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“Life isn’t lived in straight lines”: Inspiring the next generation at KPMG’s Future Leaders Technology Programme

The giddy chatter of around 25 year 10 schoolgirls fills the room. Between the shy smiles and eager eyes, anyone would be forgiven for thinking we were waiting for an A-list celebrity to make a sweeping entrance. Not today, though. These girls are here to find out about their future in tech. 

In late 2015, KPMG launched the ‘IT’s Her Future’ campaign – an initiative designed to address the enduring STEM skill shortage by targeting one of its most severely underrepresented demographics: women. Over the last three years, KPMG has worked hard to bring more women into the tech fold, and Lorien, as KPMG’s permanent technology recruitment partner, has been there every step of the way. The Future Leaders Technology Programme is the campaign’s most recent initiative, seeing around 25 girls across five schools invited into KPMG’s head office for a jam-packed week of tech-themed events, including hackathons, talks from industry leaders, mentoring programmes and a day trip to Google.

Perhaps most interestingly, these girls have not been chosen because they’re tech whizzes. They may be tech natives, but they’re not necessarily fanatics. Many of them still take technology for granted as part of their day-to-day as opposed to something that shapes it, and their aspirations aren’t necessarily aligned with tech in an obvious way. In the room are burgeoning designers, architects, psychologists, doctors, vets, and digital strategists. The aim of the week is to get the girls excited about the world they’re living in and to realise the impact that technology will have on their lives, irrespective of what career path they choose. As KPMG’s Head of Corporates Consulting Nigel Slater put it: “Life isn’t lived in straight lines”. 

Day One – Breaking the Stigma

The week kicks off by talking to the girls about their perceptions of tech and their experience of it to date. Someone who works in tech – according to the girls – is hyper intelligent, analytical, socially reclusive, a workaholic and almost exclusively male. It quickly becomes apparent the role that both the media and their direct influencers (teachers, parent and friends) play in their perceptions. The girls talk about parental pressures to pursue medicine or law but not tech, the dry IT syllabus that for some doesn’t go beyond year 8, the predominance of boys in their tech classes and the media image of a male ‘nerd’ techie.

Many can name male leaders in tech – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg – but are stumped when it comes to female role models. At 15, they already see the door as closed to them. KPMG tries to reverse these perceptions in the second half of the day by introducing the class to inspirational female tech leaders, including Lauren Kisser from Amazon and Sarah Jones and Anwulika Elliot from IBM who share their own experiences. At the end of the day, it’s clear that crushing the stereotype will be an uphill struggle and we all need to be doing more to help. 

Day Two – Back to Basics

Day two comprises of a hackathon hosted by Laura Gemmell and Dolly Eniola from Taught by humans. Today’s aim is to show the girls that technology is more accessible, and more applicable, than they realise. Laura starts by demonstrating how computers think. The girls are asked to write instructions for making a birthday card, which Laura then misunderstands in increasingly ludicrous ways. Her point? Computers need clear, specific instructions for the simplest of tasks. The girls are then led through a series of coding exercises all designed to unravel the complexities behind tech – including playing a game, creating an emoji and designing a website using a cheat-sheet of JavaScript, CSS and HTML codes. 

Following an empowering talk by Nigel Slater on the possibilities of tech and how it will touch every corner of their lives, the girls are led outside to Canary Wharf’s shopping precinct, where they identify ways technology could be used to innovate the high street. 

Day Three – The Tech Landscape

The girls spend the first half of their day with their mentors. Each girl has been assigned a mentor within KPMG who will act as an ongoing support network and personal champion. The mentors are readily accessible and will visit their mentee every school term to ensure that the girls are meeting their self-set objectives. The mentors have regular one-on-one time throughout the week, getting to know each girl as an individual and building an understanding of her ambitions, likes and dislikes.

The session this morning focuses on the mentor’s day-to-day role and gives the girls an insight into life at KPMG. The second half of the day is spent with experts operating in some of tech’s fastest growing markets, including robotics, artificial intelligence and cyber security. The interactive sessions demonstrate the real life applicability of these seemingly elusive fields – including how cyber security is used to stop the Thames from flooding. 

Day Four – Tech Challenge

Following on from a talk on data and its ability to impact decision making, the girls are split into groups to work on their tech challenge project. Each group is assigned a sector (education; environment; healthcare; transport and retail) that they must use technology to innovate. Using problem solving prowess, they have to analyse the challenges and present potential solutions in the form of a client pitch.

The girls rise to the challenge, providing a suite of innovative ideas that range from using virtual reality to improve classroom engagement and bring subjects such as history to life, to using hollow buses and floating zip line pods to ease traffic congestion and improve transport in remote areas. The groups are given feedback and a quick masterclass in presenting, before a winner is selected. A team of graduates is then unleashed in a speed-dating style session which sees each graduate move between the groups, responding to any questions still left unanswered from the week. 

Day Five – Road Trip

The morning is spent outlining the importance of inclusion and diversity, before presenting some of the opportunities available at KPMG for the girls to bear in mind. Then it’s on to Google to look at a different side of tech and get a feel for software engineering. KPMG are keen to stress that the work experience isn’t about encouraging girls to work at KPMG, or even to work in tech (although both would be a bonus), but rather to simply get excited about how tech will revolutionise their lives. A day trip to Google, as one of the biggest names in the tech sphere, seems like the most apt way to do this.

As the week wraps up, the shy smiles and nervous laughter have been replaced by something new: confidence. What was earmarked plainly enough as ‘work experience’, actually turned out to be a crash course in the changing world of tech. These girls haven’t spent the last week photo copying and filing, they’ve instead been given an insight into their future with an endless array of exciting industry talks, excerpts of real life experiences, hands-on problem solving sessions, mentoring and Q&As with some of KPMG’s most prominent names (including Murray Raisbeck who heads up KPMG’s innovative Lighthouse division, David Rowlands, Head of Consulting and Tim Jones, the Global Head of Management Consulting).

While potentially overwhelming, the week has served to showcase the sector in all its glory – fast paced, multi-faceted, evolving – while proving to the girls that entry isn’t barred to them. By the end of the week, every girl was able to show that she too could apply the logic and the creativity needed to succeed not only in the tech sector, but in whichever sector she chooses. 

We must all take responsibility for fostering this kind of confidence in technology in the next generation, and especially for those that are so often lost in the narrative. For even if life isn’t lived in straight lines, our non-linear career movements are all following a similar trajectory – in the end, we will all lean towards tech.

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