Work in the Time of Coronavirus

How authenticity at work affects business

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds, raised funding, and are now leading successful companies.

The Coronavirus crisis in the U.S. has been wildly destabilizing, affecting our daily routines and planned adventures, even those we consider “normal” and “safe.” Perhaps you are worn down from the stress and uncertainty of the past months, too. If so, I’d love to share an unexpected positive from the months-long quarantine. 

As I was trying to figure out a program for virtual summer interns, I learned about authenticity’s impact on the bottom line.

This past spring a friend forwarded me an email from our alma mater, Princeton University. In it, Career Services wrote that traditional summer internship employers had rescinded offers and cancelled programs, leaving many undergrads without the traditional few months of paid employment. The college was reaching out to recruit alumni to recruit interns.


Leaning Into Virtual 

Hiring summer interns always seems like a good way to bring on smart people, but I hadn’t done the work to understand the process. So, yes, I’ll take the trade for doing minimal work in exchange for hiring thoughtful and enthusiastic workers. And, it would be a win-win because I want the interns to do work on real projects that push the company forward.   

I founded Terawatt, an online marketplace, to make accessing career coaching easier and more affordable. Our product is virtual workshops with expert coaches teaching their own content via Zoom. Kind of like an Airbnb for career coaches, we make connecting to coaches and learning their insights a lot easier. Some of the classes we offer have insights on negotiation, public speaking and career change. Terawatt replicates career coaching, which I define as having someone in your corner who wants to help you succeed, but for less money.

One of the interesting data points with career coaches is that 80 percent of new clients come via referral. So Terawatt is your solution if you don’t have any friends who can pass along a name. Similarly, coaches benefit because Terawatt allows them more control on finding clients. 

Terawatt goes further than vetting and connecting, as our product is virtual classes where students split the cost of the coach’s rate. Price is an important issue because the average hourly one-on-one rate for an expert career coach is over $300. 

Back to the story: Because I founded a company based on the value of virtual connection, hiring remote interns didn’t give me pause. But as I got closer to the interns’ start date, I realized I would need to create a process for onboarding. When working virtually, ideas and metrics are the only measure of “being present”–filler projects, like making copies, not a thing. 

Creating an onboarding process was a departure for me. Terawatt’s team is an army of contractors–experts in all kinds of skills–Photoshop, social media and UX design, to name a few, and it is rare for me to bring a contractor on to contribute more than the task she was hired to do. But now, here I am working with undergraduates who are the very definition of generalists; smart people without expertise. 

So my challenge was to teach them how my company works and to set them up to contribute. Wait, what? How do I do that? 

At Terawatt, we pore over research relating to online instruction and how adults learn. We do this because we want our coaches to be excellent online teachers, and we want our customers to learn the coaches’ insights deeply and remember them. All of this is to say: We believe great teaching and deep learning leads to repeat customers. Here was an opportunity for me to synthesize a lot of past work and put theory into practice.  


Ingredients to Create an Intern Management Structure  

1. Foster engagement: 

Last year, in seeking out online teaching’s best practices, I ended up at a Gardner Institute conference for community college faculty. Why community college? Affordability and accessibility are integral to the mission of community colleges, and instructors are evaluated on students’ pass rate. As a result, this community had the best thinking I could find on how to effectively teach online. I went back to the conference materials to find specific exercises and tips teaching to support deep learning–namely collaboration, discussion, engagement, reflection, and support from leadership.

2. Practice psychological safety:

Since I first read the New York Times article on Google’s Project Aristotle, I’ve tried to work its conclusions into my life, both personally and professionally. Google ran its own data to discover what made the best product creation teams, using product sales as a key metric. It turned out “Psychological Safety” was the No. 1 hallmark. As Google defined it, “Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk.” In other words, team members who felt comfortable being a divergent voice challenging a status quo created the most successful products. I often think about this as the solution to group-think, as illustrated by the infamous example of group-think, the botched “New Coke” launch

3. Address deficiencies:  

And, finally, let’s not forget that it takes “two to tango.” Did you know 12 percent of employees quit voluntarily because of their manager’s behavior? I wanted the onboarding documents to institutionalize and practice being a good manager. In reflecting on when I have inadvertently created drama, it is when I am moving quickly and don’t invite others into my thinking. This dynamic instills in others frustration and insecurity which is the exact opposite of the creativity and efficiency that I want. 


The Final Result: Four Questions

I wrote four prompts to encapsulate the above goals, and asked the interns to write a weekly response. 

  1. What did you work on this week? 
  2. Lessons/learned and epiphanies.
  3. Frustrations with work, the processes or communication.
  4. Curiosities for future exploration.

I asked the interns to submit their write-ups on Fridays and schedule a time on my calendar to discuss them 1:1 on Mondays. After several weeks of the Monday review discussions, I realized that the interns and I were having real conversations about their lives: What was stressful, what they were up to when they weren’t working, and what they were enjoying during Coronavirus. At first, I was delighted the prompts led us to remote relationship-building. But then in late July, I realized the prompt structure was doing more than establishing a relationship. 

Below are excerpts of weekly reviews from one of my summer interns, a foreign national. 

July 10, 2020: 

Frustrations with the work: 

“This doesn’t have to do with work, but ICE issued a statement that says international students will have to leave the U.S. if they don’t take in person classes in the fall. Princeton said they will only allow seniors to go back in the spring, so right now I am scared about how things are going to evolve. Overall it’s been a very stressful week, but I am hoping the university can figure something out soon.”

That Monday we discussed Trump, Student Visas, the American university system, and I counseled her to let it evolve without worrying too much. One thing I’ve noticed with Trump’s declarations: They seem purpose-built for headlines and light on legal precedent. 

By July 18, the Visa cancellation threat was dropped, but now the intern had to figure out where she would be living in the fall–just 2 months away. After having quarantined with a college friend in the South, she wanted to return to Princeton, New Jersey, to live off-campus until the university reopened in the spring. The trouble with that plan was remotely finding a month-to-month lease during a pandemic.  

July 25: 

Frustrations with the work:

“I was a little bit overwhelmed this week trying to solve my housing issue for the fall. Now that things settled down, I think next week will feel a lot better.”

Big news! The intern got approved to move on-campus in the fall because her thesis required  university lab research. We spoke about her relief in getting everything settled and how we could help other Princeton students who might need housing. 

The next week, below, led to my epiphany: 

July 31:

Projects I am working on:

“I have done some research on promotional campaigns, so I’d love to see if you would like to talk more about the 50% discount coupon and better ways to advertise that. I’m thinking we could make it a pop up window on the website and maybe add a link to the ‘sign up a friend’ page to a post so people can get directed to that instantly.” 

Frustrations with work: 

“I still can’t access Mail Chimp or WordPress – could we try and troubleshoot this on Monday during our call?”

Whoa, after the stress subsided, she was firing on all cylinders. Our weekly reviews just chronicled the impact of stress and its alleviation on work contribution. Once all of her out-of-work drama subsided, she took a bunch of risks, coming up with a great idea to drive sales, and “managing up” to improve efficiency. 


Is It Professional To Be Authentic? 

I always thought being professional meant expressly NOT bringing personal issues into work, in order to separate the off-duty from the “important.” But, if we want to bring our full, authentic selves to work, concerns relating to our personal lives are relevant. Concerns are relevant because they are on our mind, and we have the same mind at work as we have at home. 

Terawatt Career coach, Katherine Johnson agrees. “Authenticity is a practice, not something you have or don’t have. When I watch my clients embrace being true to themselves, what they experience first and foremost is freedom. They spend more time operating from a place of personal power, which unlocks creativity, opportunities and confidence in navigating whatever comes their way.”

My epiphany is twofold: 

  1. With contractors, I am asking them to be creative around parameters I set. With generalists, aka interns, I want them to get involved anywhere they are inspired, but that is more of a process. It takes time to understand a company’s DNA and to be able to contribute. I saw that supporting authenticity leads to true contribution and innovation.
  1. Beyond the premise that it is easiest and less stressful to be who you are, authenticity is valuable because it helps defuse stressful situations. Psychotherapy is premised on the science that talking about our concerns and worries helps us feel less overwhelmed, find solutions, and see the forest for the trees. How cool that it works in a business context, too.  

Now when considering authenticity, I think about the personal AND the business effect. It makes sense: If a company is made up of people who feel safe to make public a unique perspective, whether that is challenging a commonly held assumption or bringing others into their personal concerns, it drives creativity individually which in turn drives collective creativity and innovation.

I cannot think of an organization that doesn’t want to be better tomorrow.

Francie Jain is the founder of Terawatt, an online marketplace democratizing career coaching that offers virtual workshops taught by expert coaches via Zoom.

In her professional life, Jain has switched careers three times and loves the challenge of change. A two-time entrepreneur, Jain’s last business, West River Partners, is a third-party marketing consultancy that raises investment capital for emerging markets-based hedge funds. 

Jain graduated with an AB from Princeton University and an MBA from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

  • Originally published October 28, 2020, updated June 15, 2022