“”I’ve done three unpaid internships, the first one being in the House of Representatives back in 2012 when I was in college. And because I couldn’t afford to intern for free, what I had to do was work about 25 hours a week, intern 30 hours a week, and then take six courses as an 18 year old. As opposed to really trying to immerse myself in the internship, it’s like kind of a fight to stay awake. I guess walking down the hallways of Congress one day and realizing that no one else looked like me except the custodian. And then I did two other unpaid internships, but you just kind of think like you’re paying your dues, right?”

That’s Carlos Mark Vera, this week’s guest on Why Public Service?, discussing his road to helping create the non-profit Pay Our Interns and changing how Capitol Hill handled internships for years to come. Carlos previously interned in Congress and the White House. He also worked for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and he was a U.S. Army reservist for eight years.

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Transcript:

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Why Public Service, a podcast of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, DC. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. In each episode, I speak with an individual who made the choice to participate in governing our nation. Some of my guests have worked for the government. Others have toiled in various private sector organizations, including think tanks, philanthropies, and political groups. All of them share the same goal, however, which is to improve our country through public service. Today’s guest is Carlos Mark Vera, executive director and co-founder of Pay Our Interns.

Kevin Kosar:

It is an organization that seeks to ensure that everyone has equitable access to professional career paths through the implementation of paid internships nationwide. Carlos co-created Pay Our Interns in 2016 and already the group has had great success. In 2019, it convinced Congress to pony up $31 million to pay interns who work for Capitol Hill. Carlos previously interned in Congress and the White House. He worked for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and he was a U.S. Army reservist for eight years. You can learn more about Carlos by visiting PayOurInterns.org. Carlos, welcome to the Why Public Service? podcast.

Carlos Mark Vera:

Thank you for having me.

Kevin Kosar:

As our listeners have heard, you are an entrepreneur in the not-for-profits space. What led you to co-found Pay Our Interns? what was the path that led you to this unique place?

Carlos Mark Vera:

For me, it really came down to personal experience. I’ve done three unpaid internships, the first one being in the House of Representatives back in 2012 when I was in college. And because I couldn’t afford to intern for free, what I had to do was work about 25 hours a week, intern 30 hours a week, and then take six courses as an 18 year old. As opposed to really trying to immerse myself in the internship, it’s like kind of a fight to stay awake. I guess walking down the hallways of Congress one day and realizing that no one else looked like me except the custodian. And then I did two other unpaid internships, but you just kind of think like you’re paying your dues, right?

Carlos Mark Vera:

It wasn’t until I spoke to my mentee and he had mentioned that he had skipped out on buying groceries to pay for dry cleaning costs for the same unpaid Hill internship. And at that point, I kind of knew that this needed to stop. So I quit my job, much to the displeasure of my family, and I started Pay Our Interns.

Kevin Kosar:

As a follow up question, let me ask, how does one just start an organization? So few of us have done it.

Carlos Mark Vera:

To be honest, I… How do I say this? Most entrepreneurs, what you do is you actually go to funders and you do that seed round. You present your concept, your idea. You get the money, then you do the work. I did it the opposite way. I just kind of started it as a campaign. Obviously we do work in Congress. The original concept was to ensure that interns across sectors get paid. We decided to start in Congress because myself and the other co-founder, Guillermo, both had interned there, and we saw the implications of reflective democracy, right? Like ultimately we want to have a governing body that reflects the various communities of the country. But yeah, so like I said, we kind of started it through Facebook.

Carlos Mark Vera:

It wasn’t until like two, three months in that we do the paperwork, apply through the IRS for filing a c3 status, and so on and so forth.

Kevin Kosar:

So it began as a campaign and the idea just seems so compelling that you’ve decided to make it official and make it legal, and after that came funding?

Carlos Mark Vera:

We actually did not really get any funding from a foundation until 2018, like October. It was actually two years in that we actually received funding. I think part of it, the whole conversation. But like for entrepreneurs of color that are young, it’s much more difficult. It was mostly like through grassroots donations, and then I was a full-time server while my counterpart was working at FEMA during Hurricane Maria.

Kevin Kosar:

Wow.

Carlos Mark Vera:

Yeah.

Kevin Kosar:

It must’ve been a demanding couple of years, but now Pay Our Interns is the real deal. It’s had great success. It’s gotten great media, and you’re the executive director. What are your responsibilities as executive director?

Carlos Mark Vera:

A little bit of everything. It consists of fundraising, ensuring you’re staying in touch with your contacts in Congress, relationship with the board and doing media interviews hopping, policy memos, working on communication strategy, and then kind of bringing it all together into like a long-term strategic plan. Those are a couple of my duties.

Kevin Kosar:

Yeah, and that bleeds over into my next question, which is for our listeners who were thinking about do they one day get into this space, what does your average day look like? Is it the same thing day after day or is every day different?

Carlos Mark Vera:

I would say every day is different. I feel like it’s extremely exciting. Some weeks are busier than others. And then there are some weeks kind of like when we dropped our report to Congress, the week beforehand we spent some time editing the report, the next day writing an oped for Teen Vogue, and then the next day helping write a grant, and then the day after having a call with some elected officials. It varies. I would say that the entrepreneurial life is not always as structured, and it is sometimes longer than some like nine to five jobs. I don’t know what nine to five is.

Kevin Kosar:

Well, that must be exhausting. So you’ve previously worked on the Hill and then you started a not-for-profit organization that works with Capitol Hill.

Carlos Mark Vera:

Yes.

Kevin Kosar:

You’ve seen governing close up.

Carlos Mark Vera:

I have.

Kevin Kosar:

What sort of lessons have you drawn from your experience thus far? I had one guest who emphasize that elections really, really matter in his experience. And another guest has said it’s the relationships she developed. What about you?

Carlos Mark Vera:

For me, it really comes down to seeing how Congress relies on outside organizations, the same way that we rely on them. It’s a relationship. It’s sometimes messy, complicated, but it’s one that’s needed. Not one single entity is doing it all. There very much is an ecosystem and everyone kind of does its part. For me, what I was shocked about was how a lot of congressional offices lack certain technical skills that you think they would have, but they don’t. And that probably obviously has to do with defunding of the legislative branch over the last two, three decades.

Carlos Mark Vera:

But that’s one of the things that I was kind of impressed in, like having 80 offices reach out to your organization within two months and being like, “How do you pay an intern? Where do you find them? How much?” All these questions that you think that they would have from a logistical standpoint, but they don’t.

Kevin Kosar:

Well, it’s a good thing you’re there to help them out with these questions. Now, as a follow up I want to ask, you start a brand new organization. You’re trying to create change on Capitol Hill. As we all know, Congress has so many things to pay attention to.

Carlos Mark Vera:

Yes.

Kevin Kosar:

How did you get them to listen to you?

Carlos Mark Vera:

We initially sent 40 emails to senators. Only like two, three responded, including Senator Inhofe and Senator Rubio. None of the Democrats responded to our emails. And we soon realized that we faced a big barrier, and it was the fact that there was no publicly available data on which office is paid and which ones did not. And as you know, you’re only going to go so far with stories, right? You need the numbers. So we decided to do a survey across both chambers, either calling, going to the office, looking online, and trying to figure out who paid, who didn’t. We did that for about three months.

Carlos Mark Vera:

While in that process, we soon realized that even though Congress is extremely polarized and sometimes they can’t even agree on like naming a park, one thing that we noticed, we’re like, “Wait, if Senator Inhofe pays his interns and he cares about this and so does Senator Bernie Sanders from a political standpoint, they have very few in common, like little things in common, but they paid their interns.” So we started noticing that this is one of the few issues that had a cross-party appeal. And then when we finished up the report, we kind of leveraged that against offices being like, “Hey, we’re going to report this in two months.

Carlos Mark Vera:

You either have the option to be listed in category A or category B. What do you want?” And that was really helpful.

Kevin Kosar:

Well, that sounds like another little lesson in governance. It’s the value of having the data.

Carlos Mark Vera:

Yes, and how do you leverage it and how do you kind of push offices in a certain direction.

Kevin Kosar:

The data I imagine were rather embarrassing to many Hill offices, and to other Hill offices, they were validating.

Carlos Mark Vera:

Yeah. So one of the outcomes of the report was it showed that Republicans were offering more paid internships that Democrats in both chambers. And it kind of dispelled a viewpoint that people are like, “Oh, you would think it would be Democrats.” It’s like, nope. That was one of the nuggets. And then one last point about that was we released our report June 30th and a lot of offices were like, “Oh, we’re going to try to look for some of the money.” And then one of them… We notify them. We’re like, “We’re releasing it tomorrow,” and it’s a democratic senator, and their office miraculously found money to pay interns within two hours.

Carlos Mark Vera:

I guess one thing also to note is the power of media and how journalism can help hold powerful institutions accountable.

Kevin Kosar:

Absolutely. You’ve already intimated that it’s not easy being an entrepreneur. The hours are long and the schedule is unpredictable. If you could identify one thing as the toughest part of your current job, what would it be?

Carlos Mark Vera:

I’m going to be those annoying guests that kind of split it in half. They’re kind of similar, but not. One I would say is there really is no infrastructure around paid internships in this work. It impacts a lot of people, but there are not that many organizations or think tanks. We rely on data. There is really no think tanks that focus on this. So that means that we have to be doing that work, but it’s a cost-benefit analysis, right? The more time we focus on collecting data, the less time we can do advocacy effort to other programs, right? And then within that same vein, fundraising is not always easy.

Carlos Mark Vera:

It’s gotten easier finally after like four years, but very few orgs want to invest in an organization that’s like holding an institution accountable. They don’t want to piss off Congress, so they don’t write a check.

Kevin Kosar:

This brings me to my closing question. It’s not easy. It’s an uphill battle trying to get people to do what you think is the right thing. It’s not easy to raise money. It’s not easy to start an organization all on your own or even with just a partner. So why public service? You could have chosen another career path.

Carlos Mark Vera:

Yes. I’ve been provided the option to work in the corporate sector and make $150,000, which is always alluring. For me, it really came down to I would say that Hill internship. It was the first taste into the public sector and seeing the levers of government and its ability to either help or hurt your community. A lot of folks say, “Oh, I’m not interested in politics and government,” but politics is the one that decides does a trash get taken out or not, right? Do the roads get paved or not? And in particular, Congress, you’re talking about $2 trillion that gets dispersed each year. So for me, that’s kind of in the lure and that’s why I’ve continued just in a different position, but still within that. And I love it.

Kevin Kosar:

A lot of people out there who are seeking internships or recently got them are very thankful that you did choose the course you did. So Carlos, thank you so much for all you do and thank you for being on the podcast.

Carlos Mark Vera:

Of course. Thank you for having me, Kevin.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Why Public Service, a podcast of the R Street Institute. Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better, rate and review us on iTunes so we can reach more listeners. Tell us what you thought about it and who we should interview next by finding us on Twitter, @RSI. If you want to know more about R Street, sign up for our newsletters at www.rstreet.org. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. Thank you to producer William Gray and editor Parker Tant from ParkerPodcasting.com.