Interview with Bao Phan, ELI Alumnus (’19)

Bao Phan, Junior Designer at Thesis Agency
Bao Phan, Junior Designer at Thesis Agency

Bao talks about the importance of internships to college students, his experience as a graphic design intern at Thesis, and knowing your own worth.

Elise: What was your Emerging Leaders application process like?

Bao: I applied twice in a row, actually. The first year, I didn’t get a final offer; the second year I did. I knew that I needed to get an internship, and the second year was even more important because I was a senior, and that was my last chance to get either an internship or a job offer. And I was really nervous about being able to get a job after school because it’s hard to break into my fields—design, advertising, UI/UX. It’s not a lack of jobs, per se, but it’s very competitive to get a foot in the door. So getting that internship, it was really a goal for me especially in the second year. And I was glad that I got the offer because that meant I didn’t have to spend time waiting to hear back from recruiters after finishing school, and during my last month of school, I was able to focus on my thesis and on getting everything done so I could start working right after. That was great.

Elise: Why is an internship so important for some college students?

Bao: This program is really helpful especially for students who don’t have a professional network established, and that is really applicable for a lot of students who are minorities. I don’t really know how to navigate that—professional expectations, getting coffee, talking with people. Because the process is so competitive, it’s hard for you to just apply through a portal and get that offer; those companies usually get several hundreds of resumes to screen, and you don’t get as much attention. So having the opportunity to get in front of decision-makers in the company, to have an interview alone is valuable enough. Getting that internship is even more valuable because it means that once you start to apply for jobs and stuff, you’re further ahead of your peers. And it’s even more important that these internships are paid. I categorically refuse to apply to any unpaid internship because I think it’s exploitation, and especially for ethnic minorities, it’s double exploitation of your labor and your worth. And with these internships, you really get to know your worth and what you can do in the workplace. So that’s a very, very valuable learning experience. In addition to professional experience, you get to learn the kind of person that you are and what you can ask for once you start working.

“I categorically refuse to apply to any unpaid internship because I think it’s exploitation.”

Elise: Tell me about your internship.

Bao: I was a design intern at what was then called eROI, now Thesis, and I really loved it because I got to work on a ton of things and my mentors were really invested in me as an intern. There was a lot of learning, there was a lot of working. And there was not really any moment where I felt like I didn’t belong in a team or that I was treated any differently than any other employee. Like most of the day-to-day work, I was treated as if I was a colleague, very professionally, very courteously; people were friendly in a way that made me feel like I was really at home at the company. That’s why, when I was extended an offer to stay at the company, I accepted because I felt like it was a really good working environment for someone starting in the field. It’s hard to find an agency where the work environment is supportive and collaborative and not cutthroat.

Elise: What have you moved on to now?

Bao: After I started as an intern, I jumped right on, and I’ve been at Thesis for a year. I’ve focused on one account, but that doesn’t mean that we lack different kinds of projects. Since the account is big, we have several different clients and stakeholders we report to. And there’s a wide variety of work that I get to do, from emails to digital campaigns to web pages, et cetera. I’ve been able to create systems for one of the most complex projects, which was exciting. And it really played to my strengths as a designer who understands systems and brands and copy and advertising as well as digital design. This has been a really great first chapter in terms of just getting the kind of experience that I need for me personally to get to where I want to be as a designer.

“With these internships, you really get to know your worth and what you can do in the workplace.”

Elise: Where do you see yourself in the future?

Bao: It’s hard to say because this whole Covid thing has thrown everything into the unknown. So for now I’m just taking it day by day, but it’s helped me learn a few things about myself that I might not have learned otherwise. I do know that in the long term, I really would love to work to create more complex projects and be able to lead those projects. I do think that in the next five to ten years, I want to get to a point where I can become a design director or a design lead and maybe get a master’s degree. I want to advance myself as a systems designer or become an architect, which means more school. So that might be fun, but I’m putting advanced degrees on hold right now because personally, it’s more important for me to be stable where I am. And this is allowing me to do that, to have that stability when everything is so unsure. So for that part, I’m really appreciative that Thesis has been as flexible as we have been with work from home and all of that.

Elise: What do you think companies can do to make their workplace feel inclusive?

Bao: I feel like outreach is the one place where companies can start and do better. Because I think a lot of times, students don’t really know what companies are out there, and they don’t know how to reach out to companies, recruiters, and hiring managers to inquire about opportunities. So doing outreach at schools where we already know there’s a significant number of students who are of an ethnic minority—black and indigenous, Asian and Hispanic—at schools like PSU, PCC, Mount Hood, and community colleges would be great.

Another thing is to reach out to nontraditional applicants. I don’t really want to say the word “nontraditional” because nontraditional doesn’t mean much these days, but I mean people who don’t have a typical background in our industry—people who don’t go through degree programs or have a technical background but have potential or know they want to be in this field. For example, engineering, where most students are male—how can they find more female candidates to apply for a job? The start is to build a pipeline from just getting more women and non-male-identifying students to be interested and then build that field to be more inclusive. And companies can really help in that regard by mentoring, by outreach, by providing resources, providing scholarships to students from high schools and community college, to people who go back to work or people who change careers. There’s a lot of work that can be done in those regards. And I’m not just thinking about the fields of design and digital design and digital marketing, but a lot of different fields. But yeah, we can all do better in that regard.

“My advice would be to start believing in yourself and to know that you’re bringing something valuable to the workplace and to put yourself out there and not be afraid of being visible.”

Elise: What advice would you give to either a fresh Emerging Leaders intern?

Bao: My advice would be to start believing in yourself and to know that you’re bringing something valuable to the workplace and to put yourself out there and not be afraid of being visible in the workplace. Speaking as an introvert, it’s really hard for me to put myself in the work, present my work, and make sure that people see my contributions, but it’s very important that you do that. And it starts with just learning to talk about yourself in a way that projects confidence. You don’t want to boast, but you do have to do that in order to get people to see your work, and there’s nothing wrong with that in interviews and resumes, et cetera. It’s the art of selling yourself. Start feeling like you matter, even if you’re doing something that you don’t think is gonna make much of a difference. It does. Absolutely everything we do.

Elise: It seems like that should be obvious—believing in yourself—but it’s not for a lot of young people of color.

Bao: And even when you start working, you will struggle with that. Imposter syndrome is very real. And the higher you perform, the more you will experience it. Every day, I was like, “Am I doing this right? I don’t feel like this is good enough.” And that kind of feeling is hard to shake because you will start to have higher standards for yourself. And then you start to really doubt yourself. You don’t really feel like what you’re doing is where you want to be. But just keep doing it—that’s the key.

Also, if you do feel imposter syndrome, it’s important to get positive reinforcement from mentors and colleagues, from your friends and family. It really helps a lot to get positive feedback. If other people are confident in you, there’s less reason that you have to doubt yourself so much. And that’s one of the biggest lessons I learned after a year of work.

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