Interning at the Ford Foundation

Alex Cao
During the summer of 2019, Alex Cao (BS '20) interned at the Ford Foundation. Read on to learn more about his time there:

Tell me about your summer internship experience? Where did you work and what types of projects did you work on?

I really enjoyed this summer! I was working at the Ford Foundation on their Mission Investments team. My favorite projects revolved around researching opportunities in impact investing for regional offices, exploring different models of creating diversity in finance, and determining what the corresponding effects would be on returns. I also spent some time thinking about impact reporting and benchmarking with some of Ford’s investments.

How did sustainable business practices play a role in your internship?

Sustainable business is the end consumer for the Mission Investments team. We invest in fund managers who then make direct investments for our Mission Related Investments Portfolio. I definitely want to highlight the fact that this is not concessionary capital—we are making market-level returns with these investments while also making an impact. For our Program Related Investments Portfolio, the idea is to undertake riskier ventures, whether that is new operating/business models, unproven ideas or funds, etc. With these investments, we are aiming to break even or make some returns but it allows for more flexibility to pursue even greater impact. Think of them like a recyclable grant.

What were your top three learnings from your internship?

I think the three things that come to mind for me are developing leadership habits, confidence, and attention to detail. During my check-ins, I asked my supervisor about the different firms and how to be a good intern, and while we touched on technical skills together, the emphasis was on the fact that these skills can (and often are) learned during the onboarding process, but a lot of the little things and habits regarding professionalism and organization (like setting agendas for check-ins for example) are equally important. For example, learning how to communicate with your team and keeping them in the loop even if they aren’t the lead on a project helps to manage up and down. The second thing is confidence. Coming in as an intern on a lean team with some people who had 20+ years in investment banking was intimidating. I remember on the first day however they asked me for my opinion on different projects, and in many ways I was taking the first shot at a lot of ideas they were thinking about. Trust in yourself and your capabilities and speak up! Talk to people and ask good questions. Also be confident and reach out not just within your team, but across all different functions and people you interact with since ideas, innovation, mentors, and interesting discussions can come from anywhere! Finally, I learned attention to detail. This is pretty cliché but it's cliché for a reason. Take the extra hour to make things organized and coherent so you don’t have to look it all over at the end and spend maybe triple the time. Always be thinking about if someone was completely new to your project or even your Excel sheet, could they understand what is going on in each step of the process without you?

Did your summer internship experience change your thoughts about your career trajectory moving forward?

In a way, it confirmed rather than changed things. Working at a place that is mission-driven really matters to me and that I enjoy team environments where I can tackle thought-provoking projects that make a difference. I will say the following, however—there are multiple paths to try and integrate social impact into your career and it could be winding, or you could be lucky enough to get a shot out of undergrad. Keep your eyes open and your ears close to the ground and be proactive! Reach out to people and talk and you will find a way.