Inspiring stories: how Shola West went from flipping burgers to a career in tech

Shola is a Cronx resident who is determined to succeed in digital, and she's spreading that ambition through her Youth Unlocked platform.

Part of our mission at Croydon Digital is to help inspire more people into careers in tech – particularly from groups currently under-represented in the industry – to do our bit to help address the skills gap nationally and locally.

When we met Croydon’s very own Shola West, we found her enthusiasm was infectious. She didn’t have a clear idea of what to do after school, but she discovered her passion for digital marketing and used retail experience to bag an apprenticeship at Whitehat. While she kicks off her own career, she’s also inspiring young people from deprived areas through her Youth Unlocked platforms on Instagram and LinkedIn.

You can listen to our interview with Shola below and hear her top tips on what employers are looking for, how to secure an apprenticeship and passion projects.

If you’d like to learn more about apprenticeship opportunities contact, shola.west@whitehat.org.uk

Interview transcript:

Asha:

Hi Shola, thank you for taking the time out to speak to us. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and where you work? 

Shola: 

Yeah sure. So like you said my name is Shola and I currently work at Whitehat as a Community Associate. 

Asha:

Excellent. And we’re keen to understand a little bit more about digital marketing really and whether this is an area you always wanted to pursue. Can you tell us about your background and how you got to where you are now? 

Shola:

Yeah sure, so actually digital marketing isn’t something that I always wanted to pursue. I only found out about it maybe a year ago. So, in terms of my background I went to Norbury Manor growing up, so it was an all girls school in Norbury. I’ve been living in Croydon since I was born so I’ve literally been moving from Selhurst to South Norwood and then back to Selhurst. 

I attended Norbury Manor, I did I think about 8 GCSEs, the ones that everyone kind of does like history, Spanish, but I actually didn’t like any of the subjects – which is just me really. I didn’t really find school that intriguing and neither did I find the subjects intriguing so I didn’t get the best grades so I decided that there was no point doing A-levels and further education in subjects that I didn’t like.  

I was really passionate about the fashion industry – I still am – so I decided to attend a fashion college in London called Fashion Retail Academy and that was where I did fashion retail and business for a qualification for 2 years, and within that qualification there’s different parts of fashion. So you learn the business side, the styling side, design, and you also learn about the marketing, digital marketing and PR as well. So whilst you learn about all that, in the final year you pick the subject that you are most passionate about and what you want to do your final subject grade on, and I picked digital marketing and it was very specific to the fashion industry.

I got a qualification in that and from there I was like, so I like digital marketing, what can I do next? So I decided to try and find a sort of fashion digital marketing apprenticeship but I couldn’t find one. It took me a while, I was balancing like a couple of internships whilst working in retail and just like all over the place really. I just couldn’t find a fashion digital marketing apprenticeship and it was really frustrating at the time and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So eventually I found an apprenticeship that wasn’t in the fashion industry but was digital marketing and that was with Whitehat, and that’s basically how I got into the digital marketing space. But if it wasn’t for making that move and going with my passion in terms of the fashion industry, I would have never known about digital marketing. 

Asha:

Absolutely. So you stumbled upon it but in a really, really good way and its led you to get to where you are now. 

Shola:

Yeah, literally so it was all an accident but a good one if that makes sense. 

Asha:

Great, and can you tell us a little bit about your day to day role at Whitehat and what you enjoy most about what you do. 

Shola: 

I work within Whitehat, they are an apprenticeship provider and a tech start-up, if you don’t know already. They help to get apprenticeships with a range of different companies and a range of different qualifications. The kind of qualifications aren’t traditional, so stuff like digital marketing and accounting and finance, software engineering, and within that I work in the community team.

So one of their unique selling points is to have a community for apprentices. A lot of people have this stereotype that if you’re an apprentice you don’t get access to the community in the same way that you would with university, so being able to meet people like you, have a social life, meet them at professional events etc. I work in a team that allows these apprentices to come together and actually make those connections. 

In my day to day role I’m putting on different events with different partners, so for example in January we did an event with Monzo bank and it was all about personal finance. Sometimes we’re doing socials, so in December we did like a massive apprenticeship boat party on the Thames which was really, really fun. 

Asha: 

Wow lots of fun. 

Shola:

It was so fun, like you don’t understand it was just the best time ever and honestly people loved that experience. 

Asha:

Yeah, of course. 

Shola:

We do have a social life although we work. I do a lot of that, so I’m always like planning events and then from the marketing point of view – promoting those events, whether it’s through social media, through our online hub which is kind of like our own internal Facebook, email campaigns, etc. So that’s kind of what I get up to on a day to day basis. I think probably the best thing I like is seeing the results of my work, so like when I’m actually at the event so the planning, the promotion and then seeing everyone there and enjoying the experience. 

Asha: 

Just seeing it all come to life and all your planning put into fruition basically. 

Shola:

Yeah, it’s always an amazing feeling, yeah just to see everyone enjoying the experience. Breaking stereotypes that apprentices can have.  

Asha:

Absolutely and just on that, what are your key tips on how to get an apprenticeship and how people can find out about work experience? Because that’s quite tricky I feel like, I think that’s one of the hurdles isn’t it? Just knowing where to get that information from. 

Shola:

Yeah no, I definitely agree. I would say that depending on your age, definitely try and find experience anywhere you can. That’s something to take note of, because when I applied for my apprenticeship I had a lot of retail experience but no experience in digital marketing within a company. So even though I had the qualification from a fashion college, I had experience on my CV from working at Five Guys, House of Frasier, Victoria’s Secret, basically just retail shops and stores and they found that really interesting because it goes to show that you can get up early and you can have customer service, you can manage money, so the different skills you find in retail you can actually make them translatable into your apprenticeship.

Don’t worry about trying to find exact experience to match. For example, if you wanted to do an accounting apprenticeship, don’t worry about having to work in an accountancy firm. Just find any kind of experience you can for at least 3 to 6 months to try and build up that experience so that you’re someone who is really hireable, and they can rely on you. That’s definitely one tip I would suggest.

In terms of research, I would say just go online. There’s so many different websites that come up if you just type apprenticeships. I mean, when I was applying it wasn’t that popular, but I think now especially working at a company like Whitehat who are doing so much to change the status, there is so much information out there that you can gain. Definitely try and look up on YouTube different apprentices who are speaking about their experience because it’s sometimes nice to hear from people who are actually doing an apprenticeship, which I find quite useful as well. 

Asha:

Brilliant that’s really good advice there, thank you for that Shola. What other things are you involved with outside of Whitehat, I know that you are involved in initiatives to support young professionals. Can you tell us a bit about your other passions? 

Shola:

Yeah sure, so recently over the Covid-19 times I’ve set up my own thing on the side called Youth Unlocked, which is basically a platform to help support young professionals, especially from what I like to call ends – but that’s basically people from deprived areas or people from a low social economic status background who want to thrive in the world of work, especially within the city.

So what we do is on our Instagram page which is just Youth Unlocked or on our LinkedIn page, we post videos of different young people giving advice, but we also run our own digital events as well. We recently just did one, enter the city part 1, all about how to deal with microaggressions, just navigate the world of work when you’re working somewhere that you feel like no one looks like you and no one sounds like you. So that’s currently what I do on the side just so I can see more people like myself from Croydon in these industries and know how to navigate them and thrive really.  

Asha:

So lots of networking, lots of events and lots of showing people that it’s great to be out there and they can do this. 

Shola:

They can do this yeah. I feel like that’s such an important message that I didn’t always see growing up so now that I’ve been able to work in the city and have these opportunities, I really want to share and give back to people like myself.  

Asha:

Fantastic. Lastly, can you tell us being a Croydon girl, what your three favourite things about Croydon are. 

Shola:

Yeah, so I just love the BoxparkBoxpark is amazing especially our one because it’s not just about food, it’s the community vibes that come with it. Like I remember one year we did like a Love Island final there and everyone was just sitting with popcorn and it was just really nice, and you don’t know everyone there but it just feels like one family.  

Asha: 

It’s a nice vibe isn’t it actually with everyone there?  

Shola: 

That in particular definitely stood out, but whether it’s just to chill out with friends or meet new people or go to an event, like there’s kick boxing there sometimes. It’s just an amazing place with loads of different things.

I really love the fact that we have trams. A lot of my friends that aren’t from Croydon find it weird that we have almost like tubes on the road. It’s just so handy like you jump on, jump off. It’s really the part of Croydon where people ask do Croydon have trams and I’m like yeah. I just find it really nice to have.

And lastly, just Croydon being such a diverse area and diverse in every sense, so you never feel like you’re the only person that looks like you or sounds like you and you’ve got access to that community vibe. It’s just a vibe that comes with Croydon, it’s really hard to explain but when you’re from Croydon you know exactly what I’m talking about and that’s what makes me really proud to be from Croydon. 

Asha:

Fantastic, well thank you so much Shola for taking the time out to speak to us today and all the best, take care thank you so much.  

Shola: 

I will do, bye.

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