Post written by Mark Reynolds, Schools Business Manager (South)

Microsoft does a lot of good things for its staff, which is probably why in 2011 we were named as the best multinational company to work for in the “Great Place To Work” survey (beating McDonalds, Google and Coca Cola, to name but a few). Of all the things Microsoft does well, my favourite is the volunteering days. Every year, we get 3 full days volunteering time, to spend on projects in our local communities. Sometimes things are organised by the company (I built chicken coups last year for a local charity!) but you are also free to do things which are more personal to you, and that’s how I ended up mentoring a Student-Led Company at Larkmead School in Abingdon.

larkmead school logo

I went to Larkmead from 89’ to 94’ and as you can see from the picture below, sported some pretty fantastic hairstyles during that time (this one was called “curtains”). Years later I met Chris Harris, the current Head Teacher, at BETT, and we have kept in touch ever since. When I found out about the volunteering days I suggested to him that I do something at Larkmead, and after talking through a few options we agreed that I’d mentor a group of students to start their own company. Soon I found myself speaking at their whole-school assembly to a thousand kids and all the teaching staff (teachers I can handle, students were a terrifying audience) and appealing for students to register their interest in coming to job interviews.

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During the speech, I explained that I didn’t have all the answers, and didn’t know exactly what the company would do – but that it should combine the creative skills and resources already in the school (they’re a performing arts college) with my knowledge of the IT market. We left it open to any age group, and asked students to send a one line email to register their interest and explain why they should be considered. The application emails in themselves were fascinating and inspiring. Here are a few of my favourites:

“I would like to be part of the company because I have got a loud voice.”

“I haven’t been very good at sports before and my friends don’t believe I can do things but this is my chance to prove them wrong and I think I can do this and I am determined to create something new.”

“I am legend!”

We got 65 applicants and ran two group interviews. The group task was to come up with an idea for a smart-phone app. The first group had to make theirs for the 2012 Olympics and the second group got a Christmas theme. I knew they’d talk in the playground and didn’t want the second group having a head start! After the group task, they all got a 3 minute individual interview so we could learn a bit more about them and ask which department they wanted to go for. We used the same system as the Microsoft graduate scheme and divided the company into three sections: Marketing, Sales and Technical.

After the interviews we shortlisted a group of 30 students, split roughly with a third in each department. All of the students were sent a letter, either with a job offer, or with a letter thanking them for taking part. Saying no to some of them was a really tough part for me, because they all did well, but hopefully even the students who were not successful have learnt something from the process.

Our first meeting of “the company” was just before Christmas. We don’t have a name yet, or a bank account, or a full list of products and services. So now the fun starts, as we begin to work out all of those things. Once we’re up and running, teams of students from the sales team will be going out to visit local businesses to sell our products or services – either for money, or traded for the products or services that the local company provide. I like to imagine negotiations like “we’ll build you a Facebook page if you mend the sports hall roof” – but already we’ve had questions about whether students will get paid, so it may be that they would rather charge real money. Again, I don’t have all the answers and how the company makes/spends money will be totally up to them.

The first meeting pointed to them wanting to form becoming a digital-marketing company, doing anything from business cards or company websites, to using social media to plan and deliver marketing campaigns. The students have some real skills in things like social media, which many small business owners do not. Part of my mentoring has been to convince them that not all adults know how to do this stuff themselves, and explain that there is a real market among local small businesses for their knowledge and skills. So far, they’re really responding well and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

I will keep you posted in a future post, once the company has been named. If your school wants to set up a Student-Led company, or if you like the idea of mentoring one, have a look at the Teenbiz website. Feel free to contact me if you’d like to talk to ask questions or get in touch with the Larkmead staff or students about their project.