‘We’re in the hope business’: An interview with SEO London’s Andrew Fairbairn

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In 2019, we made a commitment to support Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) – an international charity that prepares talented students from underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds, for career success. SEO London has expanded significantly in recent years and today the organisation focuses on three flagship programs: SEO Careers, SEO Scholars and SEO Connect. Through its Careers program, SEO London now partners with more than 80 sponsor firms across eight industries.

Andrew Fairbairn, CEO of SEO London, at Velocity Squared event

Andrew Fairbairn, CEO at SEO London, tells us that the charity is in the ‘hope business’ and it is now, more so than ever, that this resonates with us all. SEO London is not only a beacon of hope but a charity that really represents resilience.

At CG Results our purpose is to have an exceptional, life-changing impact on everyone that we work with including our clients, employees, and the society we live in and we found a shared vision in SEO London; that ambition and intelligence should determine success.

CG Results International are incredibly proud to continue to be supporting SEO London this year – and as part of our partnership, we wanted to engage different groups across SEO London’s platform. Andrew told us that it’s often the secondary school students that get the least focus from firms, as they are further away from the recruitment pipeline. So, we decided to run Insight into Corporate Finance days to provide students (ages 16 – 18) with an opportunity to find out what it’s like to work in the corporate finance world.

These insight days comprise a series of interactive sessions, mentoring, case study reviews and an insight into careers in corporate finance. They were a huge success with the students, who came away with a better understanding of our industry and some great connections. We caught up with Andrew one-on-one to hear the story behind SEO London.

What’s your story? How did you first get involved with SEO London?

I benefited from the predecessor programme to SEO London, SEO in New York, and witnessed the positive impact of that programme on my personal trajectory. After being transitioned over to London with Deutsche Bank at an early point in my career, I looked around and thought if I benefitted from this programme then so could others in the banking industry in the UK. The fundamental impetus was to find young people from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds and give them a shot. SEO London is thus all about tapping into the energy of young people and their potential at a tactical level.

Why is SEO London’s story and mission so important?

If you pick any society in the world – regardless of the government, they all promote some version of ‘if you work hard and play hard, (within a set of rules), you can get ahead’. However, far too often those societies fail to live up to that promise. When you think about stability and the healthy growth of society, governments should be meeting their promises and supporting all of their people. Nevertheless, it’s the same story, again and again – with folks on the inside getting more opportunities and folks on the outside getting less.

So, fundamentally what I see us doing at SEO London is providing hope to the many young people who’ve lost it somewhere along their journey: perhaps as a result of their life experience, how others respond to them, thwarted opportunities for growth and/or other people’s expectations of them. Hope is a powerful force, but it can also die – our job is to keep it alive as best as we can.

How is the world changing for talented students from ethnic minorities or low socioeconomic backgrounds?

There’s definitely a long way to go, but we’re so much further ahead than we’ve been. I have the blessing and curse of seeing the long view on this. If we take the SEO London experience alone, then 20 years ago, of the companies that we work with (that’s over 80) not a single one of them had a diversity or inclusion officer. So the institutional infrastructure around D&I is something that has already come a long way, even if it’s still largely incomplete.

As another positive, the sorts of discussions that I regularly have now just didn’t happen. I have seen the shifting hearts and minds of the people we work with daily. There can be an open question about the degree and speed of change, but the direction of change and the fact of change is irrefutable and is very positive, and it ripples across so many different categories. Different firms have different perspectives on what diversity means, but the fact is that the conversations are happening all over. We are moving forward.

What is your proudest moment for SEO London?

It’s very difficult to pinpoint just one because I feel like I get proud moments every day – I have a very gratifying job. Some big things – one of our Alumna, Nishi Somaiya from our very first class back in 2000, made Partner at Goldman Sachs. As a shining example of our mission and story, she is now one of our poster children – it’s such a joy to see what she’s accomplished.

Another wonderful moment was a number of years ago for the World Cup we assembled a group of Alumni to meet at a bar in the city: I recall stepping into the room; it was a crowded bar (400 – 500 people) packed in and standing – and the vast majority were SEO London Alumni. I think I almost broke down in tears. It was such a powerful moment to consider that we’d had that kind of impact, that all of these folks had benefitted in some way from our programming. I certainly would never say we are the single-most important intervention in their lives but to be part of the story, and be part of the energy, drive and ambition is a beautiful thing.

Where do you see SEO London in the future?

To be honest we haven’t picked our next path quite yet; we’ve spent most of our time recently making sure we’re in a strong place to make optimal decisions. Some of the areas of focus could be to expand geographically, or through the constituents we serve, for example: a focus on LGBTQ matters, physical or mental disability or age range. Alternatively, we could really deepen our existing offering so that the impact we have is magnified.

We are actively trying to figure out our next move, and scaling in one or two directions is going to come, and we will be debating that in this, our 20th Anniversary year!

How can others get involved in supporting SEO London’s mission?

Firms tend to find value working with us through a range of lenses, whether that is through classic undergraduate recruitment, employee engagement, mentoring or business development. There’s almost always some way to engage where there is a will, no matter the size of the firm – there’s something for everyone.

So often firms look at our world and our activities as a way to accelerate a very specific diversity recruitment objective and its very ROI driven from that perspective. Whereas for other firms it’s about doing the right thing, the social impact, and going beyond just recruitment to really impacting young people lives. The latter is what really resonates with the spirit of SEO London and what we’re trying to accomplish. We see the recruitment end of our work as bread and butter, a mechanism to achieve our broader goal or mission, but we certainly don’t see ourselves as just a recruitment company.

>>>> We’re just a phone call away and we are eager to have a conversation with anyone keen to get involved or to talk about your strategy, vision or goals so please do get in touch. I’m on Andrew.Fairbairn@SEO-London.org.