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Matt Wilkerson, CEO, Paragon One, US

Paragon One is a US-based company that segued from being a student-centric career counselling business to capitalising on demand for virtual internships, which it calls externships. Matt Wilkerson, CEO, talks to The PIE about finding the sweet spot between education and employment for the nearly-graduated international student market.


Photo credit: Dio Chen

"The coaches weren't just career coaches, but they're also industry professionals from different backgrounds"

The PIE: Please tell me the how and why behind Paragon One. 

Matt Wilkerson: The idea was, let’s build a mentor marketplace to help students get coached in the areas that career centres were helping them. So the model that I was using was taking the kind of ideas from college career or college admissions counselling and applying it to students in college to get a job. And we made it virtual.

“We’ve worked with close to 800 students who have been through externship programs”

We made it on-demand in terms of the help. The coaches weren’t just career coaches, but they’re also industry professionals from different backgrounds.

At the end of these programs, we were finding ourselves trying to provide assistance to the students to get internships to help really kind of close the loop on everything they learned.

The PIE: How did the internships enhance the process?

MW: We noticed that the students that did the best at that process of landing an interview and being interviewed already had internship experience on their resume; had something under ‘work experience’. That was sort of the Aha! moment.

The PIE: So how did companies react to the concept of internships?

MW: In the US, we don’t have apprenticeship models. It’s kind of freestyle. Internships exist, but companies run internships really only if they’re trying to recruit for entry-level. It’s just a way to get the best students earlier.

The PIE: And who were you aiming the product at, initially?

MW: International students. I had a friend from college who had started SAT prep company in Shanghai called New Pathway Education. I spent some time consulting with him. A lot of his students that were going to study in the States had a lot of problems with navigating how to get internships and eventually got a job.

So we started initially just aiming at international students, mostly from China before planning to expand out. We worked with Navitas and our plan was to work with other universities.

I think that proved to be a challenge because 1) I think career centres probably generally didn’t think they needed help with coaching or plugging into a network of industry professionals and 2) budget was also a concern.

The PIE: So now came the pivot?

MW: Yes, so we moved to launching what we call remote externships. Now we work with institutions and students directly: I would say, 60%, or maybe two-thirds of our students have come from international student backgrounds and the rest have been domestic US.

“Now we work with institutions and students directly”

The PIE: How many students are you sort of servicing per year? 

MW: Since we launched this, which is pretty much exactly one year ago when we started piloting it, we’ve worked with close to 800 students who have been through externship programs.

The PIE: Is the hardest bit about the business making employers understand how to really deliver a good “externship”?

MW: When we got into this we knew that we were going to be tackling a lot of different problems because we’re basically creating a three-sided marketplace, with students a constituent, companies a constituent and education institutions, a constituent. 

I think the first big thing for us was figuring out how to get more companies to do more internships and externships. We realised if we could automate more things, take more work off of the company’s plate, then we would make it really streamlined for them.

The PIE: What’s the typical length of an externship?

MW: Six to eight weeks long. But we’ve had some that are shorter, depending on the company and their preference.

The PIE: And is it the university partners you have that really promote the opportunity to the students, or do you also have sort of B2C marketing function? 

MW: We have both, so the only market where we actually do B2C is China, that’s really the only market that we have a presence. We have a team based in Beijing that does that.

“The first big thing for us was figuring out how to get more companies to do more internships and externships”

Outside of that particular market, we only focus on channel partners, meaning we have a B2B relationship with schools, whether they’re universities, high schools or for-profit education programs; for instance, we’re working with Shorelight Education to launch a pilot with them this fall.

The PIE: Do you feel like you’re offering a service that they had previously not provided to international students? 

MW: Well, I think the universities would like to do this. First of all, they’re very much budget-strapped. I mean, we know from the US, [NYU professor] Scott Galloway’s research, what’s going to happen with universities.

There’s a lot of talk of budgets getting compressed. And the question is, where do they want to put those budgets?

I think the universities that rely on international student enrolments… that’s the big question. What do they do there?

I think smart institutions will start to devote more budget towards programs that can achieve outcomes for the students and work outcomes, career outcomes.

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