The 20 year-old female founder bridging the opportunity gap in Liverpool

16 Feb, 2018

OH founder Robyn Dooley was just 17 years old when she dropped out of her Fashion BTEC course. Now, at 20, she’s running her third creative education programme, Catalyst, for young people.

“I had the option of doing an A-level or BTEC course once I had left high school, and I chose the BTEC,” Robyn says. “Six months into the course, I realised it just wasn’t for me and so, I decided to drop out. I don’t think you can teach creativity in a classroom, you can learn business process etc. but you can’t teach people to be creative – everybody has it in them but it’s about it being nurtured. When I left, I knew I wanted to use my creativity. But I wasn’t sure how, or even which, jobs I could get access to, bearing in mind I was a 17 year old drop out with no qualifications.”

Not being the type to take things sitting down, Robyn immediately began to plan her next steps. Through research, she realised that there were plenty of work experience and internship opportunities available. Unfortunately, they were all based in London. Being from Kirkby, in Liverpool, she felt like she didn’t stand a chance. But this was 2014, and the Baltic Triangle in Liverpool was flourishing.

She says: “I found it insane that I had been going through college and not being introduced to any of the local industry. What was the issue? Why did it feel like there was a total disconnect between education and the industry?”

A newcomer to the tech industry

students at catalyst

Robyn’s next goal was to have 150 coffees with new people from the local digital and creative industries within the next year to better understand Liverpool’s digital industry. She wanted to speak to everyone from students and business owners, to teachers.

She explains: “I walked into the industry naive and had no idea of the landscape. But I got to hear all the pain points and really listen to the problems that the industry was having.”

Robyn maintains that there isn’t a skills gap in the North, but an opportunities gap.

Her 150 coffee chats told her that employers were disheartened by the level of skill coming out of university and weren’t sure they could fill junior roles. On the other hand, young people felt too overwhelmed by the amount of choices, and didn’t know which was the right path to take. The disconnection and lack of awareness of their local industry left them feeling like they could only work in tech in London, however not everybody is able to move to the capital – and nor should they have to.

“I really want to talk more openly about diversity.” says Robyn. “Not just gender, but class too. We can’t have an entire industry that’s just built on an affluent society. Working for free really damages how you feel about the worth of your work and the value you feel like you’re adding to the team. By having a ‘work for free’ model, we’re preventing a lot of people being able to get their foot in to the industry. People simply can’t afford to work for free for 3 months, 6 months, 12 months at a time.”

Robyn also thinks that we can’t expect schools to shoulder the burdens of explaining the overwhelming amount of potential education options out there.

She says: “I actually think the way we do education in tech is quite behind other industries. Look at hairdressing, for example. If you’re a training to be a hairdresser in college, you get to work on real people’s hair every day and learn while getting paid. It’s a model we could learn from.”

Bringing creatives together

students at catalyst having a discussion

Having researched the city, industry and education system for quite some time, Robyn decided to make a move to begin to address the issues that the industry kept coming up against and that’s when Catalyst was born.

Catalyst is a combined effort from more than 40 digital companies in Liverpool who give their time and expertise to young people wanting to work in the tech industry. Since then, the alternative education company has had over 50 graduates, more than half of which have gone on to employment or further education. Taking a learning-by-doing approach, Robyn does not deliver the sessions herself, but acts more as a facilitator or mentor to the students, while the local industry contributes to the contents of the course.

She explains: “With Catalyst we don’t want to pigeonhole people, we just want to help them succeed. There are all kinds of reasons that someone might join the course, whether they just want to understand the landscape, consider a career change, develop their skill set or they have their own business and want to build their network.”

“We’re not looking at qualifications or age, we’re simply looking at people to have no to little experience in the industry. By removing barriers that might usually put people off from applying, our students have diverse backgrounds and experiences, and that’s the beauty of it.”

“We find that people come to us with a lack of knowledge about the opportunities that exist. There’s an overwhelming amount of options which is exciting once you’ve been able to digest it all. We’re incredibly grateful for the support we’ve received from the industry so far and continue to do so. We’re looking forward to delivering our next programme in late May.”

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