Our Make a Difference Differently series features volunteers who do things a little differently, finding innovative ways to help the charities we support through Octopus Giving.
We got to chat to Nick, who is part of Octopus Ventures, about the volunteering his team have been doing with IntoUniversity (IU). The charity supports young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their full potential – this could be attaining a university place, or achieving another chosen aspiration. Ventures have built a close relationship with IU, and several members of the team now regularly give their time to mentor young students.
Hi Nick, can you tell us about the volunteering you’ve been doing for IntoUniversity?
We first started working with IU because they were running an Academy of Enterprise, where they let students from across the UK take part in a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style week in London. They get a product brief and whichever team sells the most in that week wins. There are also workshops and seminars throughout the week to support their learning and development in the entrepreneurship space. For the last two years, we’ve taken those who’ve won the competition on as interns.
What evolved from this was the corporate mentoring and this is something that a bunch of our team are now involved in. That is more akin to supporting a Year 13 student with UCAS forms, CVs, applications and all of that stuff. We put an hour aside a month to mentor them and it’s so easy to fit into our diaries.
What drew you to this kind of opportunity?
IU fundamentally believe in fixing some of the issues young people experience and this starts at the schooling level – they start supporting children to develop soft skills, raise their attainment and broaden their horizons from the age of 7! A lot of these kids have very limited access to guidance when they’re young and it’s just not a level playing field.
I definitely came from a more privileged background and I didn’t realize at the time, but everything was being spoon fed to me. When you speak to some of these students, you realise there’s a complete polar opposite to that and it enlightens you. I feel like I learn more from the students than the student learns from me. It’s also one-to-one so you get to see the difference you make with the students. It’s incredibly rewarding to work with them.
It sounds like it’s been a valuable learning experience. Is that part of the reason your team is interested in volunteering?
Yes that’s exactly right. I think that some people view it as ‘Oh, I can’t make a difference’. That’s just not true because no one has nothing of value to add. You can be valuable in any area that you have an understanding of. Especially if someone has found their way to work for Octopus, they must be doing something right. So many students are dying to work for a company like Octopus and they just want to know what you know. Having a neutral second pair of eyes to help challenge you on things is tremendously valuable. I think that value can be added by everyone.
How do you think your mentoring helps these students?
A lot of these students think there’s no chance someone like Octopus would ever hire someone like them and actually pointing out times where Octopus has hired people from all across the board helps. I think that’s giving some of these students confidence to apply to these companies, which they would have thought were unobtainable to them.
Bringing a sounding board for role-play and giving commentary is also helpful. A lot of these students are going for competitive places and they need to be able to just instantly differentiate yourself from the pack. They’ve got to be leading with why they’re totally different. The grades are just supplementary as they show you are at the bar that people are looking for.
I can imagine the pandemic has made studying quite tough. What has been the impact of your volunteering during lockdown?
Lockdown for students has been really difficult. As you can imagine, they’re unsure about what university life is, and they’re also just unsure about what graduation after to university is going to be like. The job market is never great, but it now feels incredibly daunting to some of these students. IU have another program called IU Connect and that’s where you’re getting people out of university into the workforce.
We brought one of the students back for two weeks to help me with a project that I’m working on internally. That was over the lockdown period and it was epic. This was a guy who would wake up, he would help us for three hours in the morning, study for five hours and then he would go work at B&Q for another four hours. Endless energy and determination to succeed. Think about who’s going to be a rock star in 10 years: this guy. We’d be lucky to get him to work for Octopus.
How does volunteering make you feel personally?
You’d be hard pressed to come away from those meetings without a big smile on your face. Teaching and giving guidance to people is a really satisfying thing to do. I speak to others in my team who do the Corporate Mentoring and it’s one of our favourite meetings of the month. It’s incredibly rewarding for yourself, as well as helpful to the student. Just to know that you’re making the slightest difference in someone else’s life for the better. A random act of kindness always makes you feel good and doing that on a continual basis makes you feel even better.
That’s why corporate mentoring is quite cool because it’s not just one session. You take a student for an extended period of time and you get to support and watch them develop. So hopefully, you see some results out of what you’re be doing. It’s a change of pace from what feels like Groundhog Day and it’s refreshing.
What has been the effect of volunteering on your wider team?
It just spreads. The first few volunteers are the hardest. And then once you get some people volunteering and talking about it, then it starts to snowball. There’s that ‘I’m too busy for that’ argument. Alliott volunteers – he’s a mentor like me, giving up an hour a month to support a student who really needs his help. Our partners volunteer. If they can afford the time to do it, then I think that argument goes out the window. I definitely think that having the business leaders setting the standard is really the only way you can make it trickle down. All too often it’s the more junior employees who are doing the heavy lifting and that actually shouldn’t be the case. It should be the other way around. It’s so good for the whole team when you see it at the top level. There’s Fast Futures, there’s a bunch of them that you can do.
Do you have any highlights from your experience that you would like to share with us?
I think a golden moment for me was when a student who had grown up self-teaching got into a top-tier university. He’d started his own schooling system in his neighbourhood where other students could go for help passing their SATs and he had a 100% pass rate. Hearing about what he had built for his community, while getting top grades, and he was asking me for advice! It’s just unbelievable to be able to get the privilege to even be a sounding board for people like that. That was a golden moment for me for sure.
“Joining IntoUniversity was one of the best decisions I made in 2020. I really look forward to the sessions with my mentee, listening to the challenges faced (which have only been magnified with life under lockdown), along with the excitement and apprehension over what uni life might be like. Helping her along each step of the way from CV building, interview practise and the dreaded personal statement. I’ve become genuinely invested in making sure the right tools are available, along with ensuring she has the confidence and self-belief to follow her passion in the world of Law.”
Jessica Furrow, Executive Assistant at Octopus Ventures
“Having the chance to work with the charity these last six months has been extraordinary. Listening to the excitement, fears, questions and concerns of the student I have been getting to know and helping him think about these things has been a truly enriching (and humbling) experience.”
Alliot Cole, Co-CEO of Octopus Ventures
“It has been great to see the eagerness of our team to get involved with Into Uni. We have had so many great ideas around our involvement beyond just mentoring sessions, through things like work experience placements. I really look forward to my monthly mentor sessions and find that we are discussing points and questions that I also had when I was a student and thinking about further education and work, which makes it a rewarding experience.”
Uzma Choudry, Associate at Octopus Ventures