Last September, MU students Alana Zhu and Meghan O’Hara were sitting in two separate lecture classes when a sign-up sheet for a “summer opportunity” was passed around on a clipboard.
“I didn’t really know anything about what this ‘opportunity’ actually was,” said Zhu, a sophomore majoring in accountancy. “All I saw was that it was an informational meeting about an internship.”
“All I knew was that it sounded hard,” O’Hara said. “It was something new, but it seemed like something that would be a great challenge.”
Seven months and many meetings later, Zhu and O’Hara are each preparing to run their own business for the summer and hope to make a lot of money doing it. They are Missouri “branch managers” for College Works Painting, which is a part of the National Services Group, an organization designed to teach students how to be successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople.
Zhu and O’Hara had to fight off some significant competition to get the internship. Chris Heerdegen, Missouri vice president of College Works Painting, said that approximately 4,500 students within the Missouri branch of College Works Painting applied for the internship. Just 58 applicants were accepted. The painting company, which operates in 22 states, provides its interns with organizational and marketing tools for their business and a “district manager” who serves as a guide for their decision-making.
Alex Khatskin, who will be O’Hara and Zhu’s district manager this summer, said College Works Painting is connected to a host of American businesses through the National Services Group, including FedEx, Sprint, Host Hotels and Resorts Inc. and the accounting partnership Ernst & Young. Heerdegen said the company also has numerous networks through internship alum who have started their own businesses.
The internship, which began in February and continues through early September, requires Zhu and O’Hara to line up paint jobs, hire marketers and painters, see the jobs through to completion and file payrolls. Last month Zhu and O’Hara began gathering estimates for paint jobs near their homes in the greater St. Louis area.
“I’ve spent probably 15 to 20 hours every weekend since March going around and lining jobs up,” said O’Hara, who is a freshman majoring in physical therapy.
Heerdegen said the program’s success is due to a combination of the interns’ dedication and work ethic and the skill and support of the district manager.
Though Khatskin said he initially helps his branch managers through a training program that includes working up estimates for jobs and organizing marketing strategies, he will serve more as a sounding board and a source for guidance than as a supervisor.
“I tell my interns, ‘I can steer your business, but you have to push the gas pedal,’” Khatskin said.
Zhu said that Khatskin’s guidance does not mean she’ll forego the chance to make business decisions.
“We do have superiors, but they aren’t telling us how to spend any of our money,” Zhu said. “They’re merely investors in our success.”
The way branch managers earn their budgeted money relates to how many job estimates they collect. Zhu plans to earn $60,000 in sales, and O’Hara’s goal is to have a six-figure sales budget. “Average” branches, according to the company, earn $50,000 in sales; Heerdegen said Missouri interns average around $9,300 in profit.
But making a profit is rarely easy, even in a structured internship setting, said Alan Skouby, an adjunct assistant professor at MU’s College of Business who specializes in entrepreneurship.
“It’s tough to run a business, no matter what else you’re doing,” Skouby said, “Especially when you’re selling a service, keeping good relationships is a continual operation.”
While disappointment is always a possibility in business, Skouby said the time to start thinking about becoming an entrepreneur is in college. “I encourage students to dig in and see what happens and to get some experience,” he said. “Students are going to have fewer dependent obligations now than they would as adults. I encourage them to get going because procrastinators on any level of business usually aren’t successful.”
Zhu and O’Hara have quickly become organized, setting a schedule for themselves that accounts for nearly every waking hour of their day.
“Up until now, I never really kept much of a schedule,” O’Hara said. “But it’s definitely most beneficial for me to set times to do everything so I can get my schoolwork and my internship work done.”
Both women realize that success during their internship isn’t guaranteed, because entrepreneurship is a naturally risky endeavor. They said they have been told that it takes an extraordinary amount of work to make a profit. Zhu said she was told to expect to work nearly 50 hours a week this summer if she wanted to meet her sales goals.
“Oh, I know it’s going to be hard — very hard,” she said. “There are definitely times when I’ve been worried about not having enough jobs lined up. But after every day and every new estimate, I gain a little more confidence and more motivation.”
Despite the high expectations that Zhu and O’Hara have for the summer, neither of them are currently thinking about starting their own businesses
after college. Both said it’s possible their opinions may change, but for now, they will be proud to have the College Works experience on their résumés.
“Learning to be confident and to be clear in communicating are skills I can take into any field,” O’Hara said. “Presenting myself well, learning to manage my time — these are lifelong skills that I’ve already got a head start in learning.”