Three lessons the right internship can teach college students

Sometimes what you learn outside the classroom in college can be more important than what you learn inside the classroom.

In the summer of 2004, Ryan Coon decided to intern at College Works Painting (, a company that hires high-achieving university students and trains them on the basics of managing a business from start to finish. Each selected intern oversees the marketing, sales, production management and customer relations of a house-painting business. Coon took on the internship as a freshman at University of Illinois.

The experience changed his life.

“I managed a territory in the suburbs of Chicago for College Works Painting,” Coon says. “I learned a lot that summer and it helped me in some ways I didn’t even realize until years later.”

Coon says he learned three important lessons.

— Focus is important. “There are a lot of distractions,” he says, “so when you own a business you need to ignore the distractions, remove the stress and get it done.”

— Persistence pays off. “It takes a lot of nights to be an overnight success,” Coon says. “Everybody said Uber was an overnight success but it didn’t make it big until it was in business for 10 years.”

— Select a good team. “You have to be able to trust your team,” Coon says. “Having a great team is very important.”

Today, Coon is co-founder and CEO of a company called Avail, an online property management platform for small, independent landlords. In February 2011, he left a career in investment banking to pursue his entrepreneural dream. Coon says his experience at College Works helped prepare him to take that leap of faith.

More than 50,000 students apply to intern at College Works Painting annually just like Coon did, yet only 2,000 interns are hired.

Matt Stewart, entrepreneur and co-CEO of College Works, says over 90 percent of their alumni find college-graduate-level jobs within three months of obtaining their degree.

“It’s an incredibly difficult challenge, managing your own business – and that’s what our interns are doing,” Stewart says. “Participating students emerge from the experience with a robust skills set and a competitive edge that sets them apart in a widening field of job applicants after graduation. We’re building a stronger workforce, better prepared to create a stronger economy.’’

Young people won’t gain these necessary skills from an easy internship, he says. These days, the company name on your resume holds little to no weight. It’s not who you interned for, but what you did during your internship that matters, Stewart says.

Coon says the skills learned in the right internship are critical to success later in life.

“It gave me a good foundation in business principles that I am still using today.”