18 women CEOs reveal the #1 thing they wish they’d known as interns

When we were students, most of us were lectured about the necessity of internships. For some, it’s a career requirement. For others, it’s an optional (but highly recommended) way of gaining a realistic understanding of a desired career.

What many young professional hopefuls tend to overlook is the unique value of such an opportunity. Even if the experience is a seemingly negative one, internships provide a special kind of access and insight that many applicants would kill for. “Most interns come into companies just to get experience and leave,” said Veronica Romney, co-founder and president of the digital marketing agency LoSoMo Inc. “What they don’t realize is each internship is one extended job interview.”

But internships aren’t just golden opportunities for future employees; they are highly beneficial for companies, too. Interns have the potential to add a fresh perspective, possess an inherent tech savviness, and ultimately provide services and first-person consumer knowledge that top companies typically pay major consulting firms a great deal to obtain.

“It is so important that interns know that they are extremely valuable and saving companies thousands of dollars,” said Krystal Vaquerano, co-founder and creative director of Shea Brand, “and they should never be afraid to voice their opinions or thoughts just because they may lack job experience.”

HelloGiggles connected with 18 women CEOs who were generous enough to reveal what they wish they had known during their time as interns.

Listen to and learn from the constructive criticism you receive.

“When I first began in the fashion industry at 22 years old, my supervisor told me three months in that I wasn’t going to make it in retail because I was ‘too nice and let everyone walk all over me.’ Instead of doubting my abilities and underestimating my potential and professional self-worth, I took this constructive criticism to heart and found my voice. I soon stepped up and became more vocal, direct, and transparent with my supervisor and teammates—and people took notice.”

— Jenny Ming, CEO of Charlotte Russe, California

Leave your expectations at home.

“The one thing I wish I had known going into interning is to not have any expectations. Your tasks could be anything from the simplest thing (yes, getting coffee is a task you’ll probably have to do) to something as exciting as helping out on a big project and learning things you may not have anticipated. It’s best to go into an internship with an open mind.”

— Ida-Sofia Koivuniemi, CEO of Evil Queen Candles, California

Ask for help (and advice) from the people who know best.

“It’s okay to ask questions—not just about the project you’re working on, but also bigger questions that will hopefully turn your boss into more of a mentor and someone who takes an active interest in your professional development. Now that I am the person on the other side of the table, I’ve realized that the interns who ask me for help and advice do not come across as annoying, silly, or needy; instead, these are the interns I take an active interest in helping—and a little help when you’re just starting out goes a long way.”

— Galyna Nitsetska, CEO of Empress Mimi Lingerie, London

Working for free is NOT required.

“I wish I would have known my value. When I was talking about committing to an internship, my potential boss asked me what my rate was. I told him. He then cut it in half and as a broke college student, I quickly agreed without negotiating. I wish I would have realized that though I didn’t have years of experience, I still had a strong skill set and I could have pushed for a higher skill compensation package. If you’re starting your first internship, do not work for free. Your time is valuable and you should be compensated accordingly.”

— Arianna O’Dell, CEO of Airlink Marketing, New York

Enjoy the moment.

“I am a former lawyer turned business owner who started my career as an intern at a public defender’s office. While I was able to learn many new skills through the position, I wish I had spent more time enjoying the moment. I focused so much on striving towards the next goal and moving swiftly that it did not afford me the time to recognize the importance of being in the moment. Knowing what I know now, I would have connected more with my bosses and made it a point to slow down.”

— Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, California

Be proactive and communicative with your boss(es).

“I wish someone would have told me to be more proactive. When you’re interning, you assume your supervisors are keeping tabs on how much you’re completing and learning. I often waited around for the next task instead of speaking up to ask for something else to do; or worse, assuming that an assignment was expected to take me the entire day. Now that I’m on the flip side and have interns at our company, I realize that because they are only present a few days a week, it’s easy to forget to check in and see what they are working on or how efficient they are. I always tell our new interns to be vocal and communicate when they are finished or nearly finished with a project.”

— Jennifer Morris, CEO of Ajenda Public Relations, California

Working alongside other women in your field is a valuable, unique experience.

“Years ago, I wish I had identified and worked alongside a successful female PR professional. This unique perspective could guide me in all aspects of client service, help me navigate (and appreciate!) what it means to have a seat at a boardroom table dominated by men, and master the art of negotiation. As leaders who are women, it’s crucial we share the steps (and missteps) we made along our professional journey.”

— Keri Bonfili, CEO of thekbonfili.com, North Carolina

Build relationships with your coworkers while you can.

“I believe that building good relationship with coworkers while interning is valuable for your future career path. I often ended my internship without a lasting connection with former employers. Because of that, I mostly found it was difficult to ask for reference letters, which prevented me from proving my experiences with new employers. Moreover, I realize the importance of intra-organizational communications to a company. So, at the present, I always encourage each member to speak out and participate in the discussion, as well as build strong relationships with each other.”

— Danni Lin, CEO of Great Wine, Washington

It’s all valuable.

“Every experience prepares you for the next. Internships are all about learning how to do a job, and also learning more about yourself. Understanding how you work best, how you interact with teams of different sizes, and what you do or don’t want in your next challenge/job.”

— Caitlin McCarthy, CEO of C|Louise Public Relations, Illinois

The details matter.

“When I was interning in D.C. at a lobbying firm, I was tasked with creating a very extensive spreadsheet on pellet fuels. I groaned and didn’t want to do it. However, one of the lobbyists came up to me and said, ‘the president might need this, make it good.’ I wish I could say that I did a flawless job then—I didn’t. But now I know better. You never know where something might end up, so make it as good as you can before you share it with anyone.”

— Kristina Libby, CEO of Lohm Skincare, New York

Your superiors are regular people, too.

“I wish that I had known that CEOs and senior-level executives are, underneath it all, just regular people. During my time as an intern, I was never shy to introduce myself if the opportunity presented itself, but I never felt like I should or could reach out to set up meetings or [coffee outings] to get to know individuals that were more senior than myself. Looking back, I wish I had set up a time to get to know people in the organization. It’s amazing what can happen with a quick 10-minute meeting with the CEO.”

— Nikki Larchar, CEO of simplyHR & Define the Line, Colorado

Mistakes are part of the learning process.

“Looking back, I would tell myself not to worry so much and take risks. When things don’t work out, you’ll learn a great deal from them, and you’ll get over setbacks much easier than you think. Things will work out better than you expect!”

— Georgene Huang, CEO of Fairygodboss, New York

Remember that balance is key.

“I wish I would have learned about work-life balance. I interned in a culture where if you didn’t look busy, you were not productive. During my rise in corporate America, I worked so hard that I missed most of my daughter’s elementary school years. Even if I was done working, I would not leave out of fear of being labeled as lazy or unproductive. As a CEO, my movement is much different as I now understand that busy does not equal productive.”

— Marlin G. Williams, CEO of Sisters Code, Michigan

Your opinion matters, even as an intern.

“I had six internships during summers in high school and college. I wish I would have told myself to speak up more. As an intern, I was at times hesitant to express my opinion because I was ‘the intern.’ Looking back, I had ownership of projects and was the best person to speak about the tasks at hand. Today I make sure all members of my team feel empowered to share their ideas, from interns to senior management.”

— Jessica Postiglione, CEO of OLIKA, New York

Keep in touch (for real).

“When I was 15 years old, I started interning at FOX Studios’ Diversity Development Department. Over my six years with them, I learned so many invaluable lessons. But the one thing I wish I knew was [to] nurture all the contacts I made over the years. I was around everyone from Rupert Murdoch to the casting directors for New Regency Pictures, and they knew me as the girl who gave lot tours. Today, I own a PR firm, 3d Public Relations and Marketing, and in my industry it’s all about relationships. I look back on my days at FOX and think to myself, ‘If only I’d stayed in touch with so and so, I could reach out to them.’”

— Dina Rezvanipour, CEO of 3d Public Relations & Marketing, California

Really sell it!

“One thing that I wish I knew earlier, or when I was an intern, was the importance of learning how to sell. The whole process: being confident and [having] charisma, learning to read others, and selling yourself even if you have to fake it. I thought being smart was good enough to command respect or get the job done, and it’s not.”

— Gloria K., CEO of Elidah, Connecticut

Pay attention to your future market.

“I interned at modeling agencies, and the key takeaway from that experience was learning to listen to the talent and finding the right jobs to motivate them and help them achieve their career goals. I took the time and effort to understand what made them tick, then applied that knowledge to help them succeed by booking them on jobs that played to their strengths. If you can identify a gap in the market or niche market to capitalize on, you’ll always be able to thrive no matter what business you’re in.”

— Shelley Barrett, CEO of ModelCo., Australia

Just be you.

“I brought in a box of fresh pastries and wore a skirt suit on my first day as a graphic design intern in the entertainment biz. Even in the late 1990s, that was overdressed by a long shot. I immediately got playfully teased by my new coworkers for trying to show them up. I tried to downplay my pastries and suit, when in hindsight those both showed me simply being me. I love to give gifts as a gesture of support or excitement at work, and I love to dress up…still do. It took me years to discover that is exactly who I am—quirks and all—and it’s precisely who I’m meant to be, no apologies needed.”

— Amy Jordan, CEO of WundaBar Pilates, California