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Why This Company Is Paying An Intern To Live With The Amish And Wrestle An Alligator

The “Unternship” program, part of Golin’s entry-level recruiting, encourages gaining life experiences in order to spur innovative thinking.

Why This Company Is Paying An Intern To Live With The Amish And Wrestle An Alligator
[Photo: hanatham Piriyakarnjanakul/EyeEm/Getty Images]

Riding a bull and running a Tough Mudder don’t seem like résumé boosters, but for the global communications firm Golin, these unusual real-world experiences are the makings of an innovative employee.

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Fred CookPhoto: via Golin

“The young generation coming out of college have student loans and pressure from their parents to get a job, but what they don’t have is life experiences,” says CEO Fred Cook. “They’re under the impression that if they follow a strict path one step at a time, they’ll get the perfect job on the day that they graduate. But when you follow the straight and narrow, you miss out on opportunities you’d have if you took a more interesting route.”

That’s why Golin launched an “Unternship” program as part of its entry-level recruiting. In the form of a contest, they asked college students to explain what they would do with a paid summer internship that allowed them to travel and gain unique experiences anywhere in the U.S.–except inside an office.

The idea came from Cook’s book, Improvise: Unconventional Career Advice From an Unlikely CEO, which chronicles his unique career path that included working as a chauffeur, junior high teacher, tour guide, rock band agent, and doorman. When a Golin executive confided in Cook after reading his book that she never would have hired him based on his résumé, the company realized it could be missing out on talented people.

The program was launched in October 2014 at a Public Relations Society of America convention where Cook was speaking to college students. “When I showed them the slide about becoming an Untern, the room broke out into applause,” he says. “I knew we were on to something.”

Several hundred students applied, and the top three finalists were brought to the company’s Chicago office and issued a challenge: With $40 and a video crew, go into the city and have an unlikely experience. The winner was Akinbola Richardson, a 22-year-old graduate of Howard University, who rose to the challenge by spending his time panhandling with a homeless man and driving a taxi around Chicago.

Photo: Flickr user
(vincent desjardins)

“I believe if you want to know a city, there are two groups of people you must talk to: the homeless and taxi drivers,” says Richardson. “They are the individuals who breathe and feel the heartbeat of a city, because they are constantly immersed in it.”

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The idea impressed Cook: “When you ask someone in an interview process to do something brave, it is amazing what they come up with–they’ll surprise the hell out of you,” he says. “Akinbola differentiated himself throughout the process. He is powerful, emotional, and articulate. He presented his challenge with such passion and empathy. We were blown away.”

Richardson got to choose what he would do during his Unternship, and created an itinerary that includes skydiving in Georgia, running a Tough Mudder race in Virginia, living with an Amish community in Ohio and a Native American tribe in Wyoming, riding a bull in Colorado, learning how to drive a dog sled in Alaska, wrestling alligators in Texas, and building a house for the homeless in New Orleans.

“I chose to do a combination of things that would scare me, expose me to new cultures, and provide a way I could be of service,” says Richardson. “As humans, we are the sum total of our experiences. Everything I go through becomes who I am. A plethora of experiences will drive inspiration.”

Photo: Flickr user
micadew

Richardson will blog about his adventures throughout the summer, and return in September to his new job at Golin as a video producer.

Cook is optimistic about the results: “I hope he finds fresh perspectives on the world and brings back bold new ideas and creative things we might do for clients and for our company. We’re in the idea business, and we’re always looking for people who will bring us new ideas.”

Golin plans to roll out the program to more of its offices next summer, and Cook encourages other companies that want to hire innovate people to be innovative in their recruiting and see what happens.

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“A normal interview and writing test won’t always identify the best candidate,” he says. “Delve deeper into the type of person you’re talking to. Get inside the heart of what makes them different and passionate. You don’t always find that in a résumé.”