It’s a sunny, summer Wednesday morning at the Ann Arbor SPARK Central Innovation Center and the fragrance of waffles and maple syrup wafts through the lower level of the startup incubator and event space. The 2019 cohort of Shoptelligence interns — Katie Dillon (BFA ’20), Riya Gupta (BBA ’21), and Natalia Sanchez (BS ’21) — are laughing while they mix, pour, and press this week’s batch of waffles. All three hail from the University of Michigan.
According to Richard Millunchick, Shoptelligence’s vice president, Waffle Wednesdays was conceived of last summer as an opportunity for a team member to gain managerial experience and as a team-building exercise for the interns. “Last year, we had three times the number of interns, so Waffle Wednesday management required coordinating schedules and delegating tasks.”
Waffle Wednesdays became so popular that even after the 2018 cohort concluded their internship, Shoptelligence continued to make breakfast for SPARK Central tenants as a way to build camaraderie throughout the innovation center.
As part of its work developing the tech ecosystem in the region, including strengthening the talent pipeline that growing companies of all sizes rely on, Ann Arbor SPARK provides financial assistance to startups for summer internship placements every year. Working closely with Eastern Michigan’s Center for Digital Engagement as well as other academic partners, the 2019 cohort consists of 64 total interns. Ann Arbor SPARK helps fund many of these internships through support from the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA). One Shoptelligence intern is partially supported through an LDFA grant.
“The internship program is win-win,” said Bill Mayer, Ann Arbor SPARK vice president of entrepreneurial services. “Cash-strapped startups are pulled in a lot of different directions financially and often can’t afford to bring interns – who provide valuable support – on board. Interns who want to work in a dynamic startup environment are left without options as a result. Ann Arbor SPARK is bridging that gap while showing soon-to-be graduates there are dynamic and exciting career opportunities available in our region.”
With only three interns this year, Waffle Wednesdays require less oversight and coordination. While it wasn’t officially going to become part of the interns’ responsibilities, according to Riya, they enthusiastically adopted Waffle Wednesdays as their own, incorporating pancakes into the rotation as well. “The harmony developed in the kitchen translates to the workspace. Even though a lot of our projects don’t overlap, we work in close proximity to each other so that harmony carries through.”
Yes — there is more to these internships than waffles. Natalia is working in front-end engineering, Katie in back-end engineering, and Riya in marketing. “The environment is incredibly supportive and the projects very interesting,” says Natalia.
“There’s a lot that I’m doing that is really relevant professionally that wasn’t necessarily part of my coursework,” added Katie. Riya agreed, “On the marketing end, you learn about the theory, but when you actually get to apply it, it’s so cool. There are so many nuances that I’ve learned through practical application.”