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Pfizer CEO: What we learned from our interns this summer

Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of the pharmaceutical giant, says remote work didn’t deter his company’s internship program, and may have made it stronger.

Pfizer CEO: What we learned from our interns this summer
Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer Inc. [Photo: Steven Ferdman/Getty Images]

The summer of 2020 was a season full of cancellations. Baseball games were pulled down, graduation celebrations were postponed or held online, and raucous political conventions in confetti-filled arenas were nowhere to be found. But through the COVID shutdowns, one tradition endured at Pfizer: the summer internship.

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The importance of this rite of passage is personal to me. During my college years, I spent summers working as a tour guide, leading Greek tourists through Europe—and in that time, I honed meaningful skills that have stayed with me in the decades since. I learned how to read a crowd and motivate a group; how to connect with individuals in the midst of a larger organization; and how to communicate information in ways that are effective and compelling. For a young college student who was still finding his place in the world, these were formative lessons in leadership and foundational skills that have guided me at critical moments. While my road to becoming the CEO of Pfizer was certainly long, I have no doubt that it began with that early summer job.

That’s why, even when COVID-19 threatened so many important milestones and institutions, I was determined to find a way to offer young people the same opportunity I had to sharpen their talents and expand their horizons. As the summer draws to a close and we say farewell to Pfizer’s nearly 400 interns (down from about 600 in previous years), I frequently return to four important lessons about our unique 2020 summer internship program.

  1. Creativity is key. Yes, COVID threw us a curveball; but after some thoughtful problem-solving, we insisted our summer internship program move forward. We decided on a fully virtual experience in April, because we wanted the students to have guaranteed opportunities. We knew the experience would be different—perhaps challenging—for the interns and their managers, yet the opportunities for networking, understanding our industry, and earning a paycheck far outweighed any areas of concern. While we missed impromptu conversations with our interns in the hallways, we had the joy of working with them online—and, not surprisingly, benefited from their agility and creative problem solving required with remote work and teleconferencing.
  2. Personnel matters. We were fortunate to have an extraordinary group of interns—but the existing supervisors at Pfizer was also vital to making our amended internship programs successful and valuable to participants. Our interns’ supervisors not only adapted to the new demands on their time and energy; they also made the extra effort to ensure that the summer months had meaningful work, introductions for networking video chats, and virtual coffee chats. Because of my colleagues’ commitment to this program, we were able to offer an experience that was interesting, educational, and packed with the kind of mentorship and career support that helps young adults find their way.
  3. Inclusivity counts. Equity is one of Pfizer’s core values—along with Courage, Excellence, and Joy—and we wanted these values to be represented in our 2020 summer intern program. I challenged our team to ensure that more than half of our US-based intern cohort came from underrepresented backgrounds (including, but not limited to, first generation college attendees, veterans, refugees, students with disabilities, and minority ethnic groups). Ultimately, 67 percent of the students who self-reported identified themselves as members of groups that are typically underrepresented. We could not have achieved this important milestone towards greater inclusivity without the enthusiasm of our colleagues, many of whom reached out to their alma maters to encourage students’ applications, answered questions from prospective applicants, and acted as advocates with hiring managers. Similarly, I am grateful to the nearly 20 “equity” partner organizations who helped us achieve this bold goal, educating students about the opportunity and urging them forward.
  4. Learning is vital—for interns, and for us. Of course, the 2020 Pfizer summer intern program did not turn out exactly as we had anticipated. Many of the experiences that students expect in an internship simply weren’t possible to achieve this year. And as we would with any new venture, we reached out for our students’ feedback in order to understand how best to learn from and build on the program for future years. Whether the 2021 summer interns sit in one of our 18 US internship sites or work from their kitchen tables, we will take this information and use it for continuous improvement.

The 2020 Pfizer internship may have been unorthodox, but I am confident that both Pfizer and our 389 summer interns learned valuable skills and useful information. When our interns look back on their summer with Pfizer years from now, I hope they will see it the same way as I viewed my own summer jobs: as a foundational experience that will continue to guide them forward.

Albert Bourla is chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer, the multinational pharmaceutical company based in New York.

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