TWO DECADES AGO, THE SIMPLE NOTION OF DIVERSITY IN THE LONDON WORKPLACE WAS CONSIDERED A FRINGE AREA OF RECRUITMENT
By Iris Cepero
London, 16 June 2022
Andrew Fairbairn, founder of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO London) the charity dedicated to preparing talented students from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds for career success, has been appointed as executive vice-president of SEO USA, the very same organisation that opened his career opportunities nearly three decades ago. Andrew was an undergraduate candidate in 1995 and with the support of SEO USA, the organisation founded back in 1963 by Michael Osheowitz as a mentoring programme to help students from New York city secondary schools gain admission to competitive colleges and universities, he finished his BA at Stanford university and then interned with Lehman Brothers, the firm which launched his career in finance, consulting, and executive leadership.
In 2000, while on assignment with Deutsche Bank in London, Andrew co-founded Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, Ltd. (SEO London) to continue and expand the work of SEO beyond the United States. At launch, SEO London worked with a small pool of students, who were trained and mentored with the support of a few financial firms before getting an internship.
After 16 years on the board of directors, Andrew became the chief executive officer of SEO London in 2016. His passionate and enthusiastic commitment to SEO London has thus delivered decades of transformative leadership in the promotion of diversity and inclusion in British workplaces. Under his leadership, SEO London has continued to grow, currently working with more than 25,000 candidates - from just seven in the year 2000 - more than 120 firms, 120 universities, and 250 secondary schools across the country. As in its very first days, SEO London continues engaging, training, recruiting, and preparing talented underserved and underrepresented young people from secondary schools and universities. For most of the population it serves, SEO London’s interventions provide critical first steps into meaningful employment in some of the most competitive industries in the world.
In his new role in New York, Andrew Fairbairn will oversee SEO USA’s five professional programs: Career, Tech Developer, Alternative Investments, Law, and the Leadership Institute.
As an actor in and close witness of the financial industry’s recruitment practices during the past 20 years, Andrew shares his insights about the changes, the barriers, the hard road ahead and, of course, the role of SEO London in those changes.
What have been the main developments in diverse recruitment in the financial industry since you founded SEO London in 2000? Are those changes big enough, radical enough, quick enough?
Since 2000, we have seen loads of changes in the diversity space. Firstly, it is no longer about just diversity recruitment. The discussion has evolved both in breadth and depth. In breadth, it’s easy to see the huge take up by leading corporations across multiple industries as a sign of growth but also we can see the engagement of many forms of diversity as well, moving beyond ethnicity and gender, to social class and sexual preference, neurodiversity and beyond. The depth of the conversation has also expanded, to include increasingly sophisticated engagement around DEIB (Diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging), as firms have begun to recognise that recruitment is not enough, and that retention is perhaps the ultimate battleground where progress on DEIB matters will be fought and won or lost.
While there has been tremendous progress, it remains easy to say that it is too slow, because those of us committed to this cause can see the promised land ahead and are itching to get there as soon as possible. That said, it is important to remain humble, and to note that not everyone in the society sees the same end-goal, and many are actively looking away or more benignly focused on other priorities. Things. Take. Time. But then again, see how far we have come in the past 22 years in the UK, with SEO London leading the charge on early-careers talent. In socio-cultural terms, that is actually pretty fast. We will continue to put our foot on the accelerator, nonetheless.
What are the main barriers for university students from underrepresented backgrounds to enter the workplace today?
I have always thought of SEO London’s work in terms of the labour economy – i.e., we work every day to solve a fundamental labour market failure. If we accept that framing, we can see that young diverse talent is regularly overlooked by firms that are nominally interested in engaging that young, diverse talent. This is a textbook definition of labour market failure, which is in turn driven by imperfect information – young people lacking the knowledge of the opportunities available to them; and/or imperfect competition – whereby young people are at a disadvantage in accessing opportunities due to some underlying socioeconomic or demographic factors. Thankfully, the problem suggests the solution. More, better information, training, education, and access will level the playing field for students from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds.
How, specifically, are students from underserved and underrepresented backgrounds at disadvantage compared to others?
Examples include not knowing that certain opportunities exist in the first place; not believing that such opportunities are accessible to them once they’re aware of them; not having the tools or training to qualify for perceived opportunities and lacking the personal, social, or financial capital to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves.
In the highly charged and competitive market for early careers and rising talent, the examples above yield a situation where young people often get rejected before they are even seriously evaluated on their merits or potential. It should be obvious that students that do not suffer from the deficits above are in a radically advantageous position.
SEO London has trained, mentored, inspired, and got into internships and other forms of first work experience thousands of students in two decades. How do they progress along in the industry?
We admittedly could have done a better job tracking our alumni. While the organisation always maintained a database of alumni, until a few years ago there had been no proactive effort to engage our alumni holistically. What we have done since then is to massively expand our alumni-directed activities, which has in turn greatly expanded our numbers of engaged alumni. As we look at the progress of some of the earlier classes, for example those with more than 10 years of experience, we can see that a majority remain linked to the financial services profession, about half have stayed in London, and the remainder are scattered across the globe, from Singapore to Bangalore, to Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco. Many of them are leaders in their fields, entrepreneurs, senior practitioners, leading businesses, or division heads of major operations. Our alumni are truly our organisation’s strength, and we will continue to invest there, supporting them throughout the lengths of their careers.
Compare those first years of SEO London to the way the organisation operates today
The early days of SEO London were best characterised by our tiny start-up scale. I still recall vividly putting together the original application form and applicant- and intern-tracking spreadsheets in what are now laughably old versions of MS Word and MS Excel. There was no website, no online application, no Salesforce CRM, and our team consisted of just me and a handful of volunteers. We placed seven interns in 2000. Even then, we were experimenting with programmatic formats, and two of our seven interns were originated from the SEO USA programme in New York. I am still in regular touch with six of them. Those intrepid seven interns are a wonderful legacy that sits behind the thousands of students, alumni, staff, and sponsor firm professionals who have since participated in, or otherwise crossed paths with SEO London’s programmes.
What was the biggest challenge then?
The biggest challenge we faced in the early years was convincing non-American heritage firms that the topic of ethnic diversity was a priority. The simple notion of ‘diversity’ in the London workplace was considered a fringe area of recruitment, indulged in by a handful of American banks in a non-systemic manner, and broadly ignored by non-American firms.
The second large challenge was getting firms to give up an element of control in their recruitment processes. At the time, we deployed a programme of ‘direct placement’ of interns, whereby we selected the students and we placed them at a small number of pre-set places within our sponsor firms. That said, given our very small scale in the early years, we were able to expand quickly from seven interns in 2000 to 13 in 2001, to 22 in 2002 to 34 in 2003 without exhausting the capacity of primarily American-led firms providing a relatively small number of spaces for us to plug in our first SEO London interns.
What is the future for SEO London or similar organisations in the current socio-political environment?
After two decades, SEO London and many of its fellow travellers in the UK diversity and inclusion space have become mainstream. Our organisation and others like it are now operating at a level of scale and visibility that is no longer a niche within a niche, but rather a part of a broader social conversation. As such, the organisation’s growth -and potential retrenchment- is directly linked to the ebb and flow of interest in diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging across various categories of diversity. Thankfully, we remain in an expansionary space, and so SEO London’s mission is increasingly valued and taken up by corporations seeking to make an impact. That said, this trend cannot be taken for granted, due to the ever-shifting news and political cycle. The paths SEO London may take in the future are various, and might potentially include geographic coverage (e.g. north of England, continental Europe, transatlantic integration, etc.), constituencies served (e.g. non-alumni graduates, LGBT, neurodiversity, refugees, etc.), industries served (e.g. technology, environmental, etc.) or nature of services provided (e.g. academic depth, thought leadership, consulting, etc.). With time, we might do it all!
Tell me an anecdote of a common challenge in the early days.
We really struggled with one of our interns from the class of 2000 to get him to fit the investment banking mould that we expected would make him a successful intern. Little things, like wearing a tie, were anathema to him. If he did it, it was under duress, and we fretted all summer whether he was going to get a precious full-time conversion offer. We need not have worried. He converted his internship to a full-time role, and years later, after swearing that he would only wear a tie willingly if he made managing director, he did!
What do you remember being really proud about during those first years?
There have been so many remarkable moments. Chronologically, the first has to be the 100% conversion rate of our initial 2000 SEO London class and the related conversion in 2001 to a financially sustainable model. Skipping to the present moment, I have been wonderfully gratified to see how, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, SEO London was the first port of call for scores of existing and new sponsor firms seeking to engage in our mission in direct response. More broadly, the steady two decades of programmatic growth, in terms of number of students served, engaged alumni, sponsor firms, and staff has been wonderful to witness. I could not be prouder to be associated with SEO London today.
How receptive to change have been the financial firms and other stakeholders?
We work with a broad range of stakeholders, from the students and alumni to the firms that make our work possible, to our staff and the general public. In general, most people we work with understand and accept the value of what we do, but as with anything, such understanding and acceptance exists on a spectrum of engagement. As such, we do struggle from time to time with individuals who look at our work as a ‘tick-box’ exercise or otherwise half-hearted manner. Thankfully, this is a relatively small minority of counterparties, and the majority of people we engage with are receptive to our mission, values, and programming. It is impossible to keep 100% of people happy all the time, so we don’t try.
You are moving back to SEO New York where it all started, now as executive vice-president...
While the next phase of my work product with SEO will shift primarily to USA-linked priorities, I will not be leaving SEO London behind, and will continue to provide what support and guidance I can from the SEO London board. In the future, I imagine a more tightly integrated and expanded set of SEO sister organisations around the world but who knows? While the future of SEO London is unknown, I know it will always be a part of me, and I a part of it. The adventure continues.
Thursday, 16 June 2022