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Creative Mentor Network founder Isabel Farchy
21st September 2017

Creative Mentor Network: Q&A with Isabel Farchy

Isabel Farchy set up Creative Mentor Network when the super-talented, culturally aware students she taught at a West London academy were struggling to secure work experience placements. The issue? Unlike their middle-class counterparts, few of her students knew anyone who worked in the creative industries, let alone had networks of parents and parent’s friends to fall back on for an easy shoe-in.

Research by the Education Endowment Foundation shows, Isabel tells us, that young people who make four or more professional connections before they leave full-time education are five times more likely to be employed upon leaving education. Plus they’ll earn up to 18% more. For her students, the system was weighted against them. And given recent reports on the design industry’s damning diversity problem, their experience was not unique.

But Isabel wanted to do something about it. Established just two years ago, Creative Mentor Network pairs A Level students from London schools with mentors from top level creative businesses – think Wieden + Kennedy, Rapha, XL Recordings and IDEO. As well as providing approachable role models who can field questions and provide support, the purpose of the mentoring programme is for students to get exposure to the creative industries before they leave school. Think about it, would 17-year-old you have known that the job you do now even existed?

Through an hour meet-up a week, mentees can get a better picture of the kinds of roles that are out there, the routes in, the skills they require and how much they can earn. And of course it’s not just one-way: mentors get insight from the hard-to-reach Generation Z as well as an opportunity to take stock of their role, their company and their leadership style.

Given the huge scope of Creative Mentor Network, we had loads to talk about with founder Isabel Farchy, from the business imperative to have more diverse voices in the creative industries to how CMN works in practice.

What inspired you to set up CMN? Was there a eureka moment?

I was working as a teacher in an academy in West London, teaching English and Media. A lot of my students were creatively talented, good at problem solving and had a really good knowledge of cultural trends. But their perception of the creative industries was that it was a precarious route to take and something they could only pursue as a hobby.

As a teacher, I was focussed very much on making sure my students passed exams, and on talking about getting into university. But little else beyond that. It was only when my year 12 students started looking for work experience, and struggling to find decent placements, it dawned on me how for so many of us, our careers are reliant on our networks.

I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine who’s little brother was doing work experience with a famous film director. I thought how impossible that kind of experience would have been for my students, and it seemed incredibly unfair. Many of the kids at my school would get the same exam results and go to the same universities as children from higher-income families but they would still be at a huge disadvantage once they graduated.

Two years on, how are things going so far? Would you say it’s been a success, or is there still some way to go?

Boring answer: both. I’m pleased with the way things are going! We’ve just signed up Havas which is a big group of agencies and they have committed to sponsoring 20 mentors from January. We’ve also signed up Airbnb. But we want to work with more schools and more creative organisations to be able to offer the opportunity to more students, especially in Greater London, where the opportunities available to students are fewer. At the moment, students who’ve been through the programme become part of our alumni network, and we send them the opportunities we get sent by our partners. But we want to make more of our alumni network. We want to make an alternative ‘old boys club’ where alumni of the programme can reach out to mentors and mentees from cohorts past and present.

Why should diversity be a priority for the creative industries?

It all boils down to three, really good reasons:

  1. At the moment the creative industries aren’t representative of the population. For an industry whose bread and butter is engaging the public, this is a worry.  But it’s also unfair. A report by The Work Foundation, which was commissioned by the BFI, highlighted that shockingly, only 3% of the UK film and screen industries production workforce is from BAME backgrounds. Given the creative industries’ London weighting and the city’s ethnic makeup, that figure should be closer to 18%.

  1. From a business perspective, having a diverse workforce has a big, very positive impact on an organisations success and profitability. There’s evidence to back this up. Harvard Business Review found companies with a diverse workforce to be 70% more likely to capture new business. When we work with others who are very like us, we have a similar field of experience, similar strategies and we get stumped at the same point. Conversely, if we work with teams of people who are different to us, collectively, we will have a wider field of associations, drawn from a wider field of experience which results in a greater variety of solutions to solving problems.

  1. The creative industries collectively are missing out on huge swathes of talent. As traditional jobs become increasingly obsolete, the future of employment is in creativity. In March, the charity Teach First released research revealing that poor social mobility in the UK will result in a shortage of 3 million highly skilled workers by 2022, in jobs that require greater levels of innovative and lateral thinking. To meet these changes in our economy we need to be making this jobs market accessible to everyone, not just the privileged few. On top of this, as we face changes in the labour market post whatever Brexit agreement we arrive at, investing in so-called ‘homegrown talent’ is more important now than ever.

What kind of businesses and people have enrolled as mentors?

We started out working with mostly advertising agencies; Iris, Lucky Generals, Tribal DDB, Wieden + Kennedy and WCRS were amongst our first clients. Then we began working with small, startups like Propercorn and Rapha. More recently, we brought on some bigger agencies - BBH, Grey and Havas. And have been talking to organisations across various different sectors: within film and TV Pulse Films, Rooks Nest and The BFI. IDEO, Pentagram, Assemble, RIBA and Airbnb from the design world. We’re very keen to maintain a balanced mix of big and small organisations; we think it’s important to give students exposure to a real breadth of experience and learn about the creative world of work.

What are the personal and business benefits to mentoring?

I mean, where to start. Perhaps most significantly, I think it makes people reflect on the way they communicate and lead people. So often we tend to be too focussed on maintaining as much control in the work we do with others. But that approach can often be a block to new ideas. I think coaching training, with an opportunity to practically apply it in their work with students, gives mentors a chance to try out new ways of leading and empowering people at work. As one of our mentors, Gareth said, “When we started, if Michael had a question then I would just give the answer. As I learned more, I took more of a guiding role. I learned a different way of working with people - you want to help them progress and develop and not just tell them what to do.”

I also think it can give people a fresh perspective on their work. Whether that’s a renewed appreciation of how interesting their job is and how lucky they are to be doing it, or a reminder that they’ve accrued so much knowledge over their career and the reassurance that brings with it. In an exit interview, we did with a recent mentor, Jasper, he summed up something he’d got through mentoring; “I've learnt that it’s a real two-way process. It gives you a different perspective on your own work. It's very easy, I think, when you work in the creative industries, and you’re a middle-class white man, to think everyone shares the same views. You end up advertising to yourself. Having a fresh younger perspective on stuff has been really interesting to me. If I've got Mark to road test ideas on then I'm sorted.”

Perhaps most importantly though, I think through working with our young people, mentors understand some of the barriers young people from low-income families face when entering careers in the sector, and ways they can help their organisations be more open and inclusive.

What kind of backgrounds do your mentees come from?

Our young people are between 16 and 19, studying for their A and AS Levels. We work with schools across London with a high number of students on Free School Meals – one of the main indicators of poverty – and high ethnic diversity. Many of our schools have as many as 60% of students on Free School Meals. Some have more than that. And many of our young people are from BAME backgrounds.

We work mostly with schools a bit further out - Barking and Dagenham, Hillingdon and so on. And in boroughs like Newham, Greenwich, Hackney and Islington where there are many students who are at risk of becoming NEET (not in employment, education or training). But all the mentees have applied to get onto the programme, and have all got through our phone interview and assessment workshop – so they’re super motivated.

Many creative businesses might feel that they are simply too small or too busy to make time for mentoring (many people complain that work experience students and interns are more of a resource drain than a benefit). What would you say to them?

Well, to some extent, I agree actually. Work experience can be a very difficult thing to manage, particularly for small businesses. CMN is a mentoring programme, not a work experience programme. Everyone can find an hour a week. We also recommend that all mentor meetings take place at our mentors’ place of work because it’s fascinating – and very useful – for young people to see what the creative world of work looks like, what people wear, how they talk to each other and who does what.

To small businesses in particular, it’s worth remembering that CMN has the potential to take some of the leg work out of recruiting junior staff. Over the course of 16 weeks, organisations have the chance to build a relationship with a young person who, post mentoring, may go on to be a really valuable member of the team.

How is CMN funded?

We are a non-profit. The businesses we work with pay a course fee in exchange for the employee training we run, access to more diverse, talented young people, and the chance to do something positive to change the face of the industry. We’re partly funded by that fee. And partly funded by grant funding and donations. It’s about a 50:50 splits. As a small charity, it’s important to have diverse revenue streams. Particularly at the moment when funding is more and more scarce; the model is designed to not be reliant on funding.

What kind of skills and topics does the training programme cover?

The training takes place over five, in-person sessions. We start off by looking at the young people we’re working with, the barriers they face and why the creative industries specifically is less accessible. Then we start to look at social capital and how we can help our young people to build their network. After that, we move onto coaching techniques and how we can empower the young people we’re working with to set their own agenda. And in the final session we think more broadly about how mentors can become agents for diversity and inclusion beyond CMN.

CMN focuses on London – do you have plans to extend the network to other cities?

Yes, absolutely! At the moment we sometimes receive emails from young people from elsewhere in the UK and it’s deeply frustrating not to be able to support them. But we’re a very small operation and we simply don’t have the capacity to expand outside of London, yet… In the next two years we want to have hubs in more UK cities, that have a creative economy of their own. Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow are all on our site line.

At two years old, CMN is still a fairly young charity – what hopes do you have for the next two years?

In 2018, our goal is to work with 50 creative organisations, 50 schools and to offer the chance to have a mentor to over 100 young people across London and Greater London. We also hope to raise the profile of the creative industries and the opportunities out there to young people and their parents so that it doesn’t seem like the risky option – because it isn’t.

To find out more, visit creativementornetwork.org

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