Sonia Chui interviews UCL alumnus Jarrod Chan and his Pagoda Co-Founder, Catherine Marris on the journey to building a career-consultancy and mentorship-focused company and what students can do to improve their career prospects in the current pandemic environment.
Introducing the Co-Founders
Jarrod graduated from UCL in 2016 and Imperial College Business School in 2017. He currently works at a Big Four firm as a Senior Management Consultant. Originally from Singapore, Jarrod is passionate about Modern History (in particular historical London), heavy rock music, hitting the gym, and watching too many cat videos.
Catherine graduated from Columbia University in 2016 and earned her postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford in 2017. She currently leads on innovation at a national charity. A dual UK-USA national, Catherine loves travelling, reading, singing in her local choir, and unhealthy amounts of online shopping.
With combined expertise across the private, public sectors, and education systems across the UK and the USA, as well as a shared passion for helping students, they decided to join forces and start Pagoda, where they aim to shake things up in the careers mentoring space!
On the company
1. What is Pagoda’s mission?
Pagoda is on a mission to re-invent the job hunt for graduates in the UK. With innovation, service, and results at the heart of our approach, we offer career mentorship to current students or recent graduates, guiding them towards landing successful job offers in their chosen fields.
We also offer university applications coaching to students who want to study at the very-best institutions in the UK and the USA.
2. How would you describe Pagoda’s approach to mentorship? How does Pagoda’s programme differentiate itself from other career mentorship programmes?
At Pagoda, our approach to mentorship is truly bespoke. We believe in taking the time to really understand our students, including their motivations, struggles, and backgrounds, before working with them to design a long-term strategy. Whilst we focus on results, which is to ultimately help the student to land a graduate scheme or job of their choice, we also believe in supporting them in developing life-long skills that they can use in their career along the way.
As such, our flagship Pagoda Programme is designed to be long-term (we offer 1-3-year long programmes), and ‘end-to-end’.
In the early stages of the programme, we focus on working with the students to design their long-term career strategy, and building a syllabus around their unique needs and challenges. During this time, we also expose them to other options they might not have considered, using our vast, combined network to connect them to industry professionals.
We then train them up to be confident in all aspects of the application process, from the online tests to interviews and assessment centres, so that they are prepared to nail the applications when they open. When positions do open in late Summer/early Autumn in the UK, we switch to ‘application mode’ — this is where we take students through each stage of each position and provide support along the way, whether that’s guiding them through interviews or scrutinising their applications and cover letters.
Unlike other career-coaching companies, who outsource their coaching (which is usually a fixed number of hours), we believe in helping our students directly. After all, we’ve travelled the path before and know what to expect!
On the entrepreneurship journey
3. What inspired you to start Pagoda?
We’ve always supported the people around us and believe in sharing our knowledge to help others who want to take similar routes. Whilst we have been individually mentoring others for years, we wanted to formalise this into a proper model and build a brand and approach that would genuinely help students to get the most out of a mentoring relationship.
We also feel very privileged to be working in our chosen fields and fulfilled by our jobs, and we wanted to share our takeaways from navigating the applications process. We know from first-hand experience that securing an offer can be incredibly challenging, and we believe we have an approach that can work for anyone, if you’re willing to put in the effort.
4. What are some of the challenges you have faced in co-founding a career consulting startup?
There is obviously a lot of competition out there in this space, with so many other companies doing careers consulting and coaching. In the early stages of starting a company there is the challenge of positioning yourself to be different, and defining your ‘Unique Selling Point’. However, we believe in the value of our approach and that this will sell itself ultimately.
Branding and social media is such a big part of the process, especially early on when you’re trying to get your company off the ground! As a two-person startup, we want to strike the balance between developing our social media, creating content, organising events, and ultimately fulfilling our purpose, which is mentoring and helping students get results.
There’s a lot of effort which goes into starting a company, but we’re loving every minute of it as we’re confident that we’re building something special here.
5. Jarrod — with your experiences in Financial Services Consulting and academic background in History and Business Management, how have your past experiences helped you to run a startup company?
Working in Management Consulting has certainly helped me develop my business acumen and given me the tools needed to build a company from the ground up. I’m a big fan of the ‘Lean Startup’ approach and my experiences in consulting have definitely allowed me to streamline our operating model and keep things lean and efficient.
Also, project management and client management are big skills that I’ve managed to transfer from my consulting career, to being a co-founder of a business. As any startup owner will know, you have to manage your time well and spend time on the ‘boring’ stuff as well, like bookkeeping, finances and contracts (to be honest, I quite enjoy doing them!), and consulting has given me tonnes of experience in those elements.
I also co-founded a startup in 2017 which was positioned to supply international students studying in the UK with living essentials. That company isn’t trading anymore, but I learned some valuable lessons there as that was my first time starting and running a company, and have brought that to Pagoda.
In terms of my academic background in History, that has definitely helped sharpen my communication skills and inform the way I mentor and speak to clients. Reading History has helped me be more articulate and communicate ideas better both in speech and in writing, not to mention also made me more analytical and sensitive to different perspectives, which is really important when managing your own business.
On takeaways and advice
6. What are some of the biggest challenges that graduates face when transitioning from university to the professional setting? How has COVID-19 exacerbated these challenges?
Firstly, culture shock. Entering a company for the first time as a graduate with little knowledge of the people or how things are done can be very nerve-wracking. The first few weeks and months of getting to know people and acclimatising to the company culture are crucial for a graduate to settle in and get familiar with the surroundings. Covid-19 has certainly made this worse — lots of graduates starting graduate schemes now have started whilst working from home, and all the interactions have been virtual. Still, it’s important to make the effort to build your network. Schedule time to meet your managers and colleagues, over an informal video-call.
Secondly, the steep learning curve at the beginning when you’re trying to hone your skills. Whether you’re starting your career in finance, or in the public sector, there is no doubt a great deal of new skills to learn, or content to absorb, at the very beginning. Covid-19 has made this harder as you can’t be in the office, surrounded by experienced colleagues to guide or help you. The pandemic has limited face-to-face interaction with clients as well, which is where graduates usually learn best whilst on-the-job.
Also, joining a graduate scheme and turning up to your induction on your first day, surrounded by other nervous graduates, has usually helped graduates settle in quicker. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has made it impossible for that to happen now. The challenge for grads at the moment is to find different ways of socialising and interacting with each other virtually, to try to replicate those experiences.
7. What advice do you have for students who are seeking summer internships or graduate schemes in the current pandemic environment?
The current pandemic environment may have stifled recruitment in certain areas, or prevented networking and careers fairs from taking place, however they’ve given students opportunities to do things differently as well.
Use the extra time you have at home to focus on applications and gather information about your preferred career path and the opportunities available. People have become extremely receptive to video calling and there is now more time to do that — you can line up a few ‘Virtual Coffees’ in a day and still have time to do other things as you no longer have to travel to meet someone now!
The opportunities are still out there, you will just need to look for them proactively and make use of your alumni networks. Of course, we may be able to help as well, so get in touch with us if you want to have an informal chat about your career!
For daily career tips and advice, follow Pagoda’s Instagram page.
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