My first job out of university was at one of the big investment banks in London. My family and friends were incredibly proud – we were from working class backgrounds in Birmingham and a role like that was the stuff of dreams. But after just three weeks, I knew it was not for me and I left – I simply didn’t fit in.
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Canary Wharf was the clothes. I didn’t look the
“part”. My new navy suit was comparatively cheap – you could tell from the cut and the fabric – and to compound the issue, I’d paired it with brown shoes. “No brown in town” laughed my new public school-educated colleagues. I wasn’t wearing the right uniform.
Soon after I entered the tech industry, I received feedback that I didn’t celebrate my achievements enough. My firmly-held belief that my work should speak for itself was described by my manager as “a working-class attitude”.
Over the years that followed, I came to believe that if I was to build a meaningful career, I would need to assimilate. I’d need to look and sound like others, learn the unwritten codes and mirror the ‘correct’ behaviours. I would shy away from talking about my past and gloss over my background, for fear of not progressing or being overlooked for promotion.
But everyone deserves to feel comfortable in their own skin and the opportunity for success should not be the preserve of those that look and sound middle-class.
Now as the UK GM of Snap Inc. – the company behind Snapchat – I can speak more freely about my experience and the problem that still persists, especially in the tech sector, where people from a working-class background are still woefully under-represented.
The sector is progressive and innovative in many ways but more needs to be done, including at Snap, to encourage talented young people from a broader range of socio-economic backgrounds to apply for jobs. And we need to be more willing to recruit from a broader pool of talent than those who have traditional higher education qualifications from a small number of prestigious universities. Across many industries there is a bias towards candidates from Oxford and Cambridge – and the wider Russell Group – instead of excavating for the valuable skills, experience and perspectives of those from more socially diverse backgrounds. It’s estimated that low levels of social mobility could cost the UK £140bn each year up to 2050 – so there is a real cost and missed opportunity here if businesses don’t change.
To try and tackle the issue, Snap has partnered with schools, community colleges and nonprofits to help students from under-served groups to build their skills and grow their networks. For example, we’ve been working with Making the Leap for two years, a London-based charity dedicated to improving social mobility, to host virtual résumé reviews and mock interview workshops. And we recently partnered with the Social Mobility Foundation, with whom we’ll be working extensively over the coming year on a number of exciting projects.
I know from my own experience that fitting into the workplace culture – and feeling like you belong – is as important as getting an opportunity in the first place. The UK technology sector has one of the highest turnover rates of any sector and that’s a cause of concern, because it means many people are not reaching their full potential. So, we need to work out how we create an inclusive culture, where everyone can be proud of who they are, no matter their background.
The reality is that company culture is often a reflection of those leading it, and that those people in our industry – many of whom are brilliant colleagues and friends – are not representative of the wider population. Recent research by The Bridge Group and the Sutton Trust found that 21 per cent of tech employees attended fee-paying schools versus a national average of just 8 per cent. So it is sadly understandable that people from under-represented backgrounds get into our industry and decide, like I did all those years ago, that they too are wearing the wrong shoes.
The Snapchat platform is all about empowering people to express themselves. I believe deeply that tech businesses, and indeed all businesses, must strive to create a culture that permits talent to do the same.