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Four days a week, Elfin Wiriyan walks into the Exact Sciences campus on Madison’s west side around 8 a.m., eager to start the work day. The youngest member of the company’s data science team, she likes having some time in her cubicle before the “stand-up” meeting where she and her colleagues check in each morning. 

The team’s job is to analyze data to help the company make decisions. On a typical day, she might study the probability that a customer who purchases a cancer screening test will mail it to the lab for testing, or that they’ll buy another test in the future. 

It’s her first “proper job,” she said, and it’s a great fit for the self-described math enthusiast. “I get to look at a bunch of data that Exact Sciences has, and I get to answer a bunch of questions about it by looking at the data and providing a solid answer.”

But she won’t be in the job long: In September, the 16-year-old will head back to Madison Memorial High School for her junior year. 

Wiriyan is one of 11 students in a new summer internship program organized by Madison nonprofit Maydm, which has offered workshops, afterschool programs and summer immersive courses to bring girls and youth of color into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields since 2016. 

Through the new internships, high school students who have previously completed an immersive training through Maydm put their skills to work at major local companies. The internship program is a logical extension of the organization’s work, said founder Winnie Karanja. “Students in our summer programs are learning the technical skill sets, (but) it’s important to pair them up then with actual experience where they can build their portfolio and resume,” she said.

When she mentioned the idea to several companies that have previously partnered with the nonprofit, five signed on to host interns: First Business Bank, Phoenix, Fetch Rewards, ImageMoverMD and Exact Sciences. (Madison Gas & Electric currently hosts two Maydm interns through a different program.) Major funding for the program came from CUNA Mutual Group Foundation, though the companies pay the interns themselves.

Teens attend an interview workshop with Maydm before applying for the internships that interest them. It’s a competitive process involving resumes and interviews. Those who are selected work 32 hours Monday through Thursday from late June to early August, earning $13.50 per hour. They gather as a group on Fridays to discuss their experiences and do personal and professional development activities such as learning to create LinkedIn accounts, managing money or address common workplace issues.

But it’s not just about preparing young people for success in these workplaces, Karanja said. It’s also about preparing the workplaces to be a good fit for them. Before the internships begin, Maydm hosts a two-day training for managers about factors that have historically made it harder for women and people of color to enter STEM professions, and what they can do to support their incoming interns.

“The model that we’ve created around doing that together is what is unique about this program,” Karanja said. “It’s not about one person fitting into the other person’s environment.”

Such internships are “vitally important” to growing and sustaining Wisconsin’s growing biotech industry, said Lisa Johnson, CEO of BioForward Wisconsin. Her membership-based organization promotes the sector statewide, and its member companies are among those hosting Maydm interns.

“Through encouraging biohealth careers paths, especially for underrepresented youth, our industry is moving forward and addressing issues related to talent acquisition, as well as equality, diversity, and inclusion,” Johnson said in an email. 

Teens on the team

Wiriyan, whose dad works in computer programming, was long interested in coding and programming but “never really knew where to start.”

Then her mom learned about Maydm and signed her up for a weeklong training session during spring break, where students would learn web development skills to promote the social justice platform of their choice. Wiriyan wasn’t so sure about spending her vacation in a classroom. But after learning HTML and JavaScript and building a website about climate change, she had no regrets.

The experience excited her in a way that the reams of worksheets from her math classes didn’t. She started thinking of herself as a data scientist. But until starting her internship, she’d only practiced with sample data sets like the ones included in her Python coding tutorials.  

“Being able to work at Exact Sciences and see real data that they’ve collected from clients and patients and customers is really interesting because obviously life isn’t going to be as organized and pattern(ed) as a data set that someone makes up,” Wiriyan said. “But seeing that, even with … a bunch of different variables you can’t control, there still are patterns to human behavior, I think that’s just really fascinating.”

Each Maydm intern is likely the youngest at their workplace, but 14-year-old Mawuenam Dossa is the youngest of them all. The program is designed for students aged 16 and up, but the nonprofit made an exception for the unusually young Middleton High School junior. 

Dossa, a member of multiple school bands and his school’s Model UN team, learned about Maydm from a brochure when he was in 8th grade. He went on to complete a 9-week Maydm training in 3D computer-assisted drawing. 

When he learned in March about the internship program, he was excited for the chance for a paid opportunity to explore the IT field and the professional world. He applied, but he was skeptical.

“I didn’t know if I’d be qualified … I’d never had a job before. I wasn’t even out of high school,” Dossa said. “That was basically me doubting my abilities, but now I feel like that’s not really an issue.”

Today, as an intern in the information technology department at First Business Bank, he shadows technicians on teams ranging from the help desk to cybersecurity. His colleagues constantly explain what they’re doing, and he helps wherever he can.

“There’s a lot of issues that can go wrong with computers,” Dossa said, explaining that some people on the team have been in the field for years and can diagnose many problems off the top of their heads. “I’ll have to get good at that as well.”

It’s a lot to learn, he said, but the experience is helping him know what to expect in future workplaces and narrow what he might want to study in college. 

Businesses benefit

The businesses that host the interns say the program aligns with their own diversity goals and provides the structure needed to support younger interns. 

Emily Bradley is senior director of talent acquisition for First Business Bank, which has long hosted interns from local colleges and universities. She sees the Maydm internship as “a perfect way to deepen our internship program,” prompting the company to create an internship within its information technology department.

“Our student jumped right in and has been gaining valuable exposure and experience within our IT team,” Bradley said in an email, explaining that Dossa has participated in professional development sessions and had the opportunity to interact with the company’s other interns. 

“It has been a great summer experience so far, and we look forward to our continued partnership with Maydm and participation in their internship program,” she said.

Management feedback is similarly positive for the four Maydm interns working at Exact Sciences, which for years has recruited college interns from across the country. “I know that they’re so impressed with the students,” said Inclusion and Talent Strategy Manager Ashley Saunders.

To Saunders, the high school internship is an investment in the future of the company, which has grown from a workforce of around 1,500 to more than 5,000 in the last two years and plans to add another 1,500 in the next two years.

“I think of it as developing a talent pipeline years in advance,” Saunders said. “When they think about where they want to intern when they’re in college, hopefully that’s us. When they think about where they want to apply once they’re out of school, hopefully that’s us too.”

More internships coming soon

Dossa would like to see more high school students get the same chance he got to explore the professional sphere. That way, “when we get to real jobs, it’s not like a whole new world,” he said.

“Anyone who’s willing to take some chances when it comes to learning and who’s willing to venture out of their comfort zone” could benefit from an internship, he said. 

Wiriyan agrees. “I would definitely recommend (an IT internship for) someone who’s not afraid of a challenge and not afraid to be confused or feel lost,” she said. “There have been a lot of work days where I’m like, ‘I don’t know what anyone’s talking about,’ but I’m the type of person who will sit down and research it and make sure that I understand it.” 

Plus, she said, internships can save students from pursuing a career that’s actually a bad fit for them. “It’s a lot better to get it out of the way in an internship first than to major in it in college and then get a job in it and realize you hate it. 

But, she said, when most high school students picture themselves working, they don’t picture themselves getting to test-drive their dream careers. “When they think of a job, they think of a minimum wage (job) working at Target or a grocery store. I think high schools should do a better job of being like, ‘That’s not your only option. You can learn at whatever kind of career you want to go into,’” she said. 

Meanwhile, Karanja is hoping to give more students a chance to be interns next year. She plans to introduce a smaller set of part-time internship offerings during the school year, but mostly she’s looking to scale up the summer program. This year, there were 11 spots, but she’d like to offer 25, and later 45. 

“There’s a lot of exciting things that’s coming up,” Karanja said. “We want to do that with some very strong partners and be able to continue that work.”