For many schoolchildren, work experience often means spending a week with a friend of your parents making the coffee and doing the photo-copying.
British start-up InvestIN, however, is offering children aged between 12 and 18 a different take on the concept with an immersive experience of their dream career, working with real doctors, lawyers or investment bankers.
The London-based EdTech company hosted more than 15,000 students on one of its courses last academic year – including 325 from the UAE, its largest market overseas.
“The UAE, along with the Middle East in general, has always taken a special interest in us because they are receptive to new opportunities and innovation in education,” InvestIN’s co-founder Hitesh Chowdhry told The National.
Working hard at school is not enough
Mr Chowdhry, a former lawyer in the City of London, set up the company in 2012 with his friend and co-founder, Shameer Thobhani, a former investment banker, when they realised they had not made “fully informed decisions” about their career paths.
“At school, we were told to work hard, get good grades and try to get into the best possible university. It was implicit that if you were to do that, then you're almost guaranteed a very successful future,” said Mr Chowdhry.
“But at university you realise that's not the case at all and that the skills employers are looking for are far more diverse. We were unprepared and didn't have the right experience or set of interactions to make fully informed decisions about what the best career path would be for us.”
While the duo insist they are ultimately happy with the career paths they took, with university tuition fees costing up to £9,250 a year for UK undergraduates, and up to £38,000 for international students, with an even higher tally for medical students, Mr Chowdhry said it is important students know what career they want to go into before they start their studies.
“When we started, we had a lot of raised eyebrows from family and friends about why we were going after the school market, not university. But often university is too late, the die has been cast in some ways,” said Mr Chowdhry.
While the British-Asians set up the company with just a few thousand pounds, enough to build a website and cover marketing costs, they only gave up full-time careers in 2018 when they hired their first employee.
Today they have 65 staff spread across offices in London and Manchester, with the company offering immersive experiences for 28 careers.
It’s quite a turnaround from the early days when they focused on their own City-based careers with programmes on investment banking and law, using friends and family to help them create the experience.
Adapting the concept for online during Covid
In 2016, they widened their offering to include experiences in medicine, including a young doctor’s programme, and nursing programmes, while today children can pick from a range including dentistry, computer science as well as fashion, filmmaking and making video games.
“For every one of our careers, there is a bespoke simulation set up, which puts the student into the shoes of the professional rather than anyone lecturing them or telling them about it. It's meant to be very experiential,” Mr Thobhani said.
For the young doctors’ programme, students are given suturing packs with a banana – which bears the closest resemblance to human skin – with a vascular surgeon talking them through the process in person.
When Covid struck, the team adapted their simulations for remote learning, sharing X-rays and blood test results online with students and guiding them through how to make a diagnosis.
Those interested in law experience a simulated murder trial, with students given 30-pages of case notes, witness statements and forensic evidence to pre-read, and public speaking training before a mock trial.
For investment banking, the students experience a simulated merger and acquisition deal looking at Apple buying Tesla.
“Depending on the advice the students give to their client, the deal moves in different ways and they have to adapt to that decision. The whole thing reaches a conclusion and the students get to see whether they advised their clients correctly,” said Mr Thobhani.
Now the company is looking to expand its offering in the UAE with plans for a satellite office in the future to handle the rise in demand.
While three years ago, just 25 students from the Emirates attended a course, the company has since partnered with UAE-based education group Gems and delivered free talks to parents, students and teachers on employability skills
Dubai British School, English College Dubai, Kent College, Swiss International Scientific School and several more have already hosted the team along with a number of Gems schools.
The founders are also expanding their entire proposition with Ambition X, where students who regularly use their services able to collect points, certifications and a track record they can use for future employers or university applications.
The founders call the proposal the Netflix of career coaching, because like the streaming site, once the schoolchildren have enrolled in a course or shown interest in a cluster of careers, the site automatically suggests other experiences to try.
“Netflix turned the television schedule on its head, giving you TV On Demand, which is very consumer centric,” said Mr Chowdhry
“In the past the idea of experiencing a career was not student-centric at all. It was wherever your school sent you or if you had an aunt or somebody that could house you for a week or so. It was potluck as to what you would do there and whether or not you actually had an interest
“What we are trying to do is say ‘look, you're making life-changing decisions at school, so we want to help you make the right ones by having the right knowledge or experience’.”
Helping to fill the work experience gap in the UAE
The company offers two programmes – a 14-hour weekend masterclass spread across two days or 15-day residential stays, with students on the medicine experience, for example, taken into a hospital where they work with robotic patients.
“We take the lawyers to the Supreme Court, and they actually do advocacy before a judge, while for filmmakers, we hired out a disused RAF base where a scene from Fast and Furious was previously filmed for students to film their own scene,” said Mr Chowdhry.
While a weekend programme costs from £165, a summer experience starts at £1,350 with an online version at £595. Bursaries are offered to students from disadvantaged backgrounds with 1,000 places offered last academic year.
Mr Chowdhry said one of the reasons their concept has been so successful in the UAE is that “at a practical level, young people find it really difficult to get any work experience there”.
The rules are now relaxing with Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of State for Foreign Trade, saying last month that teenagers aged 15 and above now allowed to obtain a part-time job using a temporary visa.
Authorities said the experience would allow young people to get a taste of the workplace and earn money while they continue their studies.
Mr Thobhani said this will help to fill the gap with students in the UK who use their Saturday jobs as teenagers as stepping stones towards building a CV and gaining key life skills.
While Covid set the company’s ambitions in the Emirates back, as they could not travel in person, “the online programmes made our concept much more accessible,” said Mr Chowdhry.
In January, the team will host a young doctors weekend at Gems Wellington School in Dubai, which is open to all students in the Emirates,
The duo also hope to ramp up their offering in the wider GCC, building on a weekend they hosted in London for a school in Saudi Arabia, which flew students to London to attend the course just before the pandemic started.
With so many British schools in the Emirates and wider GCC, it seems a natural place to expand their business.
“I've always found the UAE very entrepreneurial. They make it they make it very possible for people to do business over there," said Mr Thobhani.
“There is also the commonality of language and cultural understanding, with many of these students’ parents doing the kinds of jobs that we have programmes for here. Many students are looking to go to university in the UK, US and perhaps settling down there afterwards and that helps.”
While the company is entirely self-funded to date, it has as grown by about 100 per year for several years.
In the last year it grew well above that figure, with the founders growing it organically by reinvesting into the business.
“Every young person needs to make a decision about what to do with their life and we believe we can be the ones to help them to do that," said Mr Chowdhry.
“We’ve had 15,000 students in the last year, that's just scratching the surface."