasks). Once we feel they have sufficient ability on the presses, we encourage them to come in and work on their own projects during off-hours. It’s so gratifying to see our interns go off to work in other print shops and even start their own.

Kelley Shaw-Wade :: owner :: Pinkergreen

I honestly feel that Pinkergreen has been truly blessed with both graphic design and marketing interns throughout over the past 4 years. We’ve posted intern job descriptions with a variety of Boston-based universities in order to find marketing interns. Our interns have been instrumental in growing our business, handling various tasks from blogging and tweeting to making comps for clients. The pros have far outweighed the cons. The learning is reciprocal, and the relationships are lasting. I’m always a little nervous on their first day, but most of the time, the interns become an integral part of our operation, each in their own way.

An internship program can be rewarding for both the business and the intern. If given real work experience and nurtured along the way they can end up being an invaluable part of your work force.


Thoughts, Tips and What NOT to do when Hiring Interns
-Grace Bonney from Design*Sponge

Though some people might be surprised to hear that I’ve had interns at all, I’ve been really blessed to consistently hear from young undergrads who’d like to come work with us for the summer. But, like many small businesses, I’m often faced with the reality of not having a formal business space in which to work. If you’re like me and work at home, you may have a hard time finding a school that will consider your internship valid for school credit if you don’t have an office, spare computer, etc.

But over the years I’ve developed an internship program that I’m really proud of- something that helps both parties learn and do work, and come away with some real-world contacts and experience.

Finding Interns: I’ve found all of my interns via email or requests on the blog or Twitter. I highly suggest doing outreach via your businesses’ blog or Twitter page- working online is such a huge part of what we all do today (it’s even important for brick and mortar-only shops) so it’s crucial to find someone who’s already online, using social networking tools, and aware of the online niche you’ll be marketing to or working within. (Ask your local art school if you can post listings on campus or on their online job boards as well. Professors and the offices of career services can help you with those)

Choosing Interns: I’ve often gone on my gut alone to pick people and I’d say about 90% of the time that’s been a good indicator. In most businesses interns can be taught how to do the basic tasks you’ll be assigning them, so if you find someone you feel you can trust and click with, it’s often worth the extra week of teaching them how to do something they may not have experience with.

That said, I did choose poorly once and ended up with someone that I think was looking for an excuse to be in NYC and take the occasional free trip I provided. I was swayed by personality in that case and wish I had spent more time going over resumes, so I am always very sure now to make sure both the resume and personality match. It’s great to have someone you want to be friends with, but it’s also great to have someone who wants to work and learn.

Establishing a Routine: This has been a big part of creating a successful internship for me. I find a lot of small businesses feel guilty about assigning interns small tasks like mailing, answering emails, etc- but creating a daily (or weekly) routine around these activities can create a sense of order and routine that helps a new intern settle in more quickly. If you have someone a portion of their day (for example, right when they walk in every morning) answering emails and mailing off packages, it gives them something to always be working on and a consistent way to start the day. then, when you have them working on something bigger or more varied during the rest of the day they’ve been warmed up, are ready to work, and are excited to focus on something other than mailing packages. I’ve learned how best to manage my staff of regular writers by establishing routines with interns- seeing how they respond to some clear guidelines and set dates/times for doing tasks has really helped me streamline and solidify how I run the main site.

Something More Than Money: This is hands down the most important part of the internship program I run at Design*Sponge each year- creating ways to “pay” your interns beyond their stipend or reduced salary. Let’s be honest, most internships don’t pay much. I don’t pay myself that much so when it comes to interns, I’m left with a pretty small budget to finance their program. I always offer a stipend for travel (metro cards, car services, taxis, etc) and help find affordable housing whenever possible, but I’ve set up the D*S Internship so that 50% of the time the interns are working with me and 50% of the time they’re working with other companies in their desired field, learning and shadowing from the pros.

I’ve always felt strongly that providing job contacts and real-world experience is crucial for interns (who are giving a lot of time and effort for not much money) so I decided that if I really only needed someone 3 days a week, I would help them find other internships (some paid, some unpaid) with people I knew. I may not know how to design textiles, but I know someone else who can teach them- so every summer I work with interns to establish at 2-4 “shadowing” opportunities for them. For example, one summer I had an amazing intern who was interesting in surface pattern/design, so I helped her shadow with a few different types of firms (like Lotta Jandsotter, Hable Construction, and Jill Malek) so she could see different types of businesses and see what it would be like to work for herself, for a small company, and for a medium-sized company). These shadowing opportunities created great job contacts for after-graduation and often lead to real jobs the following summer.

I also try to take my interns out for meals, small treats, movies, museum shows, and any industry events that can help them with industry contacts or just plain enjoying the city. I want them to enjoy their time in the city and if I can help with a short day trip or something else that will get to know the area and the people working in their field, I will do that. Little things like that always add up and interns remember them. So while they may not walk away with a huge chunk of money, they’ll walk away with new skills, new contacts, job experience, and lots of fun times to remember from their summer.

Suggested For You


  • I’ve found this so interesting as I will be looking for a placement for myself soon, and it’s given me insight into what businesses are looking for.

  • This is a great, informative post! I attended Drexel where we had a built in co-op program (internship) so we were able to work with a company for almost 6 months full time. I worked for Skidmutro.com in Philly, a woman owned business, based out of their home. It was a great experience and I ended up working with them through my senior year and after graduation. Working in a small environment forced me to learn faster and I became much closer to them! We still catch up with each other every couple months!

  • As a former interior design intern, it is so nice to hear you talk about offering your intern other benefits(such as industry events, small meals, outings, etc) when money is not an option. I think interns work really hard to make a good impression, learn all that they can about their field and help their employer out as much as they can. Being a student with no income is hard and so knowing that you are appreciated as an intern goes a long way!

  • Initiative! That was always what I valued most in an intern. The ones who hung around after hours shadowing and helping benefitted most because they were really absorbed in the process. I had one super-efficient intern who reorganised all our files, beautifully! – she really went above and beyond (and we are still in touch, she is now a hot-shot in Brussels). Another has just sold out his company for six million…

  • I was once Shelley’s intern at Albertine Press and have since started my own business, Pressbound. My experience was invaluable. I learned so much about running a small business in the stationery industry, met lots of new people in the biz, and made some great friends. And I’m still learning from her even though my internship is long over!

  • Thanks for this! A very close friend of mine approached me recently asking if she could help me out while she’s between jobs. Of course I can use the help, but I’m worried of what might happen to our friendship. Do you have any advice for that situation? Have you ever worked with a close friend?

    • erin

      be very, very careful about working with a friend. you have to put your business hat on and make sure there’s a contract both parties agree on ahead of time. nothing kills a friendship faster then “well that’s not what I thought i’d be paid” etc.


  • Great post! I’m considering taking on an intern, so this is definitely food for thought. Although I’m not sure if I should call it an “internship” or say that I’m looking for an “Event Assistant” (I am a wedding planner).

  • Thanks, Grace. That’s exactly what I’m worried about. She says she doesn’t expect to be paid, but what happens if she’s still helping me out and my business starts to expand and make decent profit and she’s still not being paid? It’s tricky. I’m being as honest as possible with her about my concerns and expectations. But getting that in writing is definitely a good suggestion. Thanks!

    • erin- one word: CONTRACT. don’t risk your friendship, you need to get it in writing and tell her it’s because you love her and value your friendship. you can even build in something to say that if the business grows by say, 50% in the next year, you will renegotiate a payment fee in a new contract for that year.


  • great article – I’ve had interns during both summer and winter breaks, and they’ve been a big help to my business. i usually split time between having them help me in the studio and having them attend retail or trade shows so they get the behind the scenes experience.

    One word of caution – I recently read an article in the NY Times about how the government was cracking down on the way interns are treated. Technically, an internship should always benefit the intern, not the business. While the article was focused more on larger businesses like law and PR firms, I think it’s still important to know the rules and laws governing interns.

    • megan

      agreed- i think the prime focus of those laws is to make sure interns aren’t doing higher level work that a paid employee would normally be doing. one of my friends fell victim to that type of recession era internship and i’m glad they have rules against that now ;)


  • Actually Grace, the terms of the law require you to pay your interns at least minimum wage unless the employer derives no advantage from the intern’s activities. Clearly you (and the other employers) are deriving advantages because you are hiring interns to handle an increased work load.

    “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law,” said Nancy J. Leppink, the acting director of the department’s wage and hour division.


    • mk

      i read that same article (and the six points that you need to be in compliance with) and understand your point, but i still don’t think that will (or should) wipe out a well-established history of unpaid or stipend-based internships in the small biz, art and design world, especially when full college credit is involved.

      i think these sorts of rules will focus more intensely on the big companies that can afford to pay interns (even though i’m aware it applies to all for-profit businesses) and are using them as replacement for regular paid workers. i fully agree that interns should be paid as much as possible and should never, ever replace an employee that would normally be paid (which i of course do- our interns are paid and don’t work on the same types of work our normal paid writers do), but i think wiping out the tradition of internships in exchange for credit and experience (within reason of course) is a pretty extreme blanket rule.

      clearly the lawmakers don’t care about my personal opinion on this, but i wanted to add my two cents. i worked with some amazing artists (who were talented, but didn’t make a lot of money) during college and i would have hated to miss that chance because they couldn’t afford to pay me and therefore the government said i couldn’t intern for them. granted, i had to get a regular job to pay for a lot of things in school because the internship didn’t pay, but i would have graduated with far less confidence, experience, and knowledge without those situations. i’m normally not a “hands off, government!” type of person, but this is definitely a case where i don’t want the government preventing me (or other people) from taking an unpaid internship if i’ve knowingly accepted the terms and lack of pay.


  • Dear d*s,

    Thank you for sharing your brilliantly amazing blog with those of us whose feels so passionate about the world of art, design and creativity.
    I look forward to opening my e-mails from you.
    I’d lost much hope after the closing of DOMINO magazine and yes I do still miss them. I have every single copy of their four (4) years or so as a mag and plan to keep them until vintage do us part. I’ll certainly pass them on to my daughter, who’s just a mere 4 yrs. old at the moment.
    Your blog is absolutely terrific and definitely a breathe of fresh air.
    Keep up the good work and thank you for your wonderful ideas, thoughts, artistic insights and knowledge.
    May you continue to be successful and an inspiration to us all.

  • grace –

    i didn’t mean to open up a can of worms…

    i agree that the focus of the law is on larger company, too make sure not only that they aren’t replacing paying positions, but also to make sure that they aren’t using interns for things like scrubbing toilets.

    and i also think that there is a wonderful tradition of apprenticeship in the arts and crafts field, and i agree, i would hate to see that end because of laws meant to stop large corporations from abusing poor college students.

    i am not able to pay my interns an hourly wage, but every one I’ve had has gotten college credit, and I give them all the other perks I possible can – i buy them lunch, give them opportunities to work at shows, and try to end their internship with a thank you jewelry gift.

  • I’m starting an internship on Monday and am uber nervous about it! I’m in my early 30s and went back to school for a degree in a field completely different than anything I’ve ever done, and am not feeling very confident in my abilities! I wondered if any of you who have had experience working with interns would be willing to describe your ideal intern? :) For instance, what should an intern do and definitely not do to have a successful, mutually beneficial experience? What are the 5 qualities you would most want in an intern? What could an intern do to make up for the fact that she might not be super experienced in the field? Thank you! :)

    • jenni

      i personally would take a “new to the field” intern any day over someone with experience who has a bad attitude (i’ve done this many times before). i look for:

      1. self-motivation: i love being able to trust that someone will follow through with the tasks i assign and won’t need to be constantly checked in on.

      2. a good attitude: an upbeat, happy intern is always a good thing

      3. willingness to learn: an internship is one giant learning experience, so i love when interns come in excited to try new things and willing to perhaps do things differently than they’ve done before

      4. willingness to ask questions: i don’t expect interns to know everything so i like when they aren’t afraid to say “sorry, i don’t know how to…” or “can you explain that again”. not asking questions has definitely lead to a few things going wrong that could have been avoided.

      5. hmmm…i can’t think of a 5th. maybe someone who’s willing to roll with the punches if say, plans change last minute or projects have to be slightly modified due to unforeseen circumstances.


  • Wow! I’ve been following your site for awhile now and never really commented on any. But thank you so much for the post today! It is full of valuable knowledge especially for college students like myself! I really appreciate your information! Thanks again!

  • Great article! And as a student (with 3 internships behind me) I’ll say most of your tips at the end were spot on. I’ve never been “paid” as an intern, maybe a small amount of money for lunch or nothing at all. It’s definitely important to make your intern feel as if they are part of the company and not just doing the “dirty work”. As a design student, I have been a little let down that 2 of my internships actually involved little designing or learning industry standards.

    I especially agree on the part about the company setting up some job shadows or taking the interns out to industry events. These are little things that many of us may feel awkward approaching without some guidance.

    As students we are juggling school activities, classes/homework, social time, and sometimes even part-time jobs as well. If we are going to come in 3 times a week or so, we want to be respected and learn something useful. But we too have to put in effort to make sure our time spent is meaningful. :)

  • Hi Grace,

    Thank you for talking the time to respond. It sounds like you (and the other business women who commented) treat their interns very well. I’m glad to hear you help them find other internships or job shadowing if you only need them a few days a week and that you are honest with them about the time commitment. This allows them to find part time work to help support themselves.

    The problem with unpaid internships is that they make a whole vital component of education (and those wonderful opportunities you spoke so hightly about) are inaccessible for students who cannot afford it to take unpaid work in the summers or during the year. The only way to level the playing field is to pay your interns, even minimum wage. There are some great government subsidizing programs for this and some schools will also assist you. In the grand tradition of apprenticeships, at least the apprentices were fed and housed.

  • Thanks for the great article, Grace!

    I hired an intern for the first time this month, and agree that having a routine established is such a great way to go for both parties.

    An intern that knows what they should do when they walk in the door is especially helpful when you are on an important call as they arrive, are for some reason running late, or for whatever reason just can’t stop what you’re working on.

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • hi, i saw in my google reader about your website in a weekend post but i don’t see it on the site? where is it?

  • grace–thanks for the update! looking forward to reading it now :) loving the biz ladies series! i have an mba from a top 5 business school, and i’m learning so much about small businesses with your series!

  • Thank you for this article! I am 29 and looking to start fresh in a creative environment. I am open to an unpaid internship and I loved reading all of your tips and advice. I’ve been working at a small ad agency for the past 4 years and am looking for something more design related. Thank you for all of your advice!

  • Thanks for the great article. As I result of reading this I hired an intern and it has worked out brilliantly. It’s a win win situation for everyone involved. Hadn’t thought about doing it before but I’ll defo continue to do so. Many thanks!

  • How to you decide when to transition your intern into your assistant? Do you think they should have a set amount of hours worked before uping their pay? Or a set amount of events? How do you professionally go about saying you will get minimum wage for x amount of time and then you’ll get y after? Just curious if anyone did have their intern become an assistant vs. them just moving on. This article was very helpful!

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