I’m delighted to have been asked to contribute a blog post to croydon.digital, so early in the life of this new tech forum.
If you don’t know me already, I’m the centre manager at Sussex Innovation Croydon – part of an incubation network for high-growth start-ups.
Most people ask me “why Sussex? Isn’t Croydon in Surrey?” (Actually it’s neither, it’s a borough of London!) But our ‘mothership’, at the University of Sussex just outside Brighton, is a very commutable distance away. We’ve been supporting businesses based on new technologies and research through our campus-based innovation hub for 22 years, and when we decided to expand north a few years ago, East Croydon’s growing tech reputation and brilliant location fitted the bill!
Our mission is to be a hub for ambitious local people, who are working on new ideas with the aim of growing and employing people. While most of our team are not ‘tech people’, we’re here to provide a safety net for people who are. Our team’s expertise lies in helping entrepreneurs build the right model to see their innovations succeed – from the strategic advice about scaling a business, to the practical support that helps get the work done.
We know that going from a small development team to hiring employees is a huge step for most, so we have developed a system to bridge that gap. Our Catalyst programme is a graduate scheme whereby around 15 graduates and work placement students are employed by us for 12 months. They come from many different backgrounds – this year’s intake includes psychology, literature, physics, maths and business studies degrees.
Our members use the team’s many and varied talents to carry out projects ranging from research to content writing. These are scoped and overseen by our senior team, and often give the graduates a completely different experience from their studies. It’s an affordable resource for companies at the start of their growth journey, and invaluable experience of real, meaningful work for young people, enabling them to earn a wage, bolster their CV, and work out what career they want to pursue all in one.
One of the first things many business owners ask us when they hear about the scheme is ‘can we get a computer science grad?’ In fact, we rarely hire Catalyst team members from that particular discipline, for a few very good reasons.
Firstly, a computer science degree is almost a ticket to a job straight out of university. These graduates often have a better handle on their career path than most, and their skills are so in demand that opportunities are always there. In other words, they don’t stand to benefit from our scheme in the same way as other students.
Secondly, the question demonstrates how unaware we are of the capabilities of the millennial workforce. Young people graduating today have been online their entire lives, and are much more tech savvy than we might expect, regardless of their qualifications. My experience working alongside them has been a revelation. Their energy and determination to resolve challenges without assistance is incredible, but as ‘digital natives’, it’s not surprising that they go straight to Google when they need an answer.
Of course, not all of them have coding skills – although more and more of our science and maths graduates come out of university with experience of programming – but they are united in a willingness to learn and draw on the collaborative spirit of the developers and technologists in our community.
Croydon’s negative reputation has preceded it for too long but for those who work here every day, we see change and opportunities afoot. There is a buzz of excitement not just in our hub but throughout the business community.
Those commuters exhausted with travelling in to the more established Central London workspaces are slowly realising that a tech community does exist in Croydon, and with talent resources such as Catalyst, there is no need to pay excessive rent and travel expenses if you want to build a brilliant tech business.
Saffron Saunders is passionate about all things Croydon but particularly interested in inspiring young people and social mobility. As Centre Manager at Sussex Innovation Centre Croydon, she works daily with talented young people who have exciting career options. Saffron is also a trustee for local grass roots charity Lives Not Knives and volunteers as an enterprise advisor at Croydon College. Follow Saffron on twitter: @SaundersSaffron Instagram @Saffron648