25 Aug The Intern Group: How One Colombian Leader Connected The World
The people are the nicest I have ever met. The food is delicious. There is something about Colombia that gives a sense of hope and resilience. Yes, the country had its challenges, but Medellin represents a new world. There are co-working spaces, innovation hubs, and businesses being started all across the picturesque and sprawling city in the hills.
One of my favorite spots I visited was the Atom House in Poblado. I spent a few days there and met a number of inspiring entrepreneurs. One story, in particular, showcased the power of international relations in the purest sense.
Johanna Molina Alvarez was born and raised in Medellin. She was on the fast-track working in Bancolombia, the largest bank in Colombia. She got raise after raise. She received offers from many parts of Colombia and the Caribbean. Life was good, but she wanted to have her own company. She wanted to learn English abroad. In fact, when she interviewed for Bancolombia, one of the questions was, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” She answered, “With my own company.” She was certain she would not get the job. But she did.
When she was working for Bancolombia, she asked the bank if she could have a one year “unofficial sabbatical” to study business English in London. They agreed. I bet they regret it because they’d never get her back.
Johanna planned to stay for one year, but she stayed for two. Her first “job” was a part time job at Pret A Manger. The store was located right above the London Stock Exchange. Johanna chuckled because she left a high paying job in finance to work in a cafe below the London Stock Exchange. She wanted to learn more about how work was done in the floors above. Specifically, she wanted to work there, so she started asking her friends how she could make that happen. All of them told her the London Stock Exchange had their own internship programs, and they were impossible to penetrate. This was a light bulb moment for Johanna’s company.
As anyone living in London, Johanna went to a pub one night. She met David Lloyd, a British man with an interest in Latin America. He was working for Merrill Lynch at the time, but then quit the job a year later, and by this time Johanna moved back to Colombia. He called Johanna and asked how they could start something together. Johanna suggested a pilot in Colombia. The U-20 World Cup 2011 was hosted in Colombia, and they could place interns to work on the exciting event. David loved the idea and they got to work. They called everyone they knew, tapped into their collective contact lists to get in touch with the head of volunteers for the world cup. They wanted FIFA to agree to place 10 volunteers. FIFA agreed. Johanna and David were thrilled, but there was no business in place and no access to interns. They built a basic website and shot this YouTube video. They got the volunteers, but they did not stop. They used that pilot to apply and be accepted at the infamous Startup Chile. CNN covered the story both in 2011 and 2012.
Five short years later, the Intern Group has been awarded by GoAbroad.com (the Trip Advisor of internships) as the top international internship program of 2015. It has six branches in Medellin, London, Madrid, Santiago, Hong Kong, Melbourne, and their newest office, New York City. To date, there are over 3,000 alumni, and The Intern Group will place 2,000 interns this year alone. The interns are placed all over the world. They partner with universities such as London School of Economics, the National University of Singapore, and others. They also partner with companies like Quintessentially Group, Grant Thornton, and Bancolombia.
Johanna and her team at The Intern Group do more than place interns. They provide housing, community, support, and opportunity. In Colombia, for example, they give their participants an opportunity to see the real Colombia. Johanna told me that at the end of the program, they bring all their interns to the Medellin office for a recap. Then she gives each of them a Colombian flag to take wherever they go next so they can spread the word about the ‘real Colombia’ to their friends and families. This gesture and ritual have created new opportunities for Colombia from this informal ambassador program. Families of previous interns have returned to invest in Colombian real estate and meet new service providers. A venture capital fund was created as a result of a recent graduate. Universities around the world ask The Intern Group to curate experiences for their visiting students.
Oh, and I forgot to tell something about Startup Chile. The Intern Group was the only Colombian team. Johanna was the only woman in the group. This moment was the first moment that she knew what was possible. In that moment, she saw the future of innovation and opportunity in Colombia.
This future is one where all of us that visit Colombia leave with one thing in common.
We are all waving its flag high in the air, captivating as the other side of the rainbow, where there awaits a treasure more valuable than gold.
A hope that the rest of the world sees the flag for the glory and connectedness it represents, too.
Brian Rashid speaks about innovation, entrepreneurship, and the future of work. Visit him at brianrashid.com