The Quad Summer Internship Series
Inesha Premaratne, Project Isizwe
Stellenbosch, South Africa
Position: Strategy & Special Projects Intern | WiFi Winston Initiative
School: Harvard University
How did you get the internship?
I had a bit of an unconventional approach. I study foreign policy and international affairs at school and feel deeply that to understand how the US acts in the world, you have to get out there and see the world, talk to people, and figure out where they’re coming from. Knowing that, I had to figure out where exactly I was going. I’ve always been fascinated by South Africa for academic reasons – with parents from Sri Lanka, I care deeply about post conflict reconciliation.
It just so happens that the reconciliation process followed in South Africa in the wake of apartheid is one of the premier models, one that the Sri Lankan government itself is trying to emulate now. My destination figured out, I started searching for internship opportunities that might work for me. I came across an article on CNN that talked about the top 15 start-ups in Africa, among them was Project Isizwe in South Africa. Isizwe’s mission of connecting the disconnected and bringing underserved communities online really struck a chord with me. I reached out via their website and was lucky enough to get an internship. In retrospect, I got incredibly lucky. That said, I think if you know what you’re looking for and go after it, you’re much more likely to be pleased with the internship position you end up in. In previous summers, I had chosen an internship out of a whole cast of options – based on what my friends were doing, on what I thought I might find interesting, etc. As a rising senior, my approach this time around was very different. I asked myself, with this one last summer what the heck do you want to do with it? I thought really hard about that; it led me to Isizwe and honestly, it was the perfect fit.
What's A Typical Day For You Like?
The typical day could vary – in fact, my second week on the job, I was dispatched to the road. To explain, Isizwe, despite being an NGO is very much structured like a start-up. That’s the vibe in the office, that’s how people work. Everyone is free to do as they please just as long as they get their work done. That said, my first week, I was given three different projects. My second week on the job, I heard a project we were working on out in the Eastern Cape and asked if I could get involved. Soon, they dispatched me to the road where I was helping figure out how we could scale our free WiFi model to other municipalities in the rest of South Africa. When I was in town, my day would start off early – by 7 I was usually in the office and a coffee break or two aside, I’d drill away at my projects with my colleague’s banter and good humor in the background. By noon, we’d break for lunch. In the afternoon, I might have a meeting or two to discuss questions that had come up for me or just to chat with my boss about general projects the organization was working on; meetings were often a great excuse to also get out of the office – one thing I loved about work was that we’d always “take a walk” to have a meeting. Aside from that, there was little routine; I was left to my own devices. Aside from the Monday and Friday staff meetings where we got a grip of where everyone was, I had the space to structure my day and to set my own goals as I pleased. During my time out on the road, we’d spent each night in a new city, touring and discovering new municipalities by day. We’d have impromptu meetings with municipal managers to talk to them about Project Isizwe and we’d go into town centers to chat with kids and old folks alike about their experiences (or lack thereof) with WiFi, why they had challenges with connectivity, etc.
What is your favorite part about this opportunity and what is the most challenging part about it?
My most favorite part of the internship was the road-trip I got to do with WiFi Winston, the WiFi Mobile. To cut a long story short, Project Isizwe’s mission is to offer free WiFi to underserved communities. They launched in Tshwane (Pretoria), South Africa (the capital) and are now in the process of scaling to other parts of South Africa. The idea is to one day spread their services across Africa. Their model requires partnering with municipal governments and hiring local contractors to cut service and material costs as best possible. That said, now that Isizwe has launched in Pretoria, they need to get the word out about the NGO so that other municipalities get interested. As part of their larger marketing initiative, they dispatched a Toyoto Jeep, decked out with free WiFi on board. The Jeep, called Winston, travels around the country, ideally attracting people to its free WiFi, building brand awareness, and making pit-stops so that Winston’s driver, Gerrit, can go into city councils and town halls to “pitch” Isizwe. I got to join in on the road trip for a week and a half to document Winston’s journey and to help bolster our media presence – blog, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. I loved it because it was definitely a most unconventional experience. It was far more challenging than I had thought it would be – to be out on the road, constantly thrusting yourself into new environments and around new places – places that might not always leave you feeling that safe – and not having the comfort of knowing what bed you’ll be sleeping in at night or where you’ll wind up next. It is exhilarating and adventurous but trying all the same; we can get so used to the routine of a work environment that we know. It was challenging to figure out the editorial aspects of what content I posted – knowing that it would all send a message that I wanted to frame and get out in front of before it was posted. There are so many narratives people think about when they think about underserved communities in South Africa, or Africa more broadly, but I really wanted to spotlight more meaningful moments and the incredible array of peoples and places I was encountering on the road. To create something – to be the producer – requires in many ways scripting and creating moments for people to respond to. It’s a skill that I can’t say I’ve mastered all that well but one that was nonetheless fun and challenging for me to try while I was out on the road.
What advice would you give to future interns to maximize their experience?
So often I think we gravitate towards companies and traditional internships without thinking about what we really want to a) learn and b) produce/deliver by summer’s end. To have maximum impact, I think it’s important to sit down and really answer these questions even before you start your search. That said, you veritably might not know what you want to produce/deliver/learn – in which case, I would say feel free to explore but go where you know you’ll find a really great environment. One of the best things a mentor once told me was think a lot about who you will be working for – in many ways they can unleash your growth and push you towards figuring out what you want to do. I’ve been fortunate to have some really great bosses in all my internships and it’s made all the difference.
How will you apply the work you’re doing here to your college experience?
The great thing about Isizwe was it forced me to take a really important problem – how do we provide WiFi to people for free – and to break it down into logical steps. I learned a lot of content in my internship – for instance, how does wifi work? Cache – what does that mean? What does the networking industry look like? What is all this about last-mile connectivity? - but more importantly I learned how to take a problem and think about a) a possible intervention b) how to do that intervention and c) the causal effects of that intervention beyond just the obvious (in this case, increased connectivity) towards the larger ramifications (in Isizwe’s case, hopefully, economic development, social inclusion, education, and just about whatever else you think internet can serve as a pathway to!)
Is there anything else you would like to add about what makes your internship unique?
I really valued the ability to work abroad. I think it is so important to leave the States and to see how different people work and live outside of our own little communities. The very act of living and working abroad is a process of immersion that pushes you. We traffic often with things that are familiar to us; this cuts down on our need to make incredibly new decisions and frees up time for us to really intellectually dig in and do meaningful work. But that said, going to a new place where even the little things are new to you – for me, in South Africa, where there were gates in front of doors, and the temperature was in Celsius, and there wasn’t always electricity in my flat – pushes you to deal with the unfamiliar in a whole different way. One of my favorite authors says that “we can do hard things… but often we can’t do the little things.” Living abroad is a constant reminder of that, a test in humility and patience, and something that pushes you to really be empathetic – to the learning curves and diverse backgrounds of others.
If you have any more questions about the position or Inesha's experience tweet her @ineshap