Summer at a Social Justice Startup Helps an Undergrad Figure It All Out

by Diana Drake

Internships can be dynamic ways to try on careers, and sometimes the most unexpected opportunities will open your eyes to a whole new outlet for your skills and interests. Antione Gray is a senior in the University of Pennsylvania’s College of Arts and Sciences. While he never considered himself entrepreneurially inclined, this summer he found himself accepting an internship position at Paladin, a social justice startup in New York City. Gray sat down with KWHS interviewer Julia Drake, a junior at Hopewell Valley Central High School, to discuss his introduction to the social-justice landscape and why internships are such a powerful way to “build an authentic network.”

Knowledge@Wharton High School: Queens, New York, native Antione Gray is a rising senior at U of Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences, studying political science and sociology. Antoine has had various past internships to explore his many passions. He knew he wanted his 2016 summer internship to prepare him for a career in real estate, government and nonprofit. So, he accepted a position with Paladin, a social justice startup in New York City. While the new social enterprise wasn’t his first choice, it’s been a great learning experience for him and he’s going to tell us more about his work with Paladin today. Hi Antione, thanks for joining us.

Antione Gray: Thanks for having me.

KWHS: Paladin is a social justice startup. When was it founded? By whom? And what exactly does the company do?

Gray: The founder of Paladin, Felicity Conrad, had worked at the United Nations (UN) both during and after law school. And after her tenure at the UN, she became a human rights attorney at a leading international law firm, where she worked on human rights cases in East Africa, Haiti, China and France. And in doing that work, she had a firsthand view of the amount of injustice that was going on in the world. She really began to think about the impact that she and her fellow lawyers could have on the world if they each performed the American Bar Association’s recommended 50 hours of pro bono work [representing clients for free] per year. Last year, in July 2015, she left her legal career to work on Paladin full-time.

Along the way, she met her co-founder Kristen Sonday, who was also very passionate about social justice and brought her experiences from working at the Department of Justice and a Y Combinator startup [a program for developing top entrepreneurs] to help Felicity bring her idea to life. So in a nutshell, Paladin is looking to streamline corporate social responsibility by building a global pro bono marketplace that connects professionals, starting with attorneys, with pro bono opportunities and tracks the impact that they have in their communities.

KWHS: How did you end up at Paladin? Did you consider other internships? And what was your process for finding this one?

Gray: Last semester, I was in Washington, D.C. with the Penn in Washington Semester Program [students spend their fall or spring semester taking classes and interning in Washington, D.C.]. In that program, I was interning full-time, as well as taking classes at night, so I was really busy. I was just caught up in the shuffle, getting my homework done, getting my work assignments done, stuff like that. March crept up on me quickly and I had to scramble to find something to do for the summer. I only had about two months left. So I started off applying to organizations that friends and former co-workers from other internships had recommended to me.

But the bulk of my search came through Penn Link, which is Penn’s online job database. I set up filters by location and by industry, seeing what was close to home, so I wouldn’t have to pay for housing, but also, something that I was really interested in and something that would build my skills. I knew I wanted to do something that would help develop my business skills. As a political science major, I don’t really get [much] academic training in business, so I wanted to work on that over the summer. In all, I applied to about 20 internships or so, interviewed for six and, at the end of the interview process, Paladin stood out to me as the most exciting.

What’s interesting, though, is that I wasn’t excited about Paladin at first. Honestly, I was really busy just tying to get my work done. I was trying to apply to as many internships as possible as quickly as possible. But in the end, it shone above the rest and I chose to work at Paladin for the summer.

KWHS: What are your main internship responsibilities?

Gray: At an early-stage startup, there aren’t any main responsibilities. As their first intern, I do whatever needs to get done whenever it needs to get done. My main job role falls into four buckets. The first is research – so, researching the pro bono marketplace and seeing what case opportunities are out there; seeing what potential law firms and nonprofits we could partner with to expand our business, and looking at different markets that we could operate in. Currently, we’re in New York City, Chicago and Baltimore.

The second [bucket] is business development strategy. [That involves] pitching our product to these organizations and law firms and getting to cultivate relationships so we [can] receive their cases and have those partners to give to our attorneys. The third, which has been the most interesting and most fun to me, is HR [Human Resources] and hiring. [That entails] building out the [Paladin] team. It’s been really interesting to see the psychology behind managing people and seeing how people fit into the culture and the mission of the company. And the last bucket is product development, which is using the research that I did in the first step to put those cases together and match them with the data that attorneys provided us in our online form — our intake form — and matching them with case opportunities that align with their interests and their prior expertise.

KWHS: What else would you say about the value of internships? Why have they been useful for you?

Gray: Internships have been very, very useful. One, I think that an internship is a great way to build an authentic network. So for me, networking is more than just chatting people up at a mixer and collecting business cards and hoping that someone responds to your follow-up email. The people that you intern with, your friends, they can vouch for your character, and your bosses and supervisors can vouch for the quality of your work and your work ethic. And they all have networks of their own that they’ll be more than willing to share with you, provided that you prove that you’re a great person to work with and be around.

Secondly, interning gives you a good chance at introspection — seeing what you like, what kind of work you like, and what kind of environment you like being in. And it’s easy to figure out what you don’t want to do, because you remember the bad experiences more than the good ones. But I will say that most internships will be okay [in terms of what you get out of them]. You won’t be too excited, but it gets the job done. You’re learning. That process of figuring out what you want to do [through] trial and error [is valuable]. You’ll bounce around, learn a bunch of different skills and a lot of different things about the industry you want to do and how you work. At the end of the day, it will come together somewhere along the line for you to find work that you’re really passionate about.

KWHS: What are your main takeaways from this experience, about social justice and the start-up culture, and even yourself?

Gray: On the social justice front, I realize that it’s easy to make an impact. As a political science major, most of my time is spent thinking about government and what governments can do to make an impact. It’s been a really contentious election cycle and people aren’t too happy with the government’s ability to get things done. But the good news is that business is a good force for social change. Once you have a great idea and people to believe in you, you can make a positive impact almost immediately. What was the next question?

KWHS: What are your takeaways, even about yourself, that you learned from Paladin?

Gray: I learned that I enjoy working in small teams. At a big firm and organization, especially as an entry-level employee, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle and feel like you’re not making an impact. Working on a small team, I can see the fruits of my labor play out in real time, and that motivates me to work harder and produce more quality work to see the tangible effects that the work I did had on the company.

KWHS: You have one more year of undergrad, where do you hope to take your life and your career?

Gray: It’s a hard question. Unlike most kids at Penn, I’m not 100% sure exactly what I want to do next year. I know that in the long run, I want to get into nonprofit management, government work, doing things like affordable housing development and community development. But in the short-term, I want to do something that will strengthen my skills as a manager and a business leader, but also expose me to different realms of corporate social responsibility, seeing how I can make an impact on the world using my skills and my knowledge. I am going to do OCR this fall [On-campus recruiting when companies come to campus for information sessions and to recruit students] to see what’s out there. I’m from New York City, so it’s convenient for me to look at jobs in New York. But I have also enjoyed my time in D.C., so I might take the government nonprofit route, and we’ll see what happens from there.


Related Links

Conversation Starters

What is Paladin and how is it filling a need in the marketplace?

What were Antione Gray’s main responsibilities during his internship? Which one did he enjoy most and why? What do his experiences tell you about interning at a small business versus a large corporation?

How do you define the concept of networking? How does this article help you see that it is much more than an activity at a gathering? Why are relationships so important as you build your career? Explore this topic more in the Sachin Rekhi piece linked in “Related KWHS Stories.”

One comment on “Summer at a Social Justice Startup Helps an Undergrad Figure It All Out

  1. 1. Paladin was founded by Felice Conrad and she was a human rights attorney that led the international law firm. She felt like her and her lawyers can create a more peaceful world if they did fifty hours of pro bono, working for clients for free, at the American Bar Association. It’s a need in the market place because it can fix the injustice in the market.

    2. Antoine Gray’s main responsibilities is researching to see what’s in the pro bono market place to seek any opportunities that can expand their business, the second responsibility is basically pitching these products into these other businesses to build more relationships and more efficient networking, his third responsibility is human resourcing and hiring, and his fourth responsibility is developing products. He enjoyed the human resourcing and hiring the most because he is elated seeing the background of where the managers go and the psychology behind the entire process. For Gray, working is small groups he feels more comfortable and he feels that he can produce a greater impact with a higher quality production.

    3. I define networking as a way to reach to other corporations or businesses in general to create connections with another for greater opportunities. The article clears the air by explaining why internships require a plethora of positions and responsibilities as the catalyst to there success in the market place. Relationships are essential for building your career because you can connect with businesses that’s seeking your skill that the business can use to their advantage.

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