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Forage, formerly InsideSherpa, raises $9.3 million Series A for virtual work experiences

Tech’s coveted internships were some of the first roles to be cut as offices closed and businesses shuttered in response to the coronavirus. A number of companies across the country, including Glassdoor, StubHub, Funding Circle, Yelp, Checkr and even the National Institutes of Health, canceled their internship programs altogether.

For InsideSherpa co-founders Tom Brunskill and Pasha Rayan, the canceled internships were an opportunity. InsideSherpa, a Y Combinator graduate, hosts virtual work experience programs for college students all around the world.

College students, searching for a way to get job-ready, flocked to the platform from Northern Italy to South-East Asia, to all over the United States. Enrollments in InsideSherpa grew more than 86%, up to 1 million students.

The educational service successfully attracted student interest, and now, has landed investor interest. Today, InsideSherpa announced that it raised $9.3 million in Series A funding, led by Lightspeed Venture Partners . The startup has now raised $11.6 million in known venture funding. Other investors include FundersClub, Y Combinator and Arizona State University.

The financing will be used to grow InsideSherpa’s staff, with more engineering, product and sales roles. Along with the financing, InsideSherpa announced that it has rebranded to Forage.

Forage isn’t selling an internship replacement, but instead comes in one degree before the recruitment process. Students can go to the website and take a course from large companies such as Deloittee, Citi, BCG and GE. The course, designed in collaboration with the particular company and Forage, gives students a chance to “explore what a career would look like at their firm before the internship or entry-level application process opens,” Brunskill explains.

Forage is focused on partnering with large companies that employ upwards of 1,000 students per year via internships to help open up new pipelines. The corporate partners pay a subscription fee per year to post courses, and students can access all courses for free.

Popular courses include the KPMG Data Analytics Program, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Software Engineering Program and the Microsoft Engineering Program.

While Forage declined to disclose ARR, it confirmed that it was profitable heading into its fundraise, which formally closed in July.

Within edtech, flocks of companies have tried (and failed) to deliver on the promise of skills-based learning and employment opportunities as an outcome. The strategy of getting cozy with corporate partners isn’t unique to Forage, but the team views it as a competitive advantage. Of course, the effectiveness of that strategy matters more than the fact that it exists in the first place. Forage did not disclose efficacy information, but said that “some” corporate partners hired up to 52% of the cohort from their programs.

When Brunskill and Rayan first started Forage in 2017, they imagined a mentoring marketplace to connect students to young professionals. Three years later, much has changed.

“While students were interested in the product, they weren’t using it the way we intended,” he said. “Students kept saying to us ‘we just want an internship at company X, can you get me one?’ ”

While Brunskill doesn’t believe there’s any silver bullet solution to fixing education or recruitment systems, he remains optimistic in Forage’s future. After all, even if democratizing access to skills is the first step in a bigger race, it’s not an easy one.

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Gaining Skills Virtually to Close the Inequality Gap

When the word came in early March, Ashley Russell recalled his first reaction as “sheer astonishment.” Within a week, Year Up, a nonprofit job-training program in cities across the country, would go entirely online after being held entirely in person.

The promise of Year Up is that an intensive regimen of technical and professional training can be an on-ramp to a middle-class career. “You can change your life,” said Mr. Russell, an instructor at Year Up in Chicago.

Trying to translate life-changing experiences to computer screens and video classes is the lockdown-induced experiment now being conducted by Year Up and other programs designed for disadvantaged Americans.

The future of these programs is in doubt at a time when they would seem to be needed more than ever. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs in the last few months because of the coronavirus pandemic, while the recent unrest over the death of George Floyd, an African-American man killed in police custody in Minneapolis, has been intensified by persistent income inequality and the lack of opportunity for many.

Pointing to those issues, Gerald Chertavian, founder and chief executive of Year Up, asked, “As we rebuild and recover, will it be in a way that is more economically inclusive — that brings more Americans along?”

Mr. Chertavian and the leaders of other programs, which operate in dozens of American cities, from Seattle to Miami, said they saw opportunity beyond their immediate challenges. The forced march online, they said, has triggered a drastic rethinking across the education-to-employment field and will most likely bring lasting change — and perhaps open the door to significant expansion.

Program directors spoke of a post-pandemic model, in a year or so, in which half or even three-quarters of instruction and coaching would be done virtually, and the remainder face-to-face.

“The way our kind of work force development is done has changed permanently,” said Plinio Ayala, chief executive of Per Scholas, a skills nonprofit based in the South Bronx.

The long-held view was that hands-on personal attention was necessary to lift up students who have to fill gaps in their education, overcome life obstacles and then make their way in the corporate world.

But Year Up and others say they have found that much more of their training can be done effectively online than they expected. While the attrition rates for students are higher, they are only slightly higher, they said.

The few dozen nonprofit, upward-mobility programs share certain characteristics. They cater mainly to people in their 20s and 30s. They have forged close ties with local employers and focus on skills that are in demand by companies, particularly in technology but also in health care, finance and advanced manufacturing.

The programs rely on charitable, corporate and some government funding. Some have a national reach, including Year Up, Per Scholas, NPower and Generation, and some are local, like Project Quest in San Antonio and Pursuit in Queens.

But most remain small. Year Up, one of the largest, had 2,900 graduates last year.

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Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Moving a large share of training online would remove barriers to expansion by bringing down costs, requiring less classroom space and reaching more students, program leaders said.

“It could accelerate the growth and increase the importance of this whole category of programs,” said Norman Atkins, who is leading a research project on education-to-employment initiatives for America Achieves, a nonprofit that advises foundations on education policy.

Year Up, founded two decades ago, is a full-year program with six months of course training and a six-month apprenticeship at a company.

The program stands out for the size of the jump in income it has delivered for its graduates, results that have been verified by independent assessments.

Before Year Up, its students’ annual earnings ranged from $9,000 to $15,000, depending on where they lived in the country. The graduates typically land jobs that pay from $35,000 to $55,000, with the national average $42,000. Companies that have consistently hired from Year Up include Accenture, JPMorgan Chase, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Bank of America and American Express.

Typically, 75 percent of the graduates are employed within four months. Job placements have slowed this year but by less than 10 percent so far, the program said.

Year Up conducted some online experiments before, but tentative digital steps became a survival sprint in March. It’s unclear how much coursework will eventually be done remotely, though Mr. Chertavian estimated it would be half or more. “And there’s a real opportunity for us to scale up and reach more people,” he said.

The coronavirus shock to the economy has hit many Year Up students. They receive modest biweekly stipends, but most depend on the support of family members or friends or income from side jobs while they are in the full-time program.

Estefan Salgado, a Year Up intern at JP Morgan Chase, lives in the South Bronx with his wife, Carmen, and their two young children. After his wife was laid off in March, Mr. Salgado got $150 from Year Up’s Covid-19 impact fund to buy groceries and pay bills.

“It really helped me stay in the program,” said Mr. Salgado, 26, whose wife recently got a new job as a home health care worker.

For Mr. Russell, a veteran Year Up instructor in Chicago, the move to online classes had some “train wreck moments” getting students set up with laptops, internet service and video software. But he teaches a computer-support course, and he said he used the problems encountered by his 40 students as learning opportunities.

When teaching, Mr. Russell sometimes found that students’ interest strayed as screen fatigue set in. So he shortened his lecture-and-demonstration sessions to a maximum of 30 minutes, compared with up to two hours before. He also used the interactive features in Zoom’s video software to pepper students with frequent questions to monitor whether his lessons were being absorbed.

With less class time, Mr. Russell is assigning his students short projects, which they do in teams of five or six. He conducts virtual “office hours” for one-on-one mentoring. And he holds open sessions, where students can ask him any questions they have.

It has gone surprisingly well, Mr. Russell said, but he has misgivings about what is lost without interacting in person, like the informal conversations in hallways and over lunch, often about students’ personal lives and challenges.

“We don’t teach a subject,” he said. “We teach people.”

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Credit…Lyndon French for The New York Times

Marianna Torres, 20, went through the in-person coursework at Year Up last year. The technical training was rigorous and difficult, she said, but there was another side to the program focused on “soft skills.” That curriculum included speaking in public, networking, working in teams, even how to sit and dress. She was taught to wear neutral colors, avoid patterns, skirts no shorter than one inch above the knee, and heels no higher than two inches.

“It was strict but also very supportive,” said Ms. Torres, who in January began a six-month internship in digital marketing at Salesforce in Chicago. “They’re trying to build you into the best professional person you can be.”

A new nonprofit, Merit America, may be a glimpse of the hybrid future of training programs for the disadvantaged. It is run by its co-chief executives, Rebecca Taber Staehelin and Connor Diemand-Yauman, who both previously worked at Coursera, a large online learning network. The duo said they were convinced of the potential for online learning but also realized that online instruction alone didn’t really work for the underserved community.

To overcome that, Merit America combines online training, in-person small-group meetings and one-to-one coaching. The split is roughly 75 percent online and 25 percent in person. Evening and weekend sessions are available, so students can hold onto their current jobs and incomes while completing the program.

The courses began in the fall of 2018, and their early results — before lockdowns forced Merit America to move entirely online — have been encouraging. Courses in technology support and computer programming range from eight weeks to five months, and income gains for graduates in Dallas and Washington have averaged $18,000.

“It’s a combination of tech and touch,” Mr. Diemand-Yauman said.

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Another Casualty of the Coronavirus: Summer Internships

When she found out in mid-March that she had landed an internship with an education nonprofit in Washington, Lydia Burns, a senior at the University of Louisville, called her mother to celebrate. The whole world was falling apart, but here, finally, was good news.

“Mom, guess what?” she said. “Things are amazing!”

The euphoria lasted all of a week. As she worked on a paper the next Tuesday, Ms. Burns got an email from the nonprofit: The internship was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. She burst into tears.

“I feel like I had such a strong plan,” she said. “I knew what I was going to do — I had been working for it all of college. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

For millions of college students, internships can be a steppingstone to full-time work, a vital source of income and even a graduation requirement.

But like so much else, summer internships have been upended by the pandemic, with a wide range of major companies, including tech firms like Yelp and entertainment behemoths like the Walt Disney Company, canceling programs and rescinding offers.

Students who had locked down internships as early as September are now jobless. Others who had hoped to experience an office setting for the first time are instead looking for work at fast-food restaurants. Many low-income undergraduates, already saddled with student loans, are concerned that a jobless summer could put them at a disadvantage in future application cycles, making it harder to find full-time work after graduation.

Some companies are continuing to pay interns to work from home, sending corporate laptops in the mail and holding get-to-know-you sessions over Zoom. But students fear that remote internships will not afford the networking opportunities that can make spending a summer in an office so valuable, especially for interns who have few professional contacts.

“You pick up a lot of subtle clues about how to behave in that profession, how to communicate like an engineer, how to work in teams like a nurse,” said Matthew Hora, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin who has studied internships. “Students are going to be missing that.”

Cassandra Dopp, a junior at the University of South Carolina, felt the effects of the pandemic earlier than most American college students: She was studying abroad in Rome when the coronavirus swept Italy.

Ms. Dopp, a business major, returned home in March and was set to work for Geico this summer at the company’s headquarters in Fredericksburg, Va. But as she sat in her childhood bedroom last month, Ms. Dopp got a call from a human-relations official at the company, who informed her the internship was canceled.

Many of her friends had already gotten similar calls. But Ms. Dopp has always prided herself on keeping organized and planning for the future. Now, she has no idea how she’ll stay occupied after final exams, let alone what she’ll do in July or August.

“I’d never put myself in this position to not have a plan for my summer and my future,” she said. “It was a big letdown. It’s disappointing.”

In a statement, Geico said its summer program rotates interns through multiple departments to expose them to different facets of the company. “Unfortunately,” the company said, “this experience was not possible in our current remote working environment.”

Many of the cancellations stem from those kinds of logistical challenges, or from cost-cutting at companies that are reeling from the economic damage of the pandemic. In other cases, students were hired to work at sports venues and political conventions, or help organize events that have been canceled.

Keri Johnson, a journalism student at Ohio University, landed what she described as a “dream” internship writing marketing material for the Nelsonville Music Festival in Ohio. Then the festival was canceled, along with many other cultural events, like South by Southwest.

Ms. Johnson has to intern for at least 200 hours to earn her journalism degree in the fall. With the festival canceled, she’s concerned she will have to push back her graduation, making it harder to find a job and putting financial strain on her family.

“Summer is the time I get to work as much as possible because I’m not in class,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s kind of scary thinking about the fact that I won’t be able to work in the summer as much as I normally would.”

The cancellations have cut across virtually all industries, from media to technology to finance. But predictably, the industries that have suffered the most during the pandemic — travel, retailing, hospitality — have had especially large numbers of cancellations.

Connor Machon, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, accepted an internship at American Airlines in late September, turning down several other offers. He got his first inkling that the program might be in jeopardy when a friend who was set to work at Southwest Airlines had an offer rescinded in March.

A few days later, he learned that his internship was also being cut. Over the next weeks, Mr. Machon kept busy applying for dozens of other positions and sending more than 100 networking emails. Ultimately, he secured an internship at a start-up in Austin, earning $15 an hour.

“At this point, I was really open to anything, as long as I was being paid,” he said.

Not all internships are canceled. A number of banks and technology firms have simply shortened their programs by a few weeks. Media organizations like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal gave some summer interns the option of deferring until the fall or next year.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.