Work experience – what’s the point, and why should you bother?

Work experience youth standing in a group

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of work experience in the city? You’d be forgiven if your first reaction was an image of the Chairman’s best friend’s son, photocopying and making tea.  

For the young person, or their parent, the ultimate goal is less likely to be the quality of the experience, and more about finding a path to a first job – or filling in the blanks on an empty CV. Is it possible to make these experiences more valuable? 

In a post pandemic, working-from-home world, it’s become even tougher for students to find companies staging interesting and engaging work experience. With many professionals in the office for less than half the working week, the time they have to dedicate to work experience has dwindled.  

Elsewhere, other challenges that you might think have been overcome in 2022 are still very much in force. Nepotism is alive and well, as proven by a recent FT article reporting that one of the world’s largest consulting groups put on an incredible work experience programme – but unfortunately, it appears it was only open to the children of their top partners. This, amongst many other examples, suggests that we all have more to do.  

Earlier this month, we opened our offices to 12 students, aged from 16-18, for a week’s work experience in Venture Capital and business. This was the second year I’ve put on such a week, and I told a friend about the programme we’d created with great pride. But he asked me a few questions I hadn’t really thought about: ’what’s in it for them? What’s in it for you? And, what’s in it for Octopus Ventures?’ 

In this blog I want to explore my experience of leading work experience programmes over the past couple of years – and offer a few tips on what has worked and what hasn’t, to ensure that this valuable opportunity to connect with the next generation offers concrete outcomes for all stakeholders. 

What’s in it for the students? 

When Alliott and Emma (the CEOs of Octopus Ventures) set me the task of creating a work experience week there were really only two goals. Firstly, it had to be worthwhile. Second, it needed to reach young people that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity. 

To make it worthwhile the experience had to encompass more than copying and pasting to spreadsheets, refilling printers and, yes, making tea. So, alongside a team of enthusiastic colleagues, we went about setting out a programme that was combined education and project work alongside talks designed to inform – and inspire – the rapidly-upcoming next generation of talent.  

The education part was centred around how an early-stage VC investor might think about and analyse a potential investment, as well as how to value companies, and calculate the returns made. It was fascinating to see how deeply absorbed in detail the participants became. Perhaps after a decade of learning the theory at school, students were keen to see some of their lessons at work in a real-world, professional environment.  

For the project work, we got students into groups and tasked them with analysing potential investment opportunities. The challenge was for them to then present the one they thought was best back to us. To raise the stakes, introduce a sense of competition and build enthusiasm we offered a trophy for the group who gave the best presentation. The students rose to the task, delivering high-quality presentations – especially considering their minimal experience.  

The talks drew on expertise from across our organisation, from CEOs such as Simon Rogerson, Alliott Cole, and Ruth Handcock, to colleagues in marketing, communications, impact, people and law. However, the ones that really resonated with our audience were delivered by external entrepreneurs, such as Jas from Luna, Dan from Green and James from mOm, who all kindly gave up their time to speak about their experiences building companies. In each case the entrepreneurs spoke about their companies with real passion, giving an honest account of the ups and downs of running your own business, often from very humble beginnings. How could they not be inspired!  

While it’s impossible to get hard metrics on the impact the work experience may have for these students, the feedback has been extremely positive. My hope is that beyond building new networks, they’ve learned useful new skills, and developed experience they might not otherwise have had access to. 

Work experience project winners with their trophies
Project winners – Wardo, Annie and Tara

What’s in it for Octopus Ventures? 

This is the hardest question to answer, as there are so many angles to it. The truth is that the benefits are fairly intangible, which, in a world run by metrics and ROI, can be difficult to justify. But there is no doubt in my mind that all of my colleagues who contributed – and there were many – left the programme richer from having shared their knowledge with young people during the week.  

Octopus Ventures, as part of the Octopus Group, is itself a B Corp. This means that we are in business for much more than just the profits. At Octopus Ventures we want to invest in the people, ideas and industries that will change the world. But to invest in the people you first need to find them. The problem is, it’s human nature to look in the places we frequent ourselves, and to search out those with histories like our own.  

The knock-on effect is that valuable opportunities, like the work experience programme, tend to land with individuals who share similar backgrounds. To break this cycle, it’s necessary to work hard to look in new places. We’ve built relationships with schools and councils (often the gateway into schools) local to our offices. In just a few weeks we’d had an influx of more than 50 applications, from students from a wide range of backgrounds. We then slimmed the applicants list down to 12 students who made a sacrifice of their own – taking a week out of their hard-earned summer holiday. 

My hope is that in four or five years we might start to see some of the students apply for positions across Octopus. Beyond that, I hope they’ll pass accounts of their experiences on to their friends, family and contacts. In this way, regardless of ROIs or other metrics, I hope the programme will support the Octopus Group in our bid to live up to our B Corp values – and become synonymous with an inclusive, friendly, and meritocratic company where you can succeed whatever your background. If we start to achieve this, our company will become greater in every sense of the word. 

And what’s in it for me? 

Before I answer this question, I should make clear (in case I haven’t already) that our work experience week doesn’t just happen because of one person. It’s very much a team effort, drawing on the skills and experiences of more than 20 accomplished people from across the Octopus Group. Although, a special acknowledgement is due to my colleague Nadeen, who ensured that everything ran smoothly throughout the week. 

For me, personally (perhaps even selfishly), the work experience programme is my favourite week of the year. I get more from it than closing a deal or exiting a company – honestly.  There’s nothing more satisfying to me than seeing a young person inspired by a topic that I myself have been passionate about for over two decades. But not only that, I learn so much from the students. What better way to get an insight in what it means to be a teenager at this strange and exciting time in our history.  

Lessons learnt 

Beyond the positives I’ve outlined already, there were many lessons to draw from the week.  

  • First and foremost, make sure you don’t serve the same food every day! No matter how good your speakers are, three hours of being talked to takes a lot of concentration.  
  • Engagement is so much greater in person than on a Zoom link, so get your speakers to come into the office!  
  • Make sure you’re building an environment that gives students the chance to get to know one another. These are bright, hardworking and ambitious young people – and the networks they build amongst each other may well turn out to be more use to them than those with the people they meet at your company. 

But if you take one thing from this, it should be encouragement. As I hope I’ve made clear, running a work experience programme is a huge value add, not just for participants but for your business as well. As ever, please feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to chat things through, and I’d be happy to share more of my learnings. Ultimately, if you’re going to do it – do it properly. Think through what’s going to bring something to the lives of the young people who’ll be joining you for a week – and make sure they’re not all just the Chairman’s best friend’s children.  

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