Paragon One: Virtually Connecting Learners with Industry Professionals

Q&A   14 October 2020
By Matt Wilkerson , Paragon One

 

There’s a freedom of creative expression and exploration that can happen sooner when you encounter the real world as a student…

Matt Wilkerson
Co-Founder and CEO, Paragon One

Paragon One is bridging the gap between academic learning and career success through remote externships. We spoke with their Co-Founder and CEO, Matt Wilkerson, about what has been driving their work forward and how it’s changing the lives of young people.


Q. What inspired the idea to create Paragon One?

Matt: Paragon One was initially conceived of as an on-demand career coaching platform to help college students connect with coaches who understood what it took to get jobs and could help guide and mentor them through their career exploration experience, including securing internships.

But, we quickly recognized that college career centers did not have the funding and resources to really guide students in a way that set them up for the most success, especially if the student didn’t yet have a resume, skills an employer was looking for, or a certain level of relevant experience. Helping undergrads land internships without those credentials made the process difficult for the adults who were trying to provide support. We noticed there simply wasn’t a strong enough bridge between the education world and the professional world. 

There is a great irony in all of this. The National Association of Colleges and Employers conducted a survey of employers, in which over 90% said they looked at work experience when students are graduating. But, unless your institution tells you that you need an internship, or makes it a graduation requirement, students don’t really understand the importance. Once we saw this gap, we wanted to help build a bridge that strengthens the alignment between schools and the professional world. We can do that in many ways through technology.

Q. Can you walk us through the evolution of making externships more seamless for companies and students? 

Matt: We launched remote externships in the summer of 2019 as a more scalable and accessible alternative to internships. They are more flexible, completely virtual, and require 10 hours per week of an undergrad’s time over the course of six to eight weeks.

It’s been a complete game changer in how college students can do experiential learning. One of the key outcomes of externships is for companies to provide students with a credential or certification to validate a skill they developed and earned. These credentials give them more credibility in the career marketplace. 

Regardless of this change in focus—from career coaching to remote externships—we had to take it further and identify how to make this unique enough to attract companies. Early talent identification and training programs aren’t new, but having those programs serve students with little to no experience is.

The demand for students is clear, but getting companies to sign up and commit to this program meant designing a way for them to make these experiences a more efficient use of their time. Companies are busy places with bottom lines needing to grow and key performance indicators (KPIs) to meet. 

The reality is, it’s very difficult to convince them to take on the added responsibility of mentoring and teaching more students, regardless of how much they love it. There’s limited bandwidth and other priorities. Companies that provide student internship programs are incentivized to find the student that checks off all the boxes (e.g. previous work experience) because it will take less effort to onboard them, and the student will provide a quicker ROI.

 

Many students enrolled in schools across the U.S. and world can’t afford to live in expensive cities over the summer, so if there aren’t any opportunities in their hometowns, it will be much harder for them to gain relevant work experience in the first place. That drove us to figuring out a way to connect students and companies virtually.

Matt Wilkerson
Co-Founder and CEO, Paragon One

Our model needed to ensure that running the externship program did not occupy more than an hour of a manager’s time each week to run an entire program—one that might serve up to 50 students. And, we needed to identify career fields where students didn’t need a prerequisite skill or experience to qualify. We found research, marketing and business analytics, product strategy, business development, and finance to be great areas where we can teach students what they need to know and scale projects quickly. 

Once we had our guideposts, we built some really cool technology that (1) quickly onboards companies to project templates: a framework for students to understand what they need to know to work on a real project and what resources they can use as an aid; and (2) provides students with a user interface where they can do all their work.

Once again, to limit the work that a manager needs to do at the partnering company, we handle creating the projects, training students, scaling the training, scheduling and hosting live interactions and webinars for the companies, assessing students’ work, and issuing credentials and certificates via our platform.

This enables us to limit the tasks of the manager to holding webinars with students to review the impact that students’ work has on the company, giving feedback on student presentation work, and answering questions students have about working at the company and the outcome of their work.

We also have our own in-house teaching assistant team—comparable to a professor or teaching assistant at a university—to support both the students and the companies. Operating as the conduit enables companies to focus on the big picture items, while also getting students what they need.

Q. What has the COVID-19 pandemic revealed about the need for this model?

Matt: We obviously didn’t predict the pandemic happening. We were already invested in this model in 2019. And, at that time, our thesis was that remote work was just going to become more common. That change is happening at an accelerated pace now. With that said, the bigger driver for us has been the access problem. 

We looked at why undergrads were struggling with getting internships—mainly, a lack of work experience. But, we also recognized that not living in the “right” location limits access to certain opportunities.

Many students enrolled in schools across the U.S. and world can’t afford to live in expensive cities over the summer—such as New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco—so if there aren’t any opportunities in their hometowns, it will be much harder for them to gain relevant work experience in the first place. That drove us to figuring out a way to connect students and companies virtually.

Q. Why was it so important to center Paragon One around the learner experience?

Matt: Many platforms in the recruiting space are built with companies as the focal point. Each student (or resume) is one data point in a massive data set. From the beginning, we took a student-centered focus and built a platform to serve them because we felt their learning and experiential learning needs were being overlooked.

This counters the traditional thinking in the U.S. of simply throwing students into an internship without any consideration of what questions they might have or work experience they might be interested in developing. In traditional internships, students are often left waiting for someone to take the time to teach and train them on all the things they don’t yet know about regarding the workforce. This results in very little skill development and a lot of time wasted for both the student and the employer. 

When you’re in a conventional classroom (whether K-12 or college), there’s a single right answer to a test question. But, when you’re suddenly immersed in the workforce and you have to manage ambiguity, learn by doing, and relate with different office personalities, you are likely to feel ill-equipped.

There’s messiness to it. There isn’t necessarily one right answer to a question or problem. This experience can introduce students to the idea that the world is not black and white—or at the very least, can confirm it for them. They are able to grow and adapt in unfamiliar settings.

 

If you’re investing a lot of money in your education, you don’t want to squander that time. We want students to feel that “I need to have this experience” to enrich my learning, then be empowered to go out and get it.

Matt Wilkerson
Co-Founder and CEO, Paragon One

From these experiences, they develop their capacity to stretch beyond their comfort zones and gain more clarity around the decisions they make about where they go to college, or what major or career path they choose. 

If you’re investing a lot of money in your education, you don’t want to squander that time. We want students to feel that “I need to have this experience” to enrich my learning, then be empowered to go out and get it. 

The more information and clarity you can gather through a real-world experience, the better equipped you are to make decisions about the trajectory of your education and life. It’s about addressing an undergrad’s desire to learn about something that interests them and explore if they want to pursue a specific field or work for a certain type of company. 

Most of the time, undergrads go straight from the college or university classroom to learning how to create a resume without the opportunity to prove themselves and their raw abilities in a real-world setting.

We are inspiring companies to turn their teams into learning and development centers for undergraduates. This shift allows them to have a more meaningful ROI, because their brand becomes about educating students and developing long-term relationships with them. This shift also allows them to reach a wider population of potential hires, especially those from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds.

Q: Are there any favorite stories you have that speak to the power of this model of experiential learning? 

Matt: There are so many. We’ve heard from first-generation college students about being exposed to marketing and communications careers for the first time, students working through the challenge of having internships canceled due to COVID-19, and instances that expose the inequitable access many students have to resources. 

Students have also spoken about the comfort of seeing new faces, building their network, and cultivating their research and presentation skills. One student even talked about how much they loved creating a story out of their research because it opened up the opportunity to fight their fears. 

And, there’s one specific story that comes to mind about a young woman named Jacqueline: a Swarthmore College student who writes a blog and is very interested in being a writer or journalist. 

She recently completed an externship in SEO content marketing for the Center for Education Reform that included writing several short form posts. She did so well that they offered her a dedicated internship that will run through the entire school-year. The initial externship became a stepping stone for a more intensive experience that may open other doors, and that’s a perfect example of what we want to make possible.

Q. With these stories in mind, why should we be enabling young people to follow their interests early in their life?

Matt: Our society’s worshipping of test taking and test scores shapes so much of education and learning. And, when students spend so much of their life in that world, being exposed to the real world is jarring. You don’t want young people feeling later in life that if they had been exposed to certain opportunities earlier, their path would have been different.

Related Reading: How Blue Valley CAPS is Connecting Teens with Local Employers

There’s a freedom of creative expression and exploration that can happen sooner when you encounter the real world as a student. It might even reframe your way of thinking about the future. But, education wasn’t built with that in mind.

If you think about the history of how the higher education system came to be, you can identify the disconnect.

Secondary education was designed to prepare students for higher education. And, universities were designed to produce Ph.D.’s to do research and grow the body of knowledge that human civilization needed to progress. This is why many institutions welcomed (and continue to welcome) large student bodies. More students means a larger pool from which to recruit Ph.D.’s and mint future doctors and professors.

As the professional world evolved and industries like retail, energy, and tech opened up, students had an alternative to a Ph.D. So, universities offered what was almost a “consolation prize” in the form of a master’s or bachelor’s degree. 

That [lesser] degree is supposed to tell the world that you’re capable of contributing something, but we know that the requirements to get that degree were formed in the “ivory tower” and meant to satisfy a completely different goal.

That’s the origin of the structure—one that hasn’t really changed much since its inception and was never designed to equitably support each and every young person to thrive. Sadly, that means we’re keeping students in these bubbles and not introducing the experiential learning that is more closely tied to industry, entrepreneurship, and the “real world.” 

If we can break through that barrier to create more avenues where it’s okay to try something new, not tethered to getting a grade or a test score, that could be transformational.

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