Internships are a rite of passage for many college students, but when so many of them were canceled during the pandemic, Justin Murray saw an institution that seemed ripe for disruption.
Murray, an undergraduate student in the Business & Technology program at the School of Business at Stevens Institute of Technology, said there’s no substitute for applying what you learn in school at a real company — but in his classes, “we do a lot of team projects — everything from marketing decks, to logo design, to pitch decks — and a lot of these projects are very applicable to real-life scenarios. And they’re focused on areas where startup companies tend to need help.”
Enter ObSkill, a platform created by Murray and a handful of other Stevens students. This LinkedIn-like marketplace matches small teams of students with startups seeking support on project-based work. For startups, it’s a chance to bring in expertise in marketing, finance, accounting or other skills that founders may not have. Students, meanwhile, get the professional experience of an internship with the flexibility of a consulting project. That’s helpful if they lose out on an internship, want to study abroad in the summer or have a light course load in a particular semester.
Murray, who leads ObSkill’s business team, is focused on signing up more students ahead of the April 30 Stevens Innovation Expo, where the project will be showcased alongside other student concepts. The platform, powered by a team of 10 students, recently welcomed Launch Hoboken — an initiative to foster entrepreneurship in the Mile Square City — as a partner; securing more startups remains a goal for the team as it aims to bridge the gap between job boards and social media.
“ObSkill is designed to be simple for students and companies to set up — it’s like a LinkedIn profile, so it’s not hands-on or time consuming,” Murray said.
A focus on experience, compliance
That blend of simplicity and usefulness owes a lot to Steven Foley, who leads the development team for the project. His insights helped move the project from a Wordpress page to a full-fledged website.
“Seeing ObSkill go from a file in Google Docs to an actual website and platform has been such a rewarding experience for me,” Foley said.
Because the site is handling user data, Foley said, a concern of his has been the security protocols needed to ensure the platform is in compliance with varied, and changing, regulations governing user privacy.
“So many organizations treat security as an afterthought,” he said. “We’ve been trying to work that in from the start. One of the things that makes our life easier is we’re not doing a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff with data. We’re open about how it’s used and what’s public in order to offer the best experience.”
Foley, who is majoring in Cybersecurity, said the Stevens ecosystem helps him think about ObSkill’s security and design concerns from the standpoint of businesses and end users.
“In some other places, you fall into this trap of, ‘I’m a computer science student — I learn to code, then sit in the corner and make what people tell me to,’” he said. “But the culture at Stevens pairs that left-brain talent with your creative side, so you’re challenged to think about how you can take an assignment and do something more interesting and impactful.”
Michael Hopwood, who’s leading the design effort for the website, said the Stevens culture — more so than any particular class he's taken — has played a role in the project’s success to date.
“Stevens really does encourage these interdisciplinary projects that challenge you to learn new things or apply what you’ve learned in new ways,” he said.
Important real-world skills
Hopwood, who's studying Electrical Engineering, also taught himself a couple of new design tools in creating a look and feel for the site, including an animation that explains the platform’s benefits to students and clients. In class, he said, he learned how to take an idea, communicate with collaborators and iterate on the platform.
“As it gets bigger, we need this team structure,” he said. “We have different people working on the on very specific parts of this project, from the business and development angles. And that all came back to the fundamentals I learned in my engineering design courses.”
Murray and Foley are both scheduled to graduate in December 2021, while Hopwood will follow them in May 2022. And even though the students on ObSkill’s leadership team have plans for the future — Murray has designs on entre- or intrapreneurship, and will intern with Nasdaq’s global strategy group this summer; Foley is currently interning in RSM’s security and risk consulting area; Hopwood is considering an MBA — there’s clearly an appetite for pushing the platform forward.
“Our goal is to have it run itself, once more profiles are up and companies can go on, make postings and advertise availabilities,” Murray said. “We’d be more like the upper management, making sure nothing breaks and that there are no complaints from the user side. And if that’s what it is, I think most of us would want to stay on to see how far we can grow it.”