Carlos Vera: building equity in opportunity through paid internships
The Camelback Fellowship application is open! We are featuring past Camelback Fellows from our different tracks to share their stories, perspective on the application and program experience, and what they’re up to now.
Carlos Vera is the founder of Pay Our Interns, an advocacy org that is creating a pathway to public service for communities of color and those of working class backgrounds by advocating for funding from federal, state, and local governments for paid internships. Carlos is a current Camelback Fellow in our Education track.
Camelback Ventures (CBV): Carlos, what drove you to start Pay Our Interns?
Carlos Vera (CV): Life experience. I had several unpaid internships in college, and many times I noticed I was the only person of color in the room. Not only that, but I saw how a lot of my peers--particularly people of color-- had to turn down internships because they weren’t paid. The job market has changed so much -- nowadays, you won’t get a job, much less a good job, without experience. And you get that experience from internships, and that experience is not cheap or affordable. I realized there wasn’t one organization full-time pursuing this cause, and so I quit my job, had the hard conversation of explaining to my family about that decision, and founded Pay Our Interns. [CBV note: The Washington Post wrote about their founding!]
CBV: What was the Camelback application experience like for you?
CV: I’m not going to lie, I was sometimes frustrated with the process. The application has so many short character count limits, and there’s so much I wanted to share. What the Camelback application really taught me is how to focus on what I really wanted to say but also be clear and concise. The content was so very different from other program applications. Big questions about why you are doing this, why this matters, why are you ruthless for good? You don’t get those kinds of questions in any other application. I’m happy Camelback’s application asked those hard questions.
CBV: During your final round of the application process, we know you had an interesting interaction with one of your video interviewers, 2018 Camelback Fellow Martha Hernandez. Can you share about that?
CV: Personally, I don’t think my video interview went amazing. Martha was really pushing me, more than the Camelback staff were on the call, and grilled me on everything. At the end, once it was all done and time to say wrap it up, I had this feeling of wow, I am not going to get this Fellowship.
But then Martha said, “Carlos, regardless of what happens with the Fellowship, I want you to know that I believe in you and in what you’re doing.” That surprised me and meant so much to me. She gave me advice on how to make my pitch stronger, for example, not just talking about diversity as a moral imperative but also as a financial strength. We’ve stayed in touch after and I’m just grateful she took the extra moment to share that.
Carlos, top - second from left, and other members of the 2019 Camelback cohort, in New Orleans at their first Summit.
CBV: What from your Camelback experience has helped you the most?
CV: I’ve got more than one thing! First, the sheer amount of business development skills that are tangible. How to hire people, how to fundraise, how to do design thinking, how to do stakeholder analysis. Camelback’s education around the nitty gritty things of being an entrepreneur is unmatched. No other program compares to that, especially for entrepreneurs of color.
Two, the community. The journey of an entrepreneur, much less one of color, is really lonely. So being able to call another Fellow in my cohort and say, “Hey, I’m going through this issue” and surprise, they’re going through the same thing -- not only does it help to feel less isolated, but it’s great to learn from each other and have some perspective.
Third, my coach. I love my coach! Christina is amazing and I look forward to our calls every week. She’s a Latina, and she just understands how it is. I appreciate how intentionally Camelback matched us together.
“No other program compares to [Camelback], especially for entrepreneurs of color.”
CBV: Was there anything that you two did to build such a strong coaching relationship?
CV: Camelback brought all the coaches to our first Summit in New Orleans, and we had an hour and a half long session scheduled -- the first half was supposed to be an introduction just to get to know each other, and the second half to discuss our venture. We ended up spending the entire time just getting to know each other as people. I know that wasn’t technically our prompt, but it enabled us to build a strong foundational connection. A few weeks later, I had to go out for a meeting in the Bay, and she lives out there, so I asked if we could meet in person. And that connection again, of getting to see her in her element, in her office, to be able to spend time with her, really enabled our relationship to thrive.
CBV: What has most surprised you about your experience with Camelback?
CV: What surprised me the most was literally the amount of information delivered in the time -- everything that Camelback does in the program is very intentional, from the beginning to the end.There’s 13 of us (Fellows in the cohort), but I feel that because of all the work and detail that goes into our experience, it’s clear that Camelback doesn’t see us as just this number of investments, but as human beings. When we talk, it’s not just “how are you doing with fundraising” but how are you doing as a person. There’s this feeling in the community of checking up on each other, of individualization.
CBV: What advice could you share to other founders like you?
CV: When fundraising isn’t taking off the way you want it to or a foundation isn’t biting, you may think to yourself, “I’m the problem, clearly there’s something wrong with me.” It’s much more structural than that. It’s networks, it’s power, it’s systems in place. I think Camelback gave me an equal playing field to speak the language of funders but doing it in my own authentic way.
CBV: These days, what projects are you working on with your org?
CV: We recently partnered on National Intern Day in D.C! It went so well. National Intern Day, we did a video with NOWTHIS and multiple congress representatives, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Ro Khanna, all who had started off as interns as members of Congress. Pay Our Interns also led a presidential campaign pledge and signed multiple campaigns to commit to paying their interns. Our goal is now that we’ve worked with Congress, we want to focus on all 50 states and their state legislature.
CBV: A fun question: any books or films that have recently inspired you?
CV: Yes! I even remember the day, August 10 -- I was flying to L.A. for my sister’s wedding. I was feeling kind of down -- there’s always ups and downs as a leader of an org -- and I was feeling like I lacked clarity. At the airport, I went into the bookstore, and I mostly read digitally and don’t buy paper books as much any more. But I saw this bright yellow book that caught my eye, and it’s called The Messy Middle. When you hear about successful organizations like Apple or Google, people always talk about the beginning -- a magical moment starting in a garage--and the end of the story when they sell and are super successful. People never talk about the middle, and that’s what the book is about and has advice and tips. Creating something is messy, it’s muddy, it’s depressing. But that’s also the name of the game, and it’s fine to not have things be perfect all the time. That’s the work.