Samantha Devlin was an awardee of a 2020 AMP Tomorrow Fund grant. She is a co-founder of The Careers Department, an online platform that offers virtual work experience modules. Established in 2018, the program has been introduced to over 150,000 students across Australia. We asked Samantha some questions about herself and her work.

What inspired you to set up The Careers Department?

We built this program with the belief that all students should have equal access to industry and further study, no matter their geographic or demographic situation.

I think we can all relate to the worries or doubts that come with picking a path after school; it’s a shared experience. Some people didn’t even have a careers department at school and others tell us that they were told to be a ‘fire warden’ when they expressed interest in a job with adventure. There has been a big hole in the market, and we wanted to contribute in a positive way.

It is an exciting space to work in because the jobs that are emerging now didn’t exist 10 years ago. Take a UX designer, a data scientist, or a programmatic trader – these are exciting, creative, and opportunistic jobs, and it’s a privilege to be in a position where we can share these opportunities with students.

The Careers Department started with two founders. What were the main challenges you faced as young entrepreneurs?

There were so many! Though something that stands out was learning how to take feedback constructively. When you launch a product, you are so proud and close to it, and I remember the first time that we got critical feedback, we were crushed. A school told us that they didn’t need the program, and our gut instinct was to defend and validate the product. An important lesson was that the school careers adviser is the decision-maker and the program facilitator, and so their opinion was the only one that mattered in that instance.

One of the best things we have learned is how to use feedback to make your product better. Now we work with more than 520 Australian schools. This is around 20% of the secondary school market. Additionally, every product comes from a school request. Our clients are our best asset in terms of product innovation, and their feedback shapes our next steps. We think that feedback is valuable, and you shouldn’t be scared or disappointed by it.

What’s the best feedback or advice you received while developing The Careers Department and why?

The best business advice we received was to ‘scale with integrity’. To us, this means that our impact on an individual student, or school is no different whether we work with one school or 500 schools. We try to treat every school like they are the only school we work with.

The best feedback we get is from schools. Teachers will tell us what they like and what they need. When we look for feedback on the actual ‘product’ there is no better test market than 300 students in a school assembly hall trying to log onto your site at the same time.

When we first launched our resume builder, we ran school workshops with the tool so that we could see first-hand how easy or difficult students found the programming. While we had been so focused on the technical features, e.g. the ability to drag and drop content from a portfolio into a resume, students asked us questions like, “Why have you used the word ‘resume’ and ‘CV’ interchangeably?” and, “Why can’t I add my Mum as my reference?”, and “Why is my name in all caps, it looks like I am shouting at the recruiter”. Students don’t hold back making them the best test market.

How has AMP’s Tomorrow Fund helped you? Do you have any advice for people applying for grants?

AMP’s Tomorrow Fund helped us develop a series of virtual work experience modules. We would produce a video that profiled an industry and accompany it with a real industry work brief. For example, “you are an architect who needs to build out a renovation concept”. Each brief would ask students to work within industry frameworks, so in the architecture task students needed to research zoning requirements, use SketchUp or CAD and communicate the proposed design to the client. We are teaching students transferable and industry-relevant skills and each student receives feedback on their task. They are then able to attach this work to a resume, scholarship, or a university or work experience application.

My advice for applying is to ‘just apply’. I think a lot of people in this space feel like their contribution isn’t ‘big enough’ to validate recognition. Easier said than done but try to remove the imposter syndrome that comes with starting a business or project and just throw your hat in the ring.

What advice would you have for young people in the early stages of their careers or study?

Transferable skills are skills of the future. Workplace technology cannot automate skills like problem-solving, analytical thinking, leadership or creativity. By harnessing these skills, you are making yourself very valuable to an organisation. A lot of students are siloed within ‘technical skill’ development and think that ATAR or GPA is the golden ticket to success. I think that while yes, an ATAR can open a door for you – moving up in a company or industry comes from your ability to execute transferable skills on top of your technical knowledge.

The Tomorrow Fund is open to all Australians who want to make a positive difference to the community. For the eighth year, the AMP Foundation is offering $1 million in grants of between $5,000 and $100,000. Applications are now open, and close at 4pm (AEST) 9 June 2021. To find out more visit the AMP Tomorrow Fund.

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