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Jean-Michel Shares his Internship Story about Binders, Drugs, and Riots

This is the first part of our recurring Intern Diaries series, where we ask industry leaders/interesting people to share stories from early in their careers. Here’s Jean-Michel, CEO of Oliv, sharing his highs, lows, and humbling moments.

Let’s start at the very beginning, what was your first internship?

I was 18 years old and my dad helped me secure an internship. My job was to read binders full of documents and SOPs, every day, in an unused room at the back of the office. Every four hours a random supervisor from a variety of supervisors, who I’d have never met before, would pop his head around the door and ask, “how are you doing?”. I’d say “fine” and that was it until the next three to four hours. It was a laugh. I was bored out of my mind. I was there for four weeks, just reading binder after binder after binder…

This is what happens when you get a position through someone you know, without really doing your research or hustling to secure something. They didn’t have an internship program and weren’t interested in training or retaining me. And it wasn’t their fault; they were pretty accommodating even though they obviously didn’t have the time or resources for an intern, it was mine.

What internship gave you a dose of reality?

So this was definitely more like a drop kick from reality… During my final year in pharmacy school, to graduate, we had to do a year-long traineeship. It was a three-step interview process and I was pretty lucky to be the only person selected for the dual program. I wanted to get both: a comprehensive idea of the industry and extensive hospital experience. In the end, I spent six months at the NHS and six months at the hospital – it was brutal.

I had to keep telling myself that the learning curve was just a rite of passage. No question would get a straight answer, everyone was just too busy, and if it wasn’t an emergency that involved a human life, you had to figure it out yourself.

In the first month alone, I was doing ward rounds of around 50 patients, filling in the drug charts for dosage, timing, and interactions. I was training to learn more about drugs than the doctors, and the doctors treated me as such.

The scariest part was the accountability. I, like any other intern, wanted someone else to take responsibility. That’s what I had been used to as a student. But when your responsibility is a human life, you learn quickly that not taking accountability is not an option.

But that was also, by far, the best internship experience I’ve had.

What was your least favourite internship experience and what did you learn from it?

A part of my rotation was in the hospital stores, which meant stocking shelves. It wasn’t the most enjoyable but I gained a new respect for it because it just has to be done. The warehouse and inventory had to be managed immaculately; one human error could screw up the entire process, meaning patients wouldn’t get their medicine on time, which could literally be the difference between life and death.

It’s the furthest thing from glamorous but without a team doing what it takes so harmoniously, the whole system falls apart.

Was there anything that affected you on a personal level?

Oh, definitely, yes. The NHS is a public healthcare system; it’s open to everyone, but it doesn’t mean they can help everyone. Drugs are prescribed and practitioners have to follow the nationally-approved guidelines. But not every patient case is a step one, step two process; there’s an Exceptional Circumstances Committee for those cases.

The ECC gets together to basically say yes or no to trial treatments for patients with rare or hard to treat cancers. During my traineeship, I was the only pharmacist reviewing patient files and preparing case reviews so it was really tough to witness those calls being made, about whether a patient would get treatment, based on what I’d put together.

Where did you go after that?

So after I finished up with school, my second job out was as pharmacist-in-charge at a local pharmacy. On my first day, the management was as clueless as I was. On my third day, I realized my predecessor had left because she hadn’t been paid. On the fourth day, I found out we hadn’t been paying our suppliers. It gets better! On the fifth day, the owner of the pharmacy had to run down to the pound shop to buy paracetamol to sell back to our customers. It was a mess! I learned how to manage a pharmacy that was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy so, definitely some valuable lessons learned, and you’ve probably guessed by now, I never got paid for anything!

After that stint, I became the pharmacy manager at ABC. A pharmacist doesn’t really get any management training because we’re too busy learning about pharmaceuticals… But this was my first chance to build my own team and I learned the hard way, obviously.

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Understanding the team history, politics, dynamics between a team that had been together for over ten years was just the beginning. We had celebrities come in with prescriptions for heroin, impoverished people come in for methadone, and undercover agents come in looking for riot criminals because we got caught in the middle of a riot storm once:

It made us pretty famous!

Sounds like it’s been a pretty entrepreneurial journey, right from the beginning…

Yeah, entrepreneurship and independence were very prominent features of all of the experiences I had. The focus on accountability, responsibility, conscientiousness, resilience, commitment, analytical skills (especially when it comes to risk) were all there from the start. Even when I was doing that back-office-reading internship, I could have just played games and YouTubed cat videos all day but the SOPs actually did teach me something.

Oh, and in the healthcare industry, there’s about a 0.00001% room for error so that teaches you some seriously high standards…

What would you say to students/grads looking for internships right now, or those who are currently interning?

The cliche “make the most of it” is not overstated. How much you put in is how much you’ll get out, so if you want to learn more, ask your supervisor for additional projects or challenges.

Pay attention to the transferrable skills. Every experience, regardless of what you’re doing, even if it’s got nothing to do with your major, has something to teach you so you need to be able to recognize and learn the skills that will be useful later.

Communication. This is something you can’t fully learn until you begin interning or working so every memo, email, phone call, meeting, discussion you’re a part of, take mental notes of the style, tone, spoken and body language, and attitude.

You’re definitely going to have at least one terrible internship or job experience. Everyone goes through it but just keep a look out for the silver lining.