2018 marks eight years since I sat with a UCAS rejection letter in hand, forced to do a U-turn on my future plans. I still remember the despair I felt when I didn’t get accepted into university. I was the only one of my friends not planning their final summer trips before heading off or shopping for duvet sets and can openers. But, what it forced me to do was to think properly about what I really wanted to do after school, and where I really wanted to be, not just three years down the line but straight away.
I decided not to go through clearing or take a year out before trying again, not because I wasn’t keen to learn. In fact, the opposite was, and still is, true. I realised I was hungry to learn immediately and to do it on the job. Eight years later and as CEO of global data collection agency, VIGA, my whole experience to this point has been an education. Here’s what the workplace has taught me:
It sounds like a cliché, but I try to never stop learning new things. If you lose the opportunity to learn, you go backwards. Never has the pace of change been so rapid, and that means the only way to stay ahead is to keep absorbing new information.
I’ve also found that people around you can provide the best possible working education. From early on I’ve surrounded myself with people I can learn from – the good and sometimes the bad – and hopefully I can now act as a mentor for others.
Diversity is rightly under the spotlight. Diverse businesses are successful businesses. The good school/good university/good job path is well-trodden and still all too easy to follow. The more years I work, the more I feel we’re in danger of perpetuating the same schools, same cultural references layer of leadership for many years to come. Diversity is important everywhere but particularly pertinent in the research community. We’ve recently seen unconscious bias in political polls, for example.
Not going to university has enabled me to look beyond the quotas and actively consider people with different backgrounds and a range of education. How many job adverts start off with the lazy phrase ‘You’ll be a graduate…’? At one point, 50% of people in VIGA weren’t educated in universities, and we have an incredibly strong team.
My key advice would be don’t use poor filtering method of higher education – that’s an easy and quick way open your business up to more diversity. Unpaid internships are also out-ruled at VIGA. They’re self-selecting from the start – not everyone can afford to work and live for free in one of the world’s most expensive capitals.
Not just what people think but the way that people think has always fascinated me. School didn’t necessarily coach me in the best way of thinking, so would university have done so? I’m not so sure. Learning on the ground means my thinking isn’t channelled in a certain way – there’s no one process to getting to the right answer. Often, it’s about thinking about challenges in different, fresh ways.
Plus, how many major developments have happened in the last five years? We can actively explore and trial them in the workplace: AI, machine learning, automation. Try to always keep your mind open to new opportunities and ways of finding solutions and try things for yourself rather than relying on second-hand opinion.
I recently read some research showing that what children learn about money between the ages of three and seven is crucial and shapes their future attitude. My daughter’s still a toddler but I strongly believe that money education is vital. Not that making more money creates more happiness, but understanding how money fits into the world.
For me, going straight into work and supporting myself from an early age meant I had to quickly learn how to be commercial. The importance of being financially street smart can’t be underestimated – particularly as many ‘graduate’ jobs deal with the how to do the job initially, not the why the job’s being done. Founding VIGA at 25 just sharpened my focus.
Confidence and being a self-starter
Finally, developing confidence and self-belief has been vital. I don’t have the degree to ‘fall back on’ – I just have my career history. It’s made me even more determined to make every new opportunity and new working relationship count. My best advice would be to live and work in the here and now, always jumping in with both feet.
Our company, and the wider group, has a real mixture of talent and experience, ranging from those with MBAs to those who stopped formal education at GCSE level, and that’s something I’m incredibly grateful for. My skillset is just as unique as anyone else’s, and hopefully my experience as full, and eight years later I’m 100% certain I took the right path.