Charlotte Miller: Life after Uni & Step! Why more small businesses should be opening the floodgates

Sitting at the back of a mind numbingly dull evolution lecture in my second year of university I glanced around at my peers and thought to myself ‘what on earth am I going to do with my life?!’ Much to the disappointment of my tutor, I had already expressed my disdain at my prospects of becoming a full blown, dressed-in-a-white-coat, slightly eccentric scientist. My views of scientists of course, are completely my own and deep down I still retain the inner, analytic scientist I learned to be at university!

My chance to break out of my sterile shackles came in the summer of 2009 in the form of the Shell Step scheme, now just known as Step, an eight week placement scheme to help undergraduates (and now also graduates) gain meaningful work experience. I went through the motions of writing and uploading a pretty bare CV complete with my non-exciting previous work experience in shops, hotels and processing cheques, only fairly hopeful I wouldn’t have to spend my summer taking orders in a call centre.

Fast forward 12 weeks or so and I was sitting in the Shell headquarters being announced as the ‘UK’s Most Enterprising Student of 2009’ out of 500 of my peers. Wow – not quite what I expected.

What I was given that many students don’t get or don’t ask for, was the chance to show I was more than capable of making it in the big world. I went from being a second year Biology student at the University of Leeds to a valued employee of an electrical contracting company where I was given the opportunity to take my analytical skills to a whole new level and created a new money generating service for my host RCE Services. On the back of the success of the project I was offered a job for when I left university – hurrah! I had found my place in the world, or so I thought.

The learning curve I took in the early days was steep, it was hard and it was absolutely fantastic all at the same time, but it would not have been possible without that first dip into the commercial world. I moved from electrical contracting and construction to recruitment where again I learned some harsh facts about the world and the job market in particular. I became completely bewildered by the brazenness of students leaving university without a single jot of work experience expecting to be handed a £20,000 job on the spot.

The harsh reality of the matter is that I never saw an inexperienced fresh graduate get offered a job with a small business – the risk was always too high. Unlike large corporations that can invest time, money and effort into their new graduates from the beginning, small businesses just couldn’t or didn’t want to compete.

Small businesses would do well to seek out bright, intuitive, questioning students that want to learn, want to develop and want to find their place in the world. What a different economy we may be seeing if small businesses would only open their doors (and minds) to sharing their knowledge, experience and stories with young people of today.

I understand the arguments for and against, I’ve had the conversations myself with clients in the past; ‘what if I can’t make them stay long term?’, ‘what if I can’t keep them interested?’ There will be employees that join a small business and take it to new and exciting heights, and there will be other employees, like myself, who chuck in the towel and realise that they can run a company of their own.

My real place in the world was born around six months ago when I quit my job and decided I wanted to have my own business. As a result of the project management skills I learned in my first role and the ability to listen, interpret and deliver I had learned in my second job, I combined the two to create my business, Eden & Eve that specialises in creating beautiful outdoor weddings in Yorkshire and the surrounding areas.

I’m back where I was when I left University in some ways, the learning curve has been even steeper, daunting and overwhelming. Starting a new venture is incredibly exciting and I will always feel grateful to the companies who gave me such free reign. 2009 may have been exciting, but in 2013 I truly feel like an entrepreneur.

Charlotte Miller

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