Let’s start at the beginning – what made you want to set up White Hat?
I started my career in investment banking, alongside people with very similar backgrounds and degrees from the same small handful of universities. It didn’t make sense to me that these credentials were for some reason deemed a prerequisite for a job that required completely distinct skills from those taught in higher education – I had a degree in Ancient History! I had always been interested in education and employment, and became increasingly focused on how a wider range of people could get access to the very best careers. I subsequently left banking to join an organisation helping long term unemployed people find work, Sarina Russo Group, and eventually became the UK CEO. But again, I was frustrated at the fact that too often we were helping people into any job rather than supporting them to build a long-term career they were really excited about. The barrier was a system that filtered people based on academic requirements and where, too often, your background defined your destination. Lots of the people we helped also had degrees but hadn’t been taught the things they needed to be successful in the labour market. So the idea was to build something new, an outstanding alternative to university that would allow a much more diverse group of people to succeed, and access the very best careers.
Why do you think the business took off so quickly?
There’s a broad acceptance that a one-size fits all university model isn’t working for society, companies, or for individuals. Companies are spending ever increasing amounts retraining recent graduates just so they are ready for the jobs they hired them to do. At the same time, universities aren’t delivering on social mobility, with huge attainment gaps for those from black and some minority ethnic backgrounds, and those claiming free school meals. The return on investment of a university degree is coming under increasing scrutiny and at the same time, we’re going to need mass retraining and reskilling over the next few years as a consequence of digital transformation, and the academic system isn’t going to be able to support that.
Was there anything in your career to date which set you on this path?
The lesson I learnt at the Sarina Russo Group was that you can transform someone’s life through a job but it’s not enough to patch up a failing system, we need to deliver a system-wide change. That’s what WhiteHat is delivering – the organisation was set up to create a diverse group of future leaders through an outstanding alternative to university.
You went to several high-profile universities – so why set up a company that offers a different route?
There weren’t high quality apprenticeships available in tech and professional services when I left school. Now, I’d be much more likely to do an apprenticeship. Despite having been to university, almost all the skills I’ve used in my career to date are those I learned in my first few jobs. There’s a clear problem with a model that expects everyone to conform to it, and pursue a purely academic route, rather than providing real choice and a diversity of options.
Can you tell us more about what the organisation aims to do?
We are challenging the assumption that you need to have a university degree to have a great career, and that a shot of learning is enough to see you through what could be 50 years of work. We’re living in an era of unprecedented technological change and 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 don’t exist today. Employers need skills as well as knowledge, particularly in areas like digital, tech, and project management and graduates are not being equipped with these skills. We focus on three areas – giving employers a way of measuring potential that doesn't just look at academics or work experience; training people through applied learning, teaching them to problem solve effectively supported by a 1:1 coach; and finally giving our apprentices access to a great social and networking experience through meetups, societies, sports teams, and events, so they're not missing out. Our apprentices are working at some of the world's top companies, from Google and Facebook to Bloomberg, Omnicom, Visa, and Clifford Chance.
How are the apprentices supported through the process?
Every apprentice gets access to 1:1 coaching, which supports them through their learning and helps them navigate any challenges they might face in the workplace. They also gain membership of our apprentice community, where they can spend time on personal and professional development as well as networking at our community events (we have 15 a month, currently all delivered virtually). In addition, our talent team provides advice and guidance through the interview process if someone is applying for a job, and if they’re reskilling while already in employment, our team will discuss their long-term career objectives to help support them in achieving the right outcome.