Emma Cerrone is Managing Director and Co-Founder of Free:Formers, a London-based group which trains corporates such as Barclays, Asos and Tesco in ‘challenges posed by the digital revolution’. For every businessperson Free:Formers consults, it trains an unemployed young person for free under its ONE:FOR1 project.
This year Cerrone won the Duke of York ‘New Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the National Business Awards. The U.K.’s Sunday Times newspaper also named Cerrone one of its Change Makers for the year.
Are there things that clients and businesses aren’t doing in terms of digital that you find surprising?
I wouldn’t say surprised. I deal with large companies with a lot of people in them, so for everyone in those organizations to have the right skills would be unexpected. I guess I am quite surprised that a lot of people don’t get a huge amount of support from their companies for this stuff, and I think that’s changing; that companies are seeing the value of technology.
Startups have not so many people but they’re very nimble whereas large companies’ assets are that they have a lot of people. So investing in those people to be able to maneuver quickly, which I think is very important. It’s changing for the best, and I think companies that don’t will see the lag in having people who can’t maneuver quickly and keep up.
How did Free:Formers come about?
It started with an entrepreneur and good friend of mine, Gi Fernando. He has started up lots of tech businesses that have grown very quickly – the last one he sold to Experian. He built the first automated ad platform that sat on Facebook. With that he was in Silicon Valley, and the big premise after that was that although it was a tech business it was the people who made them nimble, move fast and beat the competition.
Lots of those people were young creatives who didn’t have a computer science degree but were able to learn really quickly alongside the people who did have qualifications and who were experts in their field. For him that combination was really important. I had been discussing this concept with him for some time, and we decided to have a go at creating a business out of it.
My background was at a communications agency, where a lot of the clients were big brands. They were all avoiding the digital space and carrying on with very traditional means of communication and delivery. We’re both really passionate about helping big corporates understand digital and changing their mindsets and views towards people; teaching them to learn again.
Why was training unemployed young people such an integral part of your concept?
We feel those people have a really big role to play in the digital economy, whether it’s in startups or big business. They have the energy and capacity to keep learning, and the natural instincts around digital that people of other generations don’t have.
Trouble is, a lot of people are being excluded from tech jobs because HR departments aren’t interested in looking at people who don’t have the right things on their CV: the right school, the right degree – the list goes on. Everyone talks about a digital skills gap where, numbers-wise, there shouldn’t be. There are enough young people out there with innate digital skills to fill them. We’re just not giving them the right opportunities. That’s where the ONE:FOR1 model came about.
So you feel the digital economy is ripe for breaking down some of the social boundaries that hamper other industries?
Yes. I think that it’s a great leveler but we’re in danger of leaving lots of people behind. There are so many people working for big companies in, say, a call center, who think their time for learning new skills has passed – it hasn’t at all. For many young people who haven’t done brilliantly in the education sphere, they are often digitally savvy and live their whole lives on social media, or they’re really into gaming, whose techniques are a big part of how you build and engage audiences in a digital world.
If only these people knew how to make money out of those skills in a business context. The time is now to make sure they aren’t left behind, because if they are it will really hit the economy. It’s about getting companies to think in a non-hierarchical way in the digital world, because digital does level the playing field.
London, alongside Berlin, is constantly touted as the startup capital of Europe. But with living costs so high, are you surprised it continues to perform so well?
I’m not. It’s very expensive but there’s a huge amount of investment going in, and there’s a huge network here. Every night you could be going to some event where you can meet someone new and interesting, which is quite inspiring. I think generally London is attractive because there are so many people doing new and funky things, and I think that feeds the next generation of startups. The challenge is to ensure that talent isn’t always generated from the same pool.
I also think that the corporate scene in London is very open to working with startups, so there’s a lot of opportunity to work with big clients, which then helps you get your other clients – it’s quite dynamic. London is expensive, but there are lots of other things that overpower that.
In western Europe there is a growing skills gap that’s increasingly plugged by highly technical professionals from eastern Europe, and further afield. Does that concern you?
Yes, and that’s partially what ONE:FOR1 is about. Coding has just been brought into the curriculum, but teachers haven’t been given the right support to be experts at it, or let their kids have good peer-to-peer learning. That’s why we have a really big developer gap in some parts of Europe which is being filled by other countries.
It’s a big concern, but there are lots of people doing lots to rectify it, so I think we’ll see the fruits of everyone’s labor in the next couple of years. We have Code Club, Apps for Good, Free:Formers and many more corporate initiatives. There’s a lot of time, money and passion going in to helping young people develop the skills they need. I would hope that the current situation will change. If you make this a creative subject you can broaden tech out and get a lot more people involved.
The U.K. government are really good at matching corporates with startups, which should be part of their role rather than massive initiatives all the time. The getting of coding into the curriculum is great. And they have launched projects in UK universities to encourage students to start up businesses while at university, to get a look and feel for entrepreneurialism. But what I think they should really, primarily be doing is supercharging what is already happening in business, and shining a light on it.
Gender discrimination has long been highlighted in the tech startup world. Do you think there is a specific problem with the industry, or is it a symptom of sexism across the professional board?
I think it’s a symptom of the wider world. I have two perspectives on this. I’ve always worked in quite male-dominated industries, and I do believe that it’s not helpful to separate out ‘women in property’, ‘women in tech’ etc, because that again separates the issue from mainstream problems. What we’re all interested in is making sure there are equal opportunities based on how good you are, not what your sex is.
The other thing that I think is really important – and it’s the same with young people – is to widen this out. There are lots and lots of different jobs in technology. The trouble is that the media, and people who are profiled, narrow definitions: someone is a coder or a developer and so on. But broadening the types of jobs you can have in technology will allow more women, and young people, to get involved and be recruited.
There are barriers, for sure, but it is changing. We had an event two weeks ago and 50% of the room were women, and a woman wrote the marketing copy. So it’s about thinking about how something is marketed and appealing to that wider audience.