Entrepreneurs

Matt Wilkerson: Remote Externships Provide Opportunities for New Grads to Gain Experience

Matt Wilkerson

Ladderworks is a publishing startup of diverse picture books with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by a character named Spiffy, with founders working on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. For January, the focus is on SDG 8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth. There is so much at stake, so let’s see what’s being done!

Hi! It’s me, Spiffy the interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with the latest scoop on entrepreneurs making a difference in healthcare for all of us around the world! Today’s rockstar is Matt Wilkerson, co-founder of Paragon One, a company offering remote externships and opportunities to garner experience to enter the workforce.

Spiffy: Welcome Matt, I’m super curious about these remote externships. What can you tell me about that and the main challenges you are addressing?

Matt: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! So, Paragon One prepares students for the global economy by making it dramatically easier to win work opportunities and build career skills while in school, through our "remote externships". We bridge the gap between education and employment by partnering with schools and companies in every industry, from big tech firms like Facebook, HP Tech Ventures, and Zillow to venture capital companies and non-profits, to give students the chance to build employable skills by working remotely on real projects. 

Spiffy: I see! And what motivated you to tackle this?

Matt: Many students struggle to secure their first work opportunity, ironically because they don't already have work experience to leverage in job interviews. And the reason companies aren't able to offer more internships is because managers lack the resources and time to handhold interns. Paragon One works at the intersection of education and employment by partnering with both schools and companies to solve this problem. Students are able to work on real projects for companies by logging into our virtual platform, where they receive training and mentorship. Our program managers serve as teaching assistants to mentor students as they complete work, so managers at companies are saved the heavy lifting and can engage many more diverse candidates.

Spiffy: How do you think this will help create a more equitable workplace and economy?

Matt: Paragon One's remote externships are open to students all over the world, no matter where they live or study. Our aim is to broaden access to career opportunities, so even students that don't study at big schools and don't have social networks to recommend them when they apply to jobs, are able to build their resumes. We've served well over 1,000 students since we began offering remote externships in 2019, many of whom come from underrepresented and underserved communities, and are first-generation college students.

Learning online

Students from all over the world collaborate during their remote externship on a Zoom call. (Image courtesy of Tamara Mathias)

Spiffy: What about any recent milestones? Do you have anything exciting you can share?

Matt: After piloting our program with Facebook in 2020, Facebook decided to bring Paragon One on as an exclusive remote externship partner this year and expand the program to make work experience opportunities at the company available to many more diverse students. We are currently working with multiple teams within Facebook, as well as schools and non-profits that work with students all over the country to make this program available to diverse and underrepresented students. 

Spiffy: I’m always curious how entrepreneurs deal with failure. What about you? Do you have an experience when you faced failure and didn't give up. What did you learn?

Matt: When I applied to college, I ended up barely getting into MIT. I say barely because I didn’t get an admit right away — I was put on the waitlist. Other people looked at that as failure, but it was a big deal for my family because we were "working class" just two generations ago. I actually remember feeling very fortunate to be given a chance to hustle hard and get off the waitlist! It made me realize that failure can be reframed as an opportunity to prove yourself. The externships we offer at Paragon One today don't require students to have any prerequisite experience or GPA. Instead, we assess their applications based on the potential they exhibit, so every student has a chance to turn that potential into the currency of experience. 

Spiffy: Thank you Matt for sharing about this new endeavor. I might hedge a bet that this is really going to take off! Over and out!

Matt Wilkerson is a serial entrepreneur, who co-founded the ed-tech platform Paragon One to provide flexible and accessible remote externships that help students gain hands-on work experience before graduating. (Nominated by Pathway Ventures)

© 2020 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Jill Landis Jha. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. Follow Spiffy’s stories of founders building a more equitable world at www.ladderworks.co/blogs/spiffys-blog

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse stories with the mission to inspire (at least) a million kids and youth around the world to become entrepreneurs with empathy.

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