This is a commencement speech I gave for the University of Sheffield Management School in 2020. It was spoken over Zoom rather than live. People were watching from their living rooms rather than a grand hall. There were no robes or hats and no one visited a stage to collect their degree.

This year’s graduates faced a different year to those ahead of them, but that itself marks an opportunity for their future.

In revisiting this talk, it struck me how relevant it is for all entrepreneurs, not just those fresh out of college. The three key points I make might be even more important for an entrepreneur who’s been in their field for many years and is looking for new ways to level up.

Here’s how it went:

In 2010 we’d just come out of a recession, there were talks of a double-dip recession, and now in 2020 it’s a global pandemic and a recession as well. It might seem like the timing of it all sucks but actually I think it can really work in your favour.

When I was invited to address you today I tried to think about what I would have wanted to hear when I graduated. What could someone have said that would have prepared me better for my next step?

So there are three things that I came up with. The first is:

Expect to be underestimated

Probably for a long time. For being “young”, for being fresh out of uni. There will be people who take one look at you and write you off as being inexperienced or someone who couldn’t possibly be any good.

Because so many people think, that age = experience = effectiveness.

And I had it myself… “who’s that little blonde girl trying to sell me social media management!” It happened all the time for years.

And the antidote to being underestimated, in every case, is being exceptional. Making it not matter that someone has dismissed you in their mind by blowing them away with what you say and your ideas and how you think and how you conduct yourself. It means you benefit from the element of surprise. There’s a quote by Steve Martin that I love, it’s “be so good they can’t ignore you”. It’s just as relevant now as ever.

Being young has never had more advantages. There are now more millionaires than ever who are under the age of twenty-five. It’s so easy for people with experience in business to be stuck in their ways and being stuck in your ways is just no use right now. Throughout 2020, the ones who have survived are those who have taken a fresh approach and a newbie mindset. No one knows what normal is anymore, which has completely levelled the playing field and flipped the balance in your favour.

The second thing that I would have LOVED to have been told when I graduated is this. Go big.

Make plans so big they scare you

In 2014 I co-wrote a series of children’s storybooks, as a side project to my social media agency. The purpose of the books is to give primary school age kids entrepreneurial role models, to inspire them to want to start a business when they start making career choices.

After having some success with selling them online, my next plan was to secure sponsorship. I wanted to find sponsors to gift the books to primary schools in their area, and cover the whole country doing that! I started meeting with banks and airlines and anyone who I thought might be a good fit for corporate sponsorship. And the package I was selling was about £3000, for each sponsor to put the books and teaching resources in a small number of primary schools.

I got off to a good start, managed to get 3 or 4 of those agreed, which was great. But then I did the maths. Each deal was quite a labour-intensive thing. It required finding the right person, going and meeting them, following up and all the admin and paperwork not to mention actually getting the books shipped to the schools. And I realised that it would take me years and years to repeat this process with the whole of the country.

So I re-thought my plan.

Instead of going out to loads of small sponsors I decided to go after one, huge sponsor who could sponsor my books into all 24,000 primary schools in the UK.

The deal I was looking for was over 100 times bigger. I almost felt crazy asking for it. But I figured out, all I had to do was find that one person, in that one room, who could say yes. And I moved all my energy into finding them. And in 2017 I found that person. And our storybooks and teaching resources were gifted to 24,000 primary schools thanks to Lloyds Banking Group and the most brazen request I’ve ever made.

I wanted to tell you that story because it took me too long to realise that there is far more competition for the small, regular deals or jobs than there is for the huge, audacious, life-changing ones. It really is lonely at the top!

But by dreaming bigger than anyone else can even imagine, you amass fans.

People want to support you in your plans. You spark their imagination, you grab their attention. They buy into your huge vision and somehow you hear the YES that you need. So go big!

Think of yourself as a brand

The third and final thing I want to share is about this concept of personal brand. I don’t believe for a second that you have to have everything figured out as soon as you graduate, but I do believe you should know who you are when you graduate.

That involves deciding what you want to be known for, and then applying that to everything you do.

There’s a member of my team at my agency, and when she graduated, she didn’t know straight away what she wanted to do so she went to work in a supermarket. She just went and stacked shelves until she figured it out. And even though she knew it wasn’t her life’s calling to do that, she made sure that they were perfectly stacked shelves!

She made sure she was a pleasure to work with, she was conscientious, she was so aware of her personal brand in everything she did. That led to people noticing, and putting her forward for more responsibility, and even more, until she had worked out what she wanted to do – and when that happened she had cemented her character and she had a load of people she could now call on for favours at any time in her future, who would be happy to help her. And now she applies the exact same exceptional character to her role as a professional marketer.

I really believe that how you do anything is how you do everything.

Character is what decides someone’s future far more than individual career choices or who you know.

So, there you have those three things:

  1. Expect to be underestimated
  2. Go bigger with all of your plans
  3. Think of yourself as a brand

Because your character and how you’re remembered will determine your success.

Congratulations – management school class of 2020. I wish you a happy and successful onward journey!