New internship program helps underrepresented students find "a place in tech" at Ann Arbor companies

Seventy-five candidates vied for spots in the inaugural cohort of the Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Internship Program.
This article is part of a series about diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in Washtenaw County's tech sector. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.

Sabrina Xiao has interned before, but she says it "was nothing like what [she's] experiencing now" in the Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund's (A2EF) Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Internship Program.

"It's only been a few weeks and I'm feeling more empowered," says Xiao, a 19-year-old University of Michigan (U-M) student. "Last year I had a really big case of imposter syndrome, but now I know that I have a place in tech."

Xiao was one of 75 people who vied for a spot in the program, which provides underrepresented college students an opportunity to gain paid work experience at local startups. The initiative also serves participating startups by providing professional DEI resources and training, and access to new talent.  

Twelve local startups have each taken on a paid intern. Trista Van Tine, A2EF's director, says the program has also been buoyed by the collaborative efforts of local colleges including Washtenaw Community College and Eastern Michigan University; community organizations including Ozone House and Strategic Community Partners; and startup venture capital firms. Those collaborators have contributed staff time, money, and word-of-mouth marketing to the effort. 
A2EF DEI Internship Program partner Trista Van Tine, Director at Ann Arbor Entrepreneurs Fund.
"As a minority, and as a female with experience in the tech industry, it's heartwarming to see so much interest and support," Van Tine says. "More of us are realizing that we just can't just keep talking about helping. We need to do something."

Van Tine says data from the Michigan Venture Capital Association's annual report for 2020 show that tangible efforts must be undertaken to uplift underrepresented talent. Only 16% of Michigan venture capitalists (VCs) are racial minorities and 16% are female. Of the $2 billion invested into Michigan startups in 2020, only 7% went to minority-led companies.

"We believe having both startups and VCs participate in this program could provide the kind of exposure and experiences to contribute over time to changing these numbers," Van Tine says. "These changes require consistent work and it will be years before we see any meaningful shifts. But you have to start somewhere."

Van Tine says she had no clue how many applications the program would receive for its initial cohort. She says the high number of applications is indicative of "a huge pool of diverse, under-represented, high-caliber talent out there who need these kinds of opportunities."

Help wanted 

Do students like Xiao need the opportunity that the program affords? 
A2EF DEI Internship Program participant Sabrina Xiao.
"Definitely," Xiao says. "Sometimes I was the only female in my engineering classes. And on top of that, I'm Asian — and some people think I'm in a minority that doesn't need help."

Xiao shares a painful experience that took her by surprise while she was talking about her future class choices during her early months at U-M. She was in a group setting and already felt like she was being excluded by one male participant in particular. When Xiao casually mentioned she wanted to take a physics class or something similar, he joked that she wanted to take certain classes because she was Asian. Xiao felt isolated and hurt by the cultural stereotype of Asians being smart and rich.

"I don't identify as a smart or rich Asian," Xiao says. She adds, "some people overlook the larger number of Asians who are immigrants. Or they don't see what successful Asians in good jobs had to go through. I and my parents have had to go through a lot to even get me off to college."

Xiao is now interning at InfoReady, an Ann Arbor-based company that builds and supports software for higher education institutions. She's excited about sinking her teeth into testing a new code the company is going to implement. 

"I'm getting my confidence back thanks to this internship," she says. "There are some women at InfoReady who have taken me under their wings and make me feel like I belong somewhere and that I can be someone."

Investing in the tech industry's future gatekeepers

Xiao says she wishes more companies would take part in DEI-focused internships. Kristy Allen, people operations lead at Ann Arbor-based telemedicine addiction recovery program Workit Health, shares similar sentiments. 
A2EF DEI Internship Program partner Kristy Allen, People Operations Lead at Workit Health.
She describes the company's experience with the internship program as nothing short of "stellar" so far.

"We saw an opportunity to make an investment in the local community, but had no idea just how much we would get out of it too," Allen says. "This internship feels different because A2EF makes sure that we have different resources and trainings, which has been invaluable to us."

Allen adds that she was blown away by the quality of internship candidates that Workit Health had to choose from. She's very happy with the company's decision to hire Mohamed Said, a 22-year-old chemistry student at Eastern Michigan University.

Currently Said is getting his feet wet learning about different aspects of the business. Allen reports that Said's presence and skills have energized Workit's team, and Workit staff are impressed with what he's bringing to the table. Said says his background is part of what makes him a valuable team member. 
A2EF DEI Internship Program participant Mohamed Said.
"I'm from Somalia, and I love my culture and learning about other people's cultures, so I want to think that I've brought new insights," Said says. "When we learn about different people, we develop more empathy. With this empathy, we can work to market our companies better and have more growth and impact."

Gratitude is foremost in Said's mind as he continues his internship. He's a co-founder of Optimize Eastern, a social innovation community that supports student-led social impact projects. Even with that experience under his belt, Said was uncertain that he would stand out from all the other internship applicants. 

"I think I got really lucky because there are so many students like me who want to learn and improve their skills and just have fair opportunities," he says. 

He adds that if he could speak to established local tech company owners, he would stress that investing in students like himself will produce long-term dividends.

"Maybe in about 30 years, the same positions in your companies will need to be filled with people like myself," he says. "The more that you can teach us, and the more opportunities that you can give us now, the greater positive impact we can have on Ann Arbor's future."
A2EF DEI Internship Program partner Jake Koppinger, CEO at FreightRoll.
Jake Koppinger, CEO of Ann Arbor-based tech startup FreightRoll, seconds that opinion. FreightRoll hired U-M industrial and operations engineering student Edison Li through the internship program.

"I saw Edison's information and, interestingly, I saw a bit of myself," Koppinger says. "I studied the same thing he's taking in college. I know what his struggles might be and what that journey is like, and I wanted to help."

That element of relatability, combined with Li's experience through a previous internship, made him a shoo-in for the FreightRoll internship. Koppinger already has Li working on a research project related to technologies in the supply chain space. Li is the youngest person on the FreightRoll team, and Koppinger says Li's input about some of the company's assets have already proven "refreshing and really helpful."

"It's about diversity of thought and diversity of experience making our ideas and our company stronger," Koppinger says. "Ann Arbor is an up-and-coming tech hub, and I imagine that if more of us cultivate this attitude, our companies can really thrive for a long time."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.