Candid Confessions: My Internships in Mumbai
How to Own Your Mumbai Internship Experience
I’ve never been one to do part-time jobs in my early teams or do the odd chores for neighbors for money but when it comes to interning, I am constantly aware and available for opportunities I hunt down. See, the internet is a great resource…everywhere but in Mumbai.
Unfortunately, contacts are everything. Not to discredit merit at all, but the valuable candidates are only visible when they make themselves apparent. In Mumbai, there is no use letting your resume and cover letter rot in twelve different HR inboxes of giants in any industry. It’s one thing to study here and apply through campus placements for internships and jobs but it’s another for an outsider to pave their way in. Here is my journey of how I am currently writing for an English language national newspaper with the second largest readership in the country.
Disclaimer: the story is probably a little disappointing for I am only as talented as a hundred other people who are as capable as I am. This story is not of my struggle, but of my privilege. This story is about the right time, right place and the right people.
My two greatest passions are Economics and Journalism and I’ve only ever addressed the two individually and never simultaneously. (Hello The Economist, Reuters, Bloomberg! If you’re listening, I am more than willing for you to give me a chance to pursue both my passions together and help me secure a sort of a dream job I have decided for myself five years down the line.) I don’t know about post graduation. I’m overenthusiastic and I want to work and I want to see my name printed on reputable media outlets. I want to say things that matter.
But that’s not how I started interning in Mumbai. The first company I interned for was a logistics firm that took me in because I sent my resume to someone who worked at HSBC. Yes, the bank. Don’t ask how it happened. I don’t know either.
Vertical Learning Curve – Mumbai
I visited Mumbai for hardly over two weeks during my fall break in Singapore, where I was attending school. Here I attended the office as a student. I was treated like a child for I was a 17-year-old girl in a team of three other middle aged men. I was taught things by one of the people in the office and I literally mean ‘taught.’ I had a notepad and a pen with which I used to furiously scribble to keep track of the words this man said. The advantage? I knew what Foreign Direct Invest (FDI) and Buy-Own-Operate-Transfer (BOOT) model meant before I was taught it at school three months after my internship.
I travelled to and from my workplace in a car. The first day I wore trousers and a shirt and tied my hair up and wore pretty pumps and never have I felt more out of place. By the third day, I was roaming the office floor in my formal-ish churidar-kurta (indian attire) or jeans and a shirt with flats that I wear to class everyday- comfortable as ever, I seamlessly blended in with the other women who were just about ‘business casual’ but more casual than business. Unfortunately, men all over the world do have the whole shirt-trouser-office shoe look so it’s just the girls who can let their hair down while interning in Mumbai.
Off to New York
Post this minor stint, I knew nothing about the work world. There were no other interns there either so I never knew people actually took the train to work. When I took up a job at Ogilvy and Mather (O&M) , a New York based advertisement firm, in the summer following my first year at college, I met someone who had come down from another state and was living as a paying guest, budgeting, traveling by public transport and doing all these things I laughed off as I went from my comfortable home to my comfortable car day after day while going to work.
I was really excited because the O&M office in New York city offered a ten-week paid program. Someone I knew knew someone at O&M Shanghai who put me in touch with someone in the Mumbai office and I excitedly sent my resume. My first paid job.
Then I got my appointment letter that clearly stated I was an unpaid intern.
Who Interns in Mumbai?
I am yet to meet someone in Mumbai who isn’t a college graduate and interning as a trainee who will probably get a job offer who has a paid internship. It’s just not the norm. Up until a few years ago, nobody used to think of interning at all. Even now, majority of my friends who are interning are the ones who study abroad with me. At 20, some of my local Mumbai friends have nothing on their resume. And here we are, competing with diverse people from diverse backgrounds at NYU and other schools- people who have worked since they were 16 to support themselves, their education and even their families.
Here I am, working at a newspaper finally. But wait, we haven’t reached that bit of the story yet.
I worked at O&M for two months as a copywriting intern. I was lucky enough to have a young, energetic boss who actually trusted me to do some work. I opened up, I participated, I grew. I stopped cribbing about not being paid and started enjoying working. I pulled a couple of late nights, I worked on campaigns at home without people asking me to and I left a confident person at the start of sophomore year of college.
Learning to say ‘No’
I applied to write for an online magazine through LinkedIn, bagged a Skype interview and then an in-person one and I took up a job as a writer. I say writer and not journalist because this website did features, reviews and all things classified as city-buzz, but not news. Soon, I was given the responsibility of an editor, without the tag. And still, without the pay, because it was a start-up. But that was no concern.
The problem was exploitation. I felt overworked and overcommitted. I was made to write things I didn’t enjoy, things I didn’t want to endorse and things I didn’t believe in. I don’t blame anybody but myself for that though. I didn’t have the guts to say ‘No, I won’t write this’ or ‘No, I don’t think this website is heading where I thought it would.’ I only told myself ‘Wow, you’re the youngest one here, don’t give it up, it’ll look good on your resume.’
But I was wrong. And that was the time I lost and regained my confidence. And this new found self-assurance was enough to make me head in the direction I wanted to and to make me steer my life to where I wanted it to go. I quit the job that was making me unhappy. And I took a break the next semester and didn’t hunt for part-time work. I focused on my classes and reaffirmed that what I really wanted to do was write meaningful things. To me, that was economic journalism.
Back to Mumbai
For this summer, alongside College Tourist that I was drawn to for personal gratification, I thought my academic inclinations would be well suited to the likes of The Economic Times, Reuters or Bloomberg in Mumbai. I emailed countless people and emailed many journalistic institutions and got no response.
Now maybe some of them saw my resume and trashed it. Maybe. But professionalism demands a response even if it is a rejection. Anyway, I emailed my resume to a friend who forwarded it to Hindustan Times. Soon, I got a call telling me that I could be an unpaid intern there. They suggested I don’t do the test for paid interns because I haven’t graduated yet and the test mirrors the examinations in Indian journalism institutes. I didn’t argue.
Now, does my job have anything to do with economics? Well, depends. I write about the city as I did in New York. But now, I write news. I write about education, about health, about protests. I write about changes. I may not write directly about the economy, but I weave it in my voice in articles. I let glimpses of it when I write about the people of my city. I do my job with utmost sincerity.
So here’s the deal: I got here because I knew someone who knew someone at Hindustan Times, and that’s how it usually works around here. But I am here because I work. Really hard. I’ve stayed late nights and I’ve travelled all over the city. I’ve spoken to politicians and doctors and civilians. I have never said no to any assignment I have been given. I have succeeded and I have failed but I have always attempted. And in my two weeks at work so far, I have gotten around 10 bylines in a national newspaper and it feels great.
Here is a list that sums up how to own your Mumbai internship experience:
• Contact a company through known sources. I’m not saying that you will be served a job on a silver plate though! Have a well stacked resume and only approach companies through known sources because it is likelier that they will take your application more seriously. For those who don’t have contacts, don’t rely on e-mails. Call and visit the company’s HR department until they are compelled to accept your resume, and then let your skills do the talking.
• Wear anything…that’s modest. Most offices- unless they are huge multinationals and financial institutions that follow the same formal dress code globally- will not define a strict dress code but dress appropriately. Skirts that are too short and tops with plunging necklines are a no-no.
• Speak and get yourself noticed. Many interns in Mumbai are treated like children, especially those who have not graduated from college yet. It’s an endearing cultural thing I guess but many interns also give in to being instructed, waiting to speak when they are spoken to and other things that an employee will not do. Take initiative. Constantly ask your boss for work. Propose your own ideas and don’t be afraid of having them turned down.
• Don’t let someone else take credit for your work. Often, interns are treated as slave labor in Mumbai and even when people do the work, they are not given credit for it. You just end up working on behalf of someone or completing someone else’s work. Try not to let that happen and if it does, don’t be afraid to ask for your right.
• For journalism internships in Mumbai, you have to be comfortable with English and Hindi because even though it may be an English language newspaper, you will have to speak to various people from different walks of life who may not speak English. Knowing Marathi, the local language, is an added bonus. For example, I’m not fully allowed to work with crime stories because many government officials speak in Marathi and I cannot just make do with my broken understanding of the language since accuracy is of utmost importance when it comes to news.
• Most internships, unless they are likely to lead to a job immediately after a training period, are unfortunately unpaid. But don’t let that faze you. You’re young and learning is most essential at this stage. I guess if you’re lucky enough to have some financial backing, it makes it easier to accept the unpaid job.
• Keep your options open. I have worked in a corporate finance division of a logistics firm, an advertisement firm and at a national newspaper. My past two jobs help me understand certain stories, situations and people in my current job. No experience is a wasted experience.