Interview with Nicole Smith about the Sponsors for Education

by | August 06, 2010

Since 1963, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) has been committed to giving talented high school and undergraduate students of color access to top career and educational opportunities. Their internship program, established 30 years ago, now places over 300 interns, a shocking 75 percent of whom receive full-time job offers. In this interview, I asked Nicole Smith about training, orientation, SEO's stellar mentoring program and how SEO has changed over the past couple years.

Sponsors for Educational OpportunityVault: Tell me about SEO's internship program.

Nicole Smith: The SEO Career Program maintains a comprehensive approach to internships and career development. Students of color interested in finance, philanthropy, business and corporate law are not only placed in internships with competitive pay, but receive rigorous training, support through mentors, and broad access to industry professionals. Our partnerships, training and networking set students apart from other interns by providing them with the foothold to succeed in their internships and get a full-time job offer. SEO boasts a 75 percent full-time offer rate for eligible interns, as well as a dedicated and robust alumni network that is paving the way for future generations of leaders. Throughout their SEO experience and beyond, students are inspired to “give back” by using the wealth, access and influence they achieve to make change in their communities.

Vault: I know interns undergo intense training before and during their internships. What kind of training and orientation do you provide?

NS: Training begins before students begin at their firms, with online course work, SEO orientation and comprehensive, program-specific training. Online courses cover the areas of accounting and corporate finance, to help students become familiar with industry-specific knowledge. Orientation is where students are imparted with the knowledge and skills necessary for succeeding in the corporate world, through presentations by high-level executives, alumni and staff. Training is program-specific, covering a broad array of technical and soft skills. Students also engage in ongoing networking throughout their summer, and are given the chance to engage with CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, other senior leaders and recruiting representatives.

Vault: SEO interns have positions off-site at law and banking/finance firms around New York City. Do they return to SEO for training and other programs while they're interning off-site?

NS: Our interns do receive additional training and other programs while working at their respective firms. Training and SEO programs often take place at different locations, including at partner firms, both in New York City and in other regions where we place interns. This allows students the opportunity to gain knowledge about companies outside of their own, through seminars, networking events and CEO/CFO roundtables.

Vault: How do you decide where interns are placed?

NS: We want to ensure that each intern is best-positioned to receive a full-time offer in a place where they would best thrive and succeed. Many factors are taken into consideration including: past experience, academic performance, industry exposure, career interests and personality/fit.

Vault: Mentoring is a big part of SEO’s internship program. Interns have mentors at their internship as well as SEO alumni mentors. Can you tell me about your mentoring program?

NS: Mentoring is an integral part of an intern’s success, helping students navigate a sometimes new and foreign corporate world. Our mentorship program is three-fold, with a staff liaison, an SEO alumnus or alumna and an executive mentor. Staff liaisons oversee a specific program area and a cohort of students to help guide students through their internship, while industry-specific volunteer alumni work one-on-one with students in a more candid way, and executive mentors (provided by our partner firms) help navigate the interns through the firm culture and expectations.

Vault: Who is eligible for the SEO internship program?

NS: Students of color who have a 3.0 GPA or above are eligible for the SEO program, with limited opportunities for students with F-1 visas (investment bank partners only). For placement at investment banks, sophomores and juniors are eligible. For placement at Fortune 500 companies, juniors are eligible. For the corporate law program, we only hire seniors and recent graduates who are beginning law school in the fall. For the philanthropy program, we place juniors and seniors. Freshmen are eligible for the SEO-U virtual enrichment program. Any major is welcome.

Vault: How has SEO's program changed over time? Particularly over the past few years?

NS: Recently, our program expanded to include corporate opportunities beyond investment banking. Corporate Law extends to Houston and Washington, D.C. We have international affiliates in Europe and Asia. The SEO program continues to grow in quantity and improve in quality.

Vault: Earlier, you said that 75 percent of SEO interns receive a full-time offer from SEO partners--which is amazing! How does SEO foster that kind of relationship between your interns and partners?

NS: SEO has remained a highly selective internship program. By streamlining our program with the needs of our partners, interns have a vast amount of resources available to them that non-SEO students just do not have. Therefore, students tend to shine and “hit the ground running”. Our focus is not just success in the internship, but helping students get a full-time job offer. We help cultivate this process through ongoing networking events, partner functions, and distribution of a resume book to our partners, among other resources.

Vault: The recession has had an interesting effect on the number of interns who receive full-time offers from the company or organization. In the law industry, for example, the number of summer associates who receive full-time job offers has gone way down. Whereas in accounting and finance, it's gone up. Have you seen any change in the number of SEO interns being hired full-time?

NS: The size of our program has fluctuated with the recession; however, the percentage of our eligible interns who receive full-time offers has remained fairly consistent. We still provide our interns with the best quality program and our partners with highly skilled interns.

Sponsors for Educational Opportunity is one of Vault's 2010 Top 10 Finance Internships. Read the full Vault SEO internship profile here.

Filed Under: Interviewing


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