An Illinois native, Case Western Reserve University basketball player and, as of this summer, an international intern.
Michael Volkening, a third-year finance major who had never previously traveled overseas, knew he wanted to push himself out of his comfort zone this summer. That’s why when his professor, Michael Goldberg, mentioned a startup in South Africa looking for an intern, he jumped at the opportunity.
“I knew I wanted to intern at a startup company because I wanted to make an impact,” Volkening said. “I also was looking for a company with a mission statement that I agreed with. Zlto met all the criteria I was looking to accomplish this summer.”
Zlto is a small financial technology (FinTech) startup in Bridgetown, South Africa, that uses blockchain technology paired with its own currency to combat the youth unemployment rate (ages 15-24), which is currently at an alarming 55%.
On his first day, Volkening was greeted with a hug by the owner of the company, who he soon learned would be his manager for the summer. That’s when he knew this internship was different than he expected.
“They made me feel welcomed,” Volkening said. “The team was open-minded with everything I did. If it was something they liked, they took it. If not, they encouraged me to go in a different direction.”
Volkening’s days involved a lot of financial modeling. For example, he worked on Zlto’s social return on investment (SROI) model, calculating data for every dollar that a business would invest in the company to discover how much social impact or gain Zlto was creating. He remembers using skills he learned in Assistant Professor of Banking and Finance Lakshmi Balasubramanyan’s class, which “helped tremendously.”
Volkening worked on another model that depicted the value of services users completed in relation to Zlto's currency. This allowed him and his team to display how much Zlto users receive from a variety of services. Volkening says this model will be implemented in Zlto’s next version.
He also had the unique opportunity to sit in on venture capitalist meetings, where he learned real-world terminology and how the whole process works. Volkening credits Allan Van Der Meulen, his manager and the founder of the company, as one of the most brilliant, motivated people he’s ever met.
The nearly three-month internship had a serious impact on Volkening’s career goals.
“Initially, I was thinking of going corporate after graduation, maybe working for a big bank,” he said. “Now that I’ve dipped my toe in the startup and entrepreneurship world, it made me realize there are more routes I could take.”
Of course, his experience overseas wasn’t all work: Volkening and his new friends and coworkers did a lot of hiking, including Lion’s Head Mountain in Cape Town, and also toured Groot Constantia, the oldest winery in South Africa.
Volkening’s advice to students considering taking their internship abroad?
“Just do it. Go have fun and learn,” he said. “It was the best experience of my life.”