Naman Sarawagi commented recently.

Twitter erupted saying how dare you think of unpaid internships.

I reacted to one post on this topic with this.

And then this was asked by Srijan Agarwal.

I thought rather than debate this on twitter, where nuance is hard to express, I would write this out. So here it is. This is written as a reply to Srijan Agarwal but it is really a reply to twitter.

What the debate is about, for me

As with much of the debates on twitter, this one too has us talking past each other. Each of us is saying something important, but we aren’t actually arguing about the same thing.

You are arguing that 1) unpaid internships are unfair, and 2) that Naman is calling for unpaid internships.

I agree with you on the first point. As someone who has been involved in hiring at Blume including interns, and increasing our intern pay as well, I can scarcely fail to see the merits of paying interns for jobs done.

But I don’t agree with you on the second – that Naman is calling for unpaid internships. I know here that I should let Naman speak for himself. I really don’t know him outside of twitter, and here too it is limited to a couple of twitter to and fros. Still, I want to better clarify the point Naman is trying to make, because writing about it will uncover a couple of points around privilege that we gloss over.

Now, the key point. What is Naman calling for?

From my reading, he is saying

  • The right internships can confer significant learning
  • This learning + signaling of having this internship is so important that they can change the trajectory of his/her career
  • If it is so important then there should be a way for the potential interns to commercially contract an internship at a place that will give them the maximal thrust for their careers.

This is what I think he is saying. He is not saying the converse – that companies should stop paying their interns. Just that a model where the really keen can ensure that they get the internship that they desire. This is internship as a key CV crutch and signal; the student sees it as akin to paying for a short-term course.

Now, my take

Mind you, I don’t think there is any company in our startup world where this is done – students paying for internships. Nor will any one do it I think, given the potential for bad press. There are also certain second order effects here – that it is typically those who can afford it who will do it. And as with unpaid internships, it is typically the really privileged and rich, who can chose to take the unpaid internship. I don’t think he covered this.

Still, when we argue, we should argue narrowly and limit our debate to the central thought experiment that Naman is suggesting – can a student X pay a sum Y to access an internship he or she wouldn’t have got otherwise. And not that companies should stop paying internships.

I feel that we are all arguing about the latter – companies not paying interns (which was never suggested), and not the former – can a student access internship opportunities by paying them (which hasn’t been grasped) which is the point at stake here. I feel that we are very quick to rush into judgement especially on twitter when the judgement and a snappy retort enables us to uncork virtue signalling points.

I also feel those scoring these virtue signalling points aren’t highlighting one key aspect of internships. There is no real formal / objective process in most startups to source interns, barring those companies where internship -> pre-placement offer. A vast majority of internships, even in desirable companies – paid or unpaid but usually paid – are accessed through privilege networks. Those wanting to intern go through their father’s friends, or your college networks (which means if you come from the right colleges it is easier to get the right internship) and so on.

This is where Naman’s thought experiment can work – it can theoretically (and right now all this is theory!) enable a more diverse intern applicant set. Just as the startups paying for internships led to an automatic widening of the pool and democratised in some way the intern profiles, having 1-2 candidates who pay for these internships can further widen the pool.

If you feel that the student paying is sacrilegious and unethical, and I confess it shocked me at first too, then there are ways to overcome this. Companies could pay this to charity, or there could be third party scholarships which pay the startup to widen the pool, beyond a narrow base of colleges and privileged folk…so on and so forth.

Concluding this

I will end here by reiterating – an interesting and perhaps contrarian point was made. We are not debating that point but instead the most extreme interpretation of that point enabling maximal virtue signalling.

Now, Srijan, if you have read it till here, and are able to see it from my lens, then the answers to the questions you asked are obvious.

I also hope reading this gave you a sense of how I (and many people who have agreed on the other side as you) see the debate.

And going forward if we debate on this, I want to have very narrow arguments:) And not about unpaid internships where i articulated my position in the second section, but about the thought experiment Naman suggested.