College students can get a crack at working for the cutting-edge-tech unit of a big bank under a program that Citigroup announced Thursday.

Students from 12 universities may now apply for internships at Citi Ventures for a semester and earn course credit. The schools include New York University, Cornell Tech, Columbia Business School, Georgetown University, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas at Austin.

This fall about 90 students went through a test of the program, which is called CUPID, or Citi University Partnerships in Innovation & Discovery.

“It’s an infusion of talent and perspective that helps us at Citi keep our game as high as it can be and at the same time, gives students a real opportunity to see inside — what does it take to drive change at a 206-year-old company?” said Vanessa Colella, head of Citi Ventures and Citi’s chief innovation officer, who created CUPID.

Vanessa Colella
Taste of the real world
“It’s hard for young people to know what a job is going to be like,” says Vanessa Colella, head of Citi Ventures and Citi’s chief innovation officer. “We’re trying to give the next generation of talent a real understanding of the different kinds of things you can do in financial services.”

Before joining Citi, Colella was a Teach for America instructor in East Los Angeles and Brooklyn before becoming a teacher at a private school in Manhattan.

The students in the test program last semester provided “fresh ideas, momentum, energy, expertise and challenge,” she said.

The bank worked with professors at each of the schools to design internships that would fit with their curricula.

“There’s a lot of emphasis in certain courses on having hands-on experience and working with companies,” Colella said. “It’s different for every institution. We’ve formed CUPID around the needs of the universities and the students as opposed to a one-size-fits-all from Citi’s perspective.”

This week a Toronto professor and his 19 students are visiting Citi Venture’s San Francisco office to present the work they did in the past semester on four Citi-related projects.

“They’re helping us validate and understand how useful our innovations would be in the marketplace,” Colella said.

The interns also bring specific skills in design, machine learning, interviewing and such. They in return get a taste of what it’s like to work at a bank.

“My view is it’s hard for young people to know what a job is going to be like, unless you happen to want to be a policeman or a firefighter or a doctor,” Colella said. “Most jobs are a little opaque. So we’re trying to give the next generation of talent a real understanding of the different kinds of things you can do in financial services.”

The program matches each student’s goals and skills with the innovation projects the bank has going on under its "Shark Tank"-like D10X program.

“Because we’ve got 100 innovation projects running at any given time that are being mentored by entrepreneurs, we can match students to the projects that are interesting to them and give them the feel of the risk, effort and work, as opposed to doing the typical internship grunt work that no one wants to do,” Colella said. “From my teaching days, I feel the substance of the program is critical. It can’t just be making photocopies and getting coffee and lunch. That doesn’t help students make their next set of decisions about their careers.”

Citi ultimately hopes to launch a portal in which students click on their interests and are automatically matched to the right projects for them to work on.

The bank hopes some students will end up working at Citi or in the industry, and perhaps that some will create startups Citi can partner with.