Old Girl Ella Wandless on her entrepreneurial journey in the United States:
I joined St Helen’s in 2015 for Sixth Form, studying English Literature, Geography and Psychology A-level. I loved getting stuck in – becoming a committee member of the Literary Society, being elected a prefect and joining the charity representatives. I still miss St Helen’s and love coming back when I can! After leaving, I took a gap year where I worked for six months as a data and research consultant before travelling around Australia and South East Asia for four and a half months. And now I’m a second year English student at the University of Birmingham.
This trip was advertised via email as an entrepreneurial trek for students to gain an insight into the world of tech at one of the most innovative cities in the world. After an application and an interview, I was lucky enough to get a place as one of nine students from a variety of courses (I actually received the email telling me of my successful application while on holiday with some old St Helen’s friends!). The trip was organised by B-Enterprising and ColorInTech, namely by entrepreneur Mohammed Ali who helps students and recent graduates start their own business.
We spent a week visiting companies in the San Francisco Bay Area, starting off with Salesforce, visiting their recruitment team. After a tour of their HQ and a talk on managing your personal brand alongside your professional goals, we had practice interviews which led to some really interesting discussion on marketing analytics and the qualities of successful candidates.
We also visited Wikimedia Foundation to learn about their mission of the democratisation of information and to hear some truly honest anecdotes from a diversity and inclusion panel. Having discussed the concepts of ‘failing forward’ and personal growth, it was great to pose questions to the experts – I was particularly interested about how Wikimedia manages the challenge of fake news in a corrupt world where truth is a scarce commodity.
Day 3 was a visit to Handshake HQ, a company helping to place students/recent graduates in internships and roles at the start of their career. It was great to learn more about product market fit and see the companies’ growth, as well as discussing how the importance of being diverse and inclusive is offering equality as well as equity. As one of the fastest growing companies in the tech industry, it was fascinating to see the structure of their business model and have the opportunity to ask ‘what next?’
On Day 4, we visited Claremont Middle School to meet Sean Valentine and some of the kids he has been helping as part of The Hidden Genius Project. The Hidden Genius Project does vital work in the education of young black men as they navigate difficult years of their development. By providing them with support, encouragement and coding lessons, the boys aged 13 and up have discovered something they are passionate about and integrated it into a business. To see each individual have their talent and potential recognised was amazing, and when hearing about the alternative lifestyles of being another scary statistic, it drove home the importance of the work done by people like Sean and his team.
I was lucky enough to be given responsibility to organise a day visiting Chris Anderson, CEO at 3D Robotics. It was fascinating to hear about the development of the business from Chris playing Lego with his kids, another testament to the innovative nature of Silicon Valley. The transition from their mission of providing hardware to changing the software game gave us an insight into the flex and durability of the business mission. To be out on the roof of the offices where the drones are often flying about – a stone’s throw away from Berkeley University – was inspiring to say the least.
One of my favourite experiences of the trip was meeting Paul Denton, a University of Birmingham alumnus now CFO at OpenGov, the current leader in enterprise cloud solutions for the US government. After an amazing session discussing both the business, his personal career growth and many golden tips for entering the ‘real world’, we visited another alumnus, Ronjon Nag, at his home in Paolo Alto. There, we met with many other successful alumni who had achieved innovative entrepreneurship since graduating from Birmingham. To hear of their amazing careers was insightful and inspiring, however, to hear them refer to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as ‘Bill who used to live down the road’ was borderline absurd!
We are now in the fortunate position of working with both the alumnus in the US and the team at University of Birmingham to help sculpt and organise the trek for students next year. Whilst it can be daunting going on a trek with complete strangers and staff that you've never met before, my advice to students going on a similar trip would be to keep an open mind and take in as much as you can! Soaking in all of the incredible things we were able to experience allowed me to be inspired, and now I am considering going back to San Francisco next summer to learn more about the industry. Regardless of what you think you may want to do when you graduate, new opportunities are always popping up so being open to everything really helped me learn what I was interested and not so interested in. Finally, it is easy to feel anxious when being placed in a room with the CEOs of enormously successful businesses, however, keeping your cool and learning all you can from them ensures that both yourself and the person on the other end of the conversation gain something from the interaction.