Robert F. Smith on Internships and Early Exposure to Work in STEM

Black North Talks

Canada’s BlackNorth Initiative, a nonprofit devoted to ending anti-Black systemic racism in Canada’s corporate sector, hosted “BlackNorth Talks: The Legacy of Black Entrepreneurship with Robert F. Smith,” in February. Smith fielded questions on business, philanthropy and entrepreneurship, but there was one subject he returned to whether he spoke of STEM learning or business leadership. That subject was the value of internships. 

Wes Hall, Founder and Chairman of the BlackNorth Initiative, took Smith back to his origins from the start of the event, asking Smith about his upbringing and to describe what helped him decide to pursue a career in STEM. Smith has spoken on the value of STEM education and internships before, but with Hall drawing him out, he provided a glimpse of the tenacious, serious student he was at Denver East High School.      

Smith, Bell Labs and the “Joy of Figuring Things Out”

Smith began by saying that he is a member of the first generation in his family to have all of his rights as an American. And he provided a timeline to contextualize his perception of his place in the Black community in which he was brought up. He was born in 1962. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act became law in 1964 and 1965, respectively. Smith said these key civil rights provisions were something that has resonated in “the core” of his being and part of his drive to fully take part in the offerings available to him.

Before Smith fought for his early internship at Bell Labs as a high school senior, he had two formative experiences that started him on the road to what he called the “joy of figuring things out.” The first was provided by a community member who volunteered to teach a group of students, including Smith, about rocketry. The second was a computer class his junior year of high school. In the first instance, Smith said that a significant proportion of the students in that unofficial rocket club went on to become engineers. In the second, Smith obtained his first experience of computers in the late ‘70s. 

“I’d never experienced computers at the time.” Smith said. “And I talked to my teacher and I said ‘Well, how do these things work?’ And he told me about this thing called a transistor. And I said, ‘Well, that’s pretty interesting. Well, who invented those?’ And he said, ‘This place called Bell Labs.’ And so I did some research and found out there was actually a Bell Labs in Colorado. So, I called the Human Resources person at Bell Labs […].”

 The rest is history, but Smith’s personal experience is backed by research.

Early Exposure to STEM Can Change Student Trajectories 

Studies show that early exposure to STEM allows young students to perceive a future career and establish the goals to achieve that aim. Smith’s early experiences, along with his internship at Bell Labs, exposed him to the world of technology and to what would become the “digital revolution” which Smith said was how he realized his calling to science and eventually the financial technology sector. Because, at the time, there were very few Black engineers and scientists in the world and none whatsoever in his neighborhood. 

“[…] when I walked through the halls of Bell Labs, there weren’t many brown faces, at all,” Smith said. “But I saw the type of money people were making. I saw the type of inventions they got to do, and I was wondering why didn’t we get that work? And when I went back to my community I realized there were no engineers in my neighborhood, in my community. And the vast majority of the people at Bell Labs were engineers.”

That was why Smith decided it was important for him to become an engineer and begin building his problem-solving skills. It’s also why Smith is a vocal advocate for internships, to ensure college-age STEM students get the internship opportunities they need to expose them to technology, analysis and the personal mentorship that can inspire a 17-year-old to expand their world view. 

Virtual Internships Can Be a Great Opportunity

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), summer 2020 internships moved forward online, with some dropoff due to social distancing protocols. And according to one museum administrator, the digital internship is here to stay.

Hall asked Smith if students, who are right now by necessity exploring and participating in virtual internships, would have the same opportunities as an in-person experience. Smith replied that virtual internships might offer even more opportunity for today’s students. Smith said the most important part of his internship was the dynamic of discovery and learning how to learn. His boss helped him formulate a “process of unpacking problems and thinking through the solutions,” which can be achieved online. And online, students are not limited to the people on their immediately assigned team. They have access to a wealth of sources and experts online. 

But Smith did offer a tip for students looking at internships this year to “take the time” to unpack their internship experience, beyond the experience of the daily work. Find experts. Engage. Be proactive. He also encouraged students to share their knowledge with peers and younger students as tutors and mentors themselves. Not only does it help solidify the leaning, but Smith said it can serve the Black community as well.

Build a Path to the Top With Internships 

Smith said the time has come to build pathways to the C-Suite for Black and minority professionals. Part of that pipeline is internships. Smith explained a holistic approach to building a pipeline to inclusive talent pools and ensuring that excellence is identified and nurtured so that minorities are in the right place to get identified for higher level positions. 

“We just have to, as a broader society, [realize] that not only is racism wrong, it’s just bad. It’s bad for the economy,” Smith said.
Read more about how internships can bridge the career opportunity gap faced by Black students. And find out more about internX, an internship program for minority students, supported by the Fund II Foundation, a non-profit organization whose founding mission includes the principals of education outreach and providing the tools to explore American innovation.