“When companies say, “we are trying to solve our diversity problem”, we have said “why don’t you build and invest in a pipeline of diverse talent?” — Sophie Adelman, Co-Founder of WhiteHat

In the United Kingdom, just over 50% of school leavers go on to university. While government administrations have long sought to increase the share of students finding a university place, university is not for everyone. But often, a university degree is a prerequisite for entry-level positions, especially at the world’s most exciting companies. For those without a degree, they’re shut out. WhiteHat has sought to change this, through a unique apprenticeship programme that helps them keep up with the future of work. The company is working with some of the most desirable companies, including Google and L’Oréal, to unlock the potential in those without a university degree, onboarding them onto exciting roles and helping them build their skills for promising future careers.

I connected with Sophie Adelman, co-founder of WhiteHat at Slush 2019, where our conversation was recorded thanks to a kind partnership with Google Cloud for Startups. A transcription of our conversation follows, lightly edited for clarity. If you prefer the audio version, you can find the recording of our chat on our podcast.

Hi, Sophie, thank you so much for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit about the story of WhiteHat? How did you guys get started? And what problem are you solving? 

Sophie Adelman: The idea for WhiteHat came about because we believe that the university model is broken, essentially. Today, if you want a great career, there is an expectation that you have to go to university because it gives you both the access to opportunity and the credentials you need to be successful. And it’s those credentials that are used by employers to decide whether or not to give you a job. People go through this system where they pay a huge amount of money to go to university, whether they pay upfront or they pay once they are working, and they’re not necessarily getting the skills they need to be successful.  In today’s world, where companies are requiring people to constantly change their roles, people expect to have multiple careers throughout their lifetime.

In fact, if we look at the jobs that will exist in 2030, 80% of them don’t even exist today. People need to know how to learn and develop their skills throughout their lives, and we just don’t think the university model works. So the idea for WhiteHat was “how do we build an outstanding alternative to university?” I think a lot of people are trying to tackle the university monopoly problem, whether that’s boot camps, or online courses, which are cheap to access, but fundamentally what they don’t do is give you that kind of full-stack experience of a university. They don’t give you access to knowledge and skills and community and networks, and that kind of all-encompassing experience, which is why people go. But also I don’t think they also give you the skills that employers need to be successful in job. So that’s how we started with the idea for WhiteHat. 

With WhiteHat, you’re recognising that the world of work is changing a lot and employers are looking for more from their early onset employees. But the university just isn’t up to scratch when it comes to providing those skills?

SA: That’s exactly right so we see that the way to solve this problem is through apprenticeships. We think apprenticeships are the perfect model for creating an alternative to university that can be as prestigious as going to some of the best schools. Most societies that have these problems around skills gaps, diversity and access to opportunity and expensive education – they don’t have fully formed apprenticeship systems.

If we can create something like that in the digital technology and professional services space, and give people a route to an amazing career, we can essentially democratise access to those career paths. Meanwhile, it is actually adding real value to companies and moving away from a world where you have this, single-shot at education. You go to work in a world where you’ll do multiple apprenticeships over the course of your career lifetime and you will constantly be learning and changing throughout the experience.

It’s kind of about approaching this modern problem with almost an old school solution. Because apprenticeships are something that we’ve had for such a long time, but in today’s technical world, they weren’t up to scratch and fitting with our modern needs. So how does WhiteHat bridge the gap?

SA: The nice thing about the term “apprenticeship” is that everybody understands what it means – work and training combined. In some countries, like Germany, they’re very prestigious – you become a master-apprentice. We’ve got to create that kind of aspirational apprenticeship system for the jobs of today and the jobs of the future. What WhiteHat does is three main things. First of all, we have a matching marketplace that allows us to assess for competencies, skills, values and fit. We help give people the on ramp into roles at great companies like Facebook, Warner Music and Clifford Chance – companies you would never expect to take on non-graduates.

Then we support them throughout their time there and we deliver the training in a blended way. We use online training and we also use coaches who are experts in their fields, combined with amazing content from outside the sector. 

The third thing that we do is we say, “Okay, why do people go to university?” One of the reasons people go to university is for the experience, the social experience, the networks, the community, and that’s really powerful. It’s really valuable. So we are trying to build something that gives an equivalent, if not better experience, to these young people, giving them access to that kind of social capital. I actually think there’s a way for us to create a whole ecosystem of services for these people because essentially, it’s a new social class. These are people who haven’t gone to university, that work at some of the best companies in the world, they have needs.

I think it’s really important that you recognise the role of social capital, especially, you know, when you go to the university, that might not be the first thing you’re thinking of, but it’s something that is one of the most integral externalities of the university experience.

SA: It’s so true. In fact, in the UK, where I’m from, about 50% of people go to university right now. And when you ask people “why?” they sort of stumbled into it, “but it will be great because all my friends are going”. I think people are starting to wake up to the fact that this sort of £50,000 party is no longer worth it. In the US, they have clothes that say I went to the University of Michigan and it communicates something. It’s the social status. But you’re paying $200,000 for a sweatshirt, that’s insane, so I think people are starting to wake up to that.

Something that’s really important about changing the understanding of apprenticeships is getting the right employers on board. Can you talk a little bit about some of the employers you’ve lined up? And kind of how you’ve been reaching out to them and encouraging them to change their thinking when it comes to taking on new non-graduates?

SA: For many of these companies, they’ve never taken on non-graduates. They put on their job descriptions that a first or second class degree from a top university is required. We’re really changing perceptions around the kind of person on offer and the value of an apprenticeship and the value to the company of the training. When we talk to these companies, the first thing we have to do is break down the perceptions around “what can a person do in an apprenticeship?” They may think that that person is not as driven, maybe they failed school but the reality of today is that there’s a real choice now between going to university and not going to university. 

We may have kids who have straight A’s in their subjects, but we also have young people who’ve held jobs in McDonald’s or they’ve been captains of sports teams and have done some amazing things. What we do is to translate some of the skills and experiences and the competencies they built up into a rubric that employers can use to measure potential.

The big thing for us is demonstrating to employers, through our digital platform and through the profiles that candidates create, the personality and potentially these young people have. For example, Google works with us on digital marketing apprenticeships and you do 18 months in this role, and you come out and you can work anywhere. And I think that’s really, really powerful.

What are some of the ways that you’ve been able to convince companies like Google to come on board and say, “Okay, this makes sense. How does it work?” How do they understand it’s a fit for them?

The first thing to say is it’s not a charity or CSR initiative for these companies, they have to have the headcount to hire somebody to do a job. So it’s a real job. It’s a paid job. It is employment over the course of 18 months. So they’ve got to have the commitment to bring somebody on board, you also have to have a real business case for doing it. For some of the business cases, this can also be around retention. Apprentices on average stay for four years, while graduates on average stay for two years – so that is a real factor. When you bring on a graduate, you have still got to train them, so they’re more expensive to hire and they tend to stay for a shorter amount of time, while you’ve still got to put them through a training program to teach them how to do the job. Then they probably want a promotion after six months.

Our apprentices are less expensive for employers, and they stay for longer, and that’s a real value add to a company. The other thing to say is that companies that we’re talking to these days are trying to bring in diversity – diversity from the point of view of gender and ethnicity; and they are increasingly looking at intersectionality and socioeconomic diversity. With the young people we work with they are primarily from less advantaged backgrounds, 50% claim free school meals and we have about 65% of apprentices who are non-white British and there’s about a 50-50 gender split.

When companies say, “we are trying to solve our diversity problem”, we have said “why don’t you build and invest in a pipeline of diverse talent?” So that over the years, these people, who stay longer, become your future leaders. It’s building that business case for how they solve that problem and actually see a return on investment, this starts to change their minds.

Something that I appreciate about your approach is that you look at these trainees, their backgrounds, and you identify areas and skills and leadership qualities. You mentioned before the shift manager at McDonald’s, for example, those skills can be translatable to some of the world’s most top leading firms.

SA: It’s so true. If you ever get a chance to hire somebody who spent a couple of years leading a team at McDonald’s, do it. They have an incredible training program, as do GAP, as do a number of great employers, where they really give people a huge amount of training and skills. 

You forget that for a lot of young people, they need to work, they aren’t necessarily from families where they have the opportunity to just get pocket money from their parents, or support for housing. I think that’s something we should celebrate, and not be looked down upon. Many of the young people we work with have to be very mature, they’ve had to grow up. So I think there are lots of very transferable skills that we should be identifying and we do that through a mix of competency-based assessments, Big Five personality tests and we also do social referencing, which I think is the most powerful way to collect references.

Can you talk a little bit about that process? 

SA: When our candidates apply, they create this digital profile to showcase their personality and potential, and they create these timelines where they talk about the experience they have. They identify the competencies and skills that they believe they’ve developed, such as leadership or conscientiousness. From here, they can submit a reference from somebody from that experience, whether that’s a former teacher or former employer, or a youth worker, or the captain of the sports team. That person can actually then write both a qualitative reference but also capture structured competencies and that structured data allows us to triangulate between what the candidate says, what their references say and what we see, to really identify that true competency range.

That is really compelling, especially about building a more diverse pipeline. Once you can recognize those skills that might not have been on that specific resume, you’re able to demonstrate that this might be a really great candidate for this position. 

SA: It’s good to move away from academic achievement as the benchmark of success. I mean, I’m very good at taking exams, it doesn’t mean I’m any brighter than somebody who can’t operate in that environment. I think we need to separate academic achievement from just life and professional achievement because the data shows that actually, academic performance does not correlate with future success. Motivation and ambition correlate with future success. And sometimes the two go in hand, but actually, you’ve got to remove correlation – causation there. So I think we need to start looking at where people’s experiences lie. We also need to remember that your academic performance is often a factor of the school you went to and how many opportunities you had and whether or not you had the time to study, because, maybe you had to pick a sibling up from school or go and do a job. So, people have complicated stories, and I don’t think we can judge them based on a bunch of letters after their name and I think that’s where the world is moving to.

When I was preparing for this interview, something that that really stuck out to me, kind of looking at your LinkedIn and your social media, you talk a lot about some of the outcomes of some of your apprentices and where they’ve gone. Can you share an example of how one of WhiteHat’s apprenticeships has made an impact in someone’s life and where they’ve been able to take that experience?

SA: I’m so proud of our apprentices. We’ve got about 1,000 apprentices on the programme right now, so I don’t know all of them anymore though. At the beginning, I did know all of them by name. It’s wonderful to see some of them go through an amazing experience with companies like Facebook. I just think of one of our apprentices, Zaynah, she knew she didn’t want to go to university. She’s very creative, a very good public speaker and she’s become both an advocate for apprenticeships, and also an advocate for BAME employees within the technology world. She does big events to try and get BAME students into technology for Facebook. I know that after this, she’s going to be even more successful. She’s somebody who has embraced the fact she’s a pioneer and is trying to advocate for others and educate her community around that. That’s just one example of a great apprentice story.

We’ve got lots of great stories because everybody’s unique and everyone’s different, but I think what unites them all is that they’re all bright, ambitious young people who have actively chosen not to pursue that university path, because they don’t either enjoy academic learning or feel that it’s not the right fit for them, or feel that they can’t afford to go to university. I think they’re very brave but I also think that they will prove to be the ones who are most successful.

What’s next on the horizon for WhiteHat? Where do you hope that that this company goes? And what do you hope to achieve with it?

SA: We’ve got very big ambitions for WhiteHat. We currently only operate in the UK, but we’re looking at expanding internationally, so that’s on the horizon over the next couple of years. There is so much opportunity for what we’re trying to do and every major economy has all the same problems around rising costs of education, the mismatch between skills, needs, and skill development, diversity issues – these problems exist in all of these countries. I think the US is a very interesting space for us, but there are also a number of other developed and developing economies where we could grow. For us, it’s about wherever there are large numbers of young people who want to take a different path and employers who are willing to invest in young people’s development and also their ongoing development. We can definitely bring our service to bear there.  

When we think about the future of work, where is the most critical area that employers should be thinking about when it comes to bringing on new types of talent?

SA: It’s a really good question. I think that we know that the digital and technology space is expanding and one of the challenges now is not how do you build things, but how do you understand what you’ve built? So I think actually, the skill that we’re hearing people need the most is now data wrangling, data analysis, data science. We speak to companies every single week who wants to not just hire young people into data science roles, and upskill their existing employees in data techniques. There’s so much data out there and people just don’t have the skills to know how to use that data, and analyze it. I think data science is going to be that for the next phase of development, it is going to be the most attractive skill set.

Thank you Sophie!