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WhiteHat’s co-founders on using tech to democratise the world of work

I spoke to Euan Blair (co-founder and CEO) and Sophie Adelman (co-founder and general manager) about WhiteHat, a startup which leverages tech to democratise access to the best careers.

Tell me about your background. What were you doing before WhiteHat?

Sophie: Before WhiteHat I was EMEA GM & Head of Sales for a US tech startup in the recruitment space called Hired.com. I joined Hired as their first international employee and grew the business across the UK and France.  

Euan: I was the UK CEO of a global welfare to work organisation, specialising in helping long-term unemployed people find work and training opportunities.

If you weren’t running WhiteHat, what would you be doing?

Sophie: I love working in people-focused tech businesses but I’d definitely still be running my own business – I’ve caught the entrepreneurship bug!

Euan: Probably something still in the future of work/education space. I’ve always cared about education and employment and it was the main reason I left investment banking.

How did the idea for WhiteHat come about and why?

Euan: In my previous role, we were often helping people in their mid-20s and beyond, who had been unemployed for several years. A win was often just getting them low paid retail work that was not always sustainable. I became fixated on the idea of helping people much earlier, and particularly building something that could serve as a route directly from formal education into employment. When the government launched the apprenticeship levy, it was clear that there was an opportunity to build a radical alternative to university through apprenticeships, that would allow people from a much broader range of backgrounds to access the best careers.

We both started our careers in finance, Sophie with a degree in Geography and me with one in Ancient History. I often think that my degree was essentially a credentialing exercise to allow me to get the interview, as I can’t say I ever used the skills I learned in the job I did.

Who are you competing against and how do you set yourselves apart?

Euan: We’re competing predominantly against independent training providers, of which there are several thousand in the UK, and Further Education Colleges. Neither unfortunately have been delivering apprenticeships incredibly well, and the fragmented nature of delivery has often led to a poor experience for both employers and apprentices.

We focus on three main areas that are each quite unique:

  • We use our platform and talent team to match apprentices based on competencies and values to roles where they will excel, and screen for potential
  • We take some of the best quality content from around the world and plug it into our apprenticeship delivery
  • We’re building an online and offline community of apprentices for them to build social capital and develop some of the core skills necessary to become future leaders

What have been the biggest business challenges you’ve encountered to date and how did you overcome them?

Sophie: Hiring the right people is always the hardest part of building a great business as it’s people who make or break whether you can execute on a great idea. We’re really lucky that we’ve been able to attract an incredible team of mission-driven individuals who work really hard, put our clients and candidates first and who consistently push themselves and us to do more and be better.   At the beginning, you’re selling them an idea and dream and have to get them to buy into your vision for the business, but now we’re able to attract amazing, experienced people who are excited about what we’re building and want to be part of the journey.  

Euan: Also, raising awareness of apprenticeships, both among employers and prospective apprentices. Schools have not traditionally talked about alternatives to university, and there are still many employers who don’t yet know what an apprenticeship is. A significant amount of our time and effort goes on advocacy and awareness raising, though we are already noticing a huge uptick in this regard.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received and from whom?

Sophie: As a leader, you’ve got to take care of yourself mentally and physically because if you don’t, you won’t be able to make the important decisions or support your team effectively.  

Where do you see the business going in the next year?

Sophie: The past year has been about building the foundations for scale and refining how we work.  Next year we will be working with close to 400 employers ranging from the likes of Google to Publicis to Salesforce and will be increasing both the quality and quantity of apprenticeships we offer.  We focus on 3 main apprenticeship pathways: business, accounting & finance, and digital & tech, and we’re excited to be able to start offering more progression opportunities for our existing and future apprentices so they can continue to build and develop their skills over their career.

Euan: Building on Sophie’s point, we’re scaling up the number of apprentices we work with considerably and will launch in additional UK regions next year. This is hugely exciting as it will mean we’ll be able to reach and work with a much wider range of people.

What advice would you share with other entrepreneurs looking to either launch or running a technology business?

Sophie: Find a great co-founder!  It’s really tough at times being an entrepreneur and having someone else who is going through that experience with you really helps.  It’s important to find someone who shares both your values and your vision but who has complimentary skills and interests. Euan and I weren’t friends before we started WhiteHat which has meant we’ve build a professional co-founder relationship alongside our friendship and I think that’s helped us have the difficult conversations you have to have with each other at times.