GoAbroad Interview

Steven Levy - International Program Development

Steven Levy of Connect 123

Connect-123 has been sending individuals and groups to exciting international destinations, like Barcelona, Dublin, and Shanghai, for intern, volunteer, and study programs since its founding in 2005. Steven Levy, has been the energy pushing Connect-123 to what it is today, along with his wife, and the organization’s co-founder, Lea. When they decided to develop Connect-123, they were inspired by their own experiences abroad and driven by a desire to provide hands-on international work experience for students from around the world. Steven and Lea now live in Barcelona, where they continue to make Connect-123 programs successful.

Connect-123 specializes in offering customized internship, volunteer, and study abroad programs. Did you participate in an international program while earning your undergraduate degree at Cornell? How have your experiences abroad helped you to develop Connect-123’s programs? 

In 1991, just before my last semester at Cornell and just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I moved to Moscow. I stayed with a friend’s family, quickly learned to speak Russian, and within a few months, started working as a photojournalist with the Associated Press.  While the previous summer I had had an internship at Citibank in New York, where I learned valuable skills, my experience in Moscow, where I stayed for nine years, was life-changing.

Father and son on at Clifton Beach in Cape Town, South Africa

Steven with his son Zach at Clifton beach, Cape Town.

We started Connect-123 to help students have similar life-changing experiences through international internships, providing practical, personalized support from pre-trip advice to post-program assistance to our alumni. 

You had substantial experience in running various businesses in multiple different countries, before you ventured into experiential travel and international education. What intrigued you about the industry that motivated you to switch the focus of your business endeavors?

In 2005, I led an investment fund in Cape Town, helping entrepreneurs launch their businesses. As part of this work, I started an internship program linking international students with entrepreneurs and right away saw the value for both students and local businesses.  Together with my wife and co-founder Lea, we thought it would be fun to expand the model and link students from all backgrounds – for example, marketing, health care, law, engineering, and journalism – with projects in Cape Town at local companies, non-profits, schools, and hospitals. From the start, participants were having transformational experiences, local organizations were excited to have more students, and it felt meaningful to play a role in making it happen. 

What is one challenge you have overcome in the history of Connect-123 that you feel stands as a turning point for the organization?

Our expansion to Argentina in 2009 was certainly a turning point.  Until then, we had demonstrated that we could facilitate great experiences for students in Cape Town, but could we provide the same high level of service in other countries and could we maintain our company culture, values, and mission as we expand internationally? Our success in Buenos Aires gave us the confidence to later expand to Shanghai, Dublin, and Barcelona. 

By forming partnerships with various businesses and institutions around the world, Connect-123 is able to provide a wide range of programs for international participants. How do you select and maintain partnerships across the globe and ensure participant satisfaction? 

We have full-time, local staff in each program location and meet with host organizations prior to recommending them to students. During these meetings, we assess buy-in to the concept.  Is the organization truly interested in gaining from the skills of an international student and willing to create time for training and feedback? Is the organization excited about the concept of cultural exchange and having an international co-worker? We measure satisfaction via individual feedback/coaching sessions with participants as well as ongoing discussions with supervisors. Carefully setting expectations and actively monitoring feedback helps ensure success for both participants and host organizations.

What individuals are best suited for Connect-123 programs? What are the determining factors for having a successful program experiences in your opinion?

Applicants with great attitudes have great experiences, and we look for individuals who are flexible, culturally aware, motivated, and fun. Since we link students to projects at their skill level, we do not have prerequisites or language requirements and we can work with a wide range of applicants, from gap year to post-grad.

Though Connect-123 offers a wide array of programs, the organization still manages to cater to individual preferences. How do you continue to maintain programs that keep up with the demands of students as well as the trends in international education?

Over the years, we’ve noticed some major trends in international education including a shift toward experiential learning – including internship, volunteer and service learning programs – and a shift toward students wanting customized programs that uniquely fit their goals, duration and timing. From the start, Connect-123 has catered for individual preferences, with literally hundreds of project options in each location, flexible start dates/durations, and flexible housing options.

Connect-123 offers programs in five key cities – Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Dublin, and Shanghai. What factors drove you to select the locations? What city can we expect to find Connect-123 programs in next?

We select cities based on diversity, cultural experience, and fun. We now offer programs on four continents – Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America – but in just five key cities, where we have full-time, on-the-ground staff. For us, maintaining quality is everything and focusing on fewer destinations helps us provide great support. That said, Lea and I have always loved traveling in Southeast Asia, and for new Connect-123 destinations, both Thailand and Vietnam are high on our list, so stay tuned!

What program is the most popular currently? What do you think is the biggest draw to the program?

Dublin is by far our fastest growing program and, since we work with many U.S. students, I think the biggest draws include cultural ties, English language, and proximity to the U.S.

Though Connect-123 programs can vary greatly, spanning many subjects and locations, what do you see as the staple component of Connect-123 programs that make them such a success?

Though we work with hundreds of students each year and run programs in five countries, Connect-123 is family-run and we take a personalized approach with each applicant, from advising during the placement process, to providing 24/7 support and guidance in each program location, to helping program alumni by providing reference letters, ideas, and contacts as they develop their careers. 

How do you hope to develop Connect-123’s programs in the coming months?

We continually review feedback and look to promote great ideas from one program location throughout our network. For example, in Cape Town, we developed a monthly workshop for participants to help them reflect how they’ll best communicate the value of their international experience to future employers or to grad school admission committees, and in the coming months, we’ll be offering this workshop in other destinations. Developing innovative programs for our participants is a continual process!