When LSA sophomore Zane Jones couldn’t find any internship opportunities after combing through various job and internship websites throughout January, he turned to his aunt, an environmental lawyer, and uncle, an environmental engineer, to find a legal or environmental position.
“I asked my aunt and uncle people they knew they could reach out to in (fields) related to the environment or working in a law office,” Jones said. “They connected me with a really cool person who works for a solar energy company that does solar farm operations across the country.”
Jones got an interview, but before he was offered a position, the company canceled their internship program as the COVID-19 crisis hit. He said he will search for opportunities through connections he’s built in Ann Arbor, his hometown, rather than rely on platforms like LinkedIn.
Business alum Jake Rosenfeld has taken a market-based approach to solving the inefficiencies of the job market. He founded and is currently the chief operations officer of Bonsai, a 1:1 virtual mentoring marketplace that connects advice-seekers to advice-givers with a mission of democratizing social capital, a person’s network of relationships including formal and informal connections of family, friends and professional relationships.
“What we’re doing with Bonsai is trying to even the playing field a little bit because everybody nowadays has (a phone) in their pocket … and there’s no reason why you should be essentially constricted with access to social capital based on where you grow up or what school you go to,” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld said he had access to a strong social network through growing up in the suburbs of New York and attending the University of Michigan. After moving to New York City, Rosenfeld saw firsthand the inefficiencies and imbalances between those with and without built in access to social capital.
“We always hear the phrase ‘it’s not necessarily what you know, but it’s who you know,’” Rosenfeld said. “It’s really tough when you don’t know anybody and you have the aptitude to be a data science engineer at Google, but you don’t even know that that job is a thing, because you have no friend or sibling of a friend, whatever it might be, who works at Google … After meeting hundreds and hundreds of their students you begin to understand that there’s a pattern that individuals don’t necessarily see themselves in these wonderful careers because they don’t have the family and friends that are in those careers so they can’t necessarily picture it.”
LSA junior Arielle Sturr applied to over 20 summer internships through company websites, all but two of which were canceled or postponed. Though she said her family and family friend’s connections were in the entertainment industry, she found mentors and connections in D.C. during the Michigan in Washington program who could help her find legal and digital marketing positions. Her D.C. connections supported her after the pandemic hit, but mainly reached out to alert her that opportunities had been postponed or canceled. Sturr said she would consider using a service like Bonsai for the post-grad job search.
“I’m definitely not opposed to seeking those opportunities or like seeking out a paid service or anything,” Sturr said. “If it gets to that point, I don’t think I would use it for a summer internship, but because I am a rising senior and because … it’s going to be harder to get a job in the next year, I would definitely consider it for a full-time job after graduation.”
LSA sophomore Sarah Niemann found her summer internship through the LSA Opportunity Hub’s Opportunity Network. After all the internships in Washington, D.C. were canceled, she found an opportunity to work on Gretchen Driskell’s congressional campaign for Michigan’s 7th District on the Hub website. Neimann said a personal connection from a student organization helped her secure the job.
“I came across (the Driskell internship) because I’m in a political consulting club at Michigan and one of my friends had worked on the campaign,” Neimann said. “I was on the Michigan Opportunity Hub website and they had (Driskell’s) campaign listed on there … and so I decided to apply. I got an interview, I talked to the internship coordinator, and she knew Emily, who is the girl who I knew from my club… So then I decided to join the team and it’s been really awesome.”
Instead of leaving opportunities to chance, Rosenfeld said Bonsai allows advice-seekers and advice-givers to exchange value efficiently, reducing the friction that long-term mentorships or in-person networking events can create. He said the advice-seeker gains access to professionals in their desired career path or company while advice-givers can monetize their advice and find untapped talent.
“We think (the online platform) increases efficiency (because) it enables people to pop on for a 30-minute slot, and then pop off and go about their day on both sides of the equation,” Rosenfeld said. “Then the pandemic hit, and it became more clear than ever that virtual was the future.”
Rosenfeld said Bonsai seeks to partner with corporations to sponsor sessions for students who can’t afford them to further lower the barriers to accessing social capital. He added the company hopes to work with the University one day to help students expand their networks and get career advice.
Business and LSA professor Wayne Baker studies social capital. He created an online platform called Givitas to connect groups for exchanging advice and information. He said the labor market is inefficient because good jobs and excellent candidates have trouble finding each other.
“Social capital helps to bridge across (good jobs and excellent candidates),” Baker said. “So if you have a good network, you’ll be better able to find those good jobs or those good jobs will be able to find you.”
Baker said people shouldn’t be afraid to seem weak when making requests and building their social networks.
“As long as you make a thoughtful request, people will think you’re more competent, and not less,” Baker said. “People often don’t ask because they just assume that no one can help them. But you never know what they know or who they know until you ask.”
Summer News Editor Julia Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.