After leaving school in Reading only four years ago, I was surprised to receive an email from them asking me to speak to their Sixth Form girls about my career, and what it’s like being a woman in business.
I was surprised because I had never been the perfect student, I achieved grades that I was proud of – but I wasn’t ever top of the class. Then it occurred to me that it’s very important for them to hear from someone like me, and hear that perfect grades aren’t everything, although it might feel that way at 17. Although I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to go, I said yes.
The format was a 5-minute chat with the girls, speaking to them in groups of 5 at a time. This meant I had to engage them quickly, and pack in all the information I wanted them to take away, while also allowing time for their questions! I took an informal, anecdotal approach to explain my route from school to office in the most relatable way possible. I remembered sitting there myself, and hearing from countless high achievers about how everything came naturally to them and that they had an extensive network of impressive connections that helped them along the way. If you’re someone who can’t relate to that, it’s very hard to take advice from that person or find common ground in their story.
So, I started by introducing myself as someone who had been in their position in that very room only four years ago. I made sure to mention that I have a very short attention span, and that perfect grades just didn’t come naturally to me – but I explained how you can use those things to an advantage and work around them.
At school you are often taught that the best grades are the most important thing, but that is absolutely not true. I explained to them how crucial it is to have confidence, a good attitude, and self-belief. If you walk into an interview with a sheet of As in every subject, but no personality – you probably won’t make an impression. You can however, go into an interview room with a great attitude, sense of humour and charisma, and have your qualifications become secondary. There is much more to being ‘qualified’ than letters – a good mark on paper doesn’t qualify you for an important meeting with clients for example.
I made a point to mention that I didn’t go to University – a choice that was quite controversial, as Uni was often the only option talked about at school. Many of the girls told me that they weren’t sure they wanted to go, but felt that they should because they were being pressured to. Talking about my experience not doing what everyone expected me to do seemed to resonate with them with helped them engage and relax!
Speaking about being a woman in business, I advised them to take themselves seriously, or no one else will. That a ‘fake it till you make it’ attitude will go far – if you walk into a room feigning confidence that you may not have, everyone will believe you anyway!
At 17, what you imagine yourself doing for work is probably very different to what you will do, but giving the girls the advice to take your time to explore your options at your own pace playing to your own strengths, I felt that some of them might have really needed to hear it.
It was pretty daunting walking into the room, but it’s incredibly rewarding sparking a fire in someone, and feeling them engage with what you’ve got to say. It’s definitely inspired me to take opportunities like these to push myself out of my comfort zone, because I loved the experience I was initially nervous for!