An Interview With Alice Bentinck
As thousands of graduates leave university 'prepared' for the world of work, too many are discovering they're ill-equipped when it comes to their business knowledge. But one entrepreneur is putting the skills of the nation FIRST. Alice Bentinck is sat inside Whitehall, preparing for a meeting at 10 Downing Street when we chat. The Queen's Speech is taking place, and there's a media furore surrounding it. But you'd never guess it - Alice is calm as still waters; completely unfazed. But perhaps that's because she's been quickly propelled into the spotlight of what she describes as the most exciting industry in the world - and is turning it on its head. A businesswoman-come-coding-extraordinaire, Alice has developed the perfect skillset to become a leader in the technology market with her enterprising nature and knowledge - should she so desire. But rather than hone in on making a success of herself, she's chosen instead to focus on young, upcoming talent; mentoring graduates through the ranks and leading them onto a path of success and accomplishment. Enrolling onto Young Enterprise while at secondary school triggered the turn of events that would lead Alice onto a long road of discovery, learning that working in business doesn't always mean you've got the skills to succeed. "When I began Young Enterprise, I developed a very female-centric business model called Cliche, making handmade purses," she says. "It was laborious and there were very low margins, but it was the excitement of running a business and trying to sell something that really got me interested. "I studied Business at Nottingham University and after graduating became a consultant at global management firm McKinsey. Being a consultant is great and a fantastic start on the career ladder, but what I quickly learnt was that there are a lot of things it doesn't teach you; things that would better equip you to be an entrepreneur. "Young people feel they have to work at large corporations to get the right experience to build a startup; but a lot of what you learn isn't relevant. I've known a lot of people end up successful through working in large businesses, but too many don't even know where to start. "When I was looking to leave McKinsey, Tech City was coming to life and I realised there was a real opportunity to build a business around talented graduates and the startups they could create." Joining forces with McKinsey colleague Matt Clifford, the pair launched Entrepreneur First (EF), a seed investment programme that selects computer scientists and engineers - purely on the basis of their technical talent - and helps them build technology startups of their own. Since its inception in Autumn 2011, 60 graduates have travelled through the EF order to develop startups now worth a collective fortune of more than $80million. Not exactly a slow start - but a start is exactly what it is to Alice. "We have another 50 graduates joining us in a month's time, and by 2016 we want to get to a point where we can take on a couple of hundred every year," she says. "One of the many reasons I really love my job is because I get to work with people who are so bright, so different, and who are creating cutting edge products that the rest of the world will be working with and interacting with in the next couple of years." A pioneer by nature, Alice clearly has a natural talent for spotting the technology and skills that will soon come to dominate our lives. As a result, she's set up a second business - Code First: Girls - which delivers a free tutorial programme to female university students, teaching them how to code. And the benefits go much deeper than learning HTML, Alice stresses. "We teach young women how to program and how to build their own websites, but we also encourage them to think about their future career options. Yes, many women start their own businesses but it's typically table-top businesses. Women shy away from the risk of starting tech businesses because they don't feel safe in that field; and that needs to change." And changing, it is. Five hundred young women have graduated from Code First: Girls since the programme began in 2013. A year on, 80 per cent of the first pilot course now work in startups, a third have tried to build their own tech startup and a fifth of those have since taken up follow-on education courses to become trained junior software developers - a huge cultural change, Alice says. "Many of these women had envisaged themselves working in the corporate sector their entire lives and they had no technical background. But we're finally getting a message out there that working in technology is a fantastic way to problem solve and be creative, and it doesn't mean you can't let your imagination run wild," she says. When I bring up how recent statistics show that the UK is placed seventh in the world in terms of being equipped for providing an environment where women in business thrive, she seems, for the first time, perturbed. "That is worrying," she says of the news revealed by Dell. "This is something we need to address. But we haven't got to the root cause of the problem yet, and until we do, we'll struggle to change this. "These statistics don't just centre on women though; it's around young people as a whole, too. That's why we chose to focus on the younger generation, and work with both men and women; to build their confidence and give them the tools to access this world. And we will get there; young people are being taken more seriously when they build startups, and that is fantastic to see, and it's great to be a part of it." Though it's clear Alice's natural instinct is to mentor, she believes talent comes from within, and isn't taught. And it's that natural flair for technology in today's younger generation that, Alice says, is going to continue to revolutionise our world as we know it. "Imagine what it will be like, as the next generation of youngsters and graduates continue building their already huge skillset in technology and go on to found startups of their own? What kind of amazing technologies are we going to be able to enjoy in 10 years' time as a result of that?" Now that's an interesting thought. Visit EF and Code First: Girls to learn more about Alice.