Big Ideas: “All corporations that accept summer interns should allocate slots to the underserved high school students in their cities” with Kevin Davis

Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Davis. Kevin Davis, originally from London, is the founder and chairman of First Workings, a not-for-profit organization focused on enhancing the social mobility of underserved high school students in New York […]

Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Davis. Kevin Davis, originally from London, is the founder and chairman of First Workings, a not-for-profit organization focused on enhancing the social mobility of underserved high school students in New York City through providing them with high-quality paid internships. Until October 2008, Davis was chief executive officer of MF Global, then the world’s leading broker of exchange-listed futures and options. The business encompassed equities, futures, interest rate, commodity and currency trading, conducted by 2,750 staff in 25 offices across 14 countries in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Asia. Davis lead the separation of MF Global (formerly known as Man Financial) from Man Group PLC in July 2007 in the second largest IPO that year and one of the largest financial services IPOs in history. Davis joined Man Group in 1990 after being head-hunted away from a rival company, eight years after starting his career as a runner at the Chicago Board of Trade. Having established MF as the worlds largest broker of interest rate derivatives, Davis was put in charge of the entire brokerage division in 1999, taking profits from $27 million to $275 million, shortly before the $4 billion IPO in 2007. After retiring from Wall Street in 2008, Davis earned a master’s degree in International Relations at New York University before becoming an adjunct professor there two years later.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

For much of my career, certainly for the eight years that I was the CEO of Man Financial/MF Global, I was in a position to hire interns. Most of the interns we hired came via the usual pathways of customers’ and colleagues’ children or relatives. Since the vast majority of our long-term recruits were former interns, diversity in our management structure became prohibitive. Whilst we would of course have been delighted to provide internship opportunities to talented yet disadvantaged kids from Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, few if any ever applied.

First Workings is an effective way of addressing that issue, simultaneously providing exceptional students with exceptional opportunities. In doing this, we are providing these kids with their first deposits of “social capital”, or a person’s personal and professional network that can connect them to opportunities that can make a huge impact on their college and career prospects.

Kevin Davis with First Workings Staff

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

My favorite story from my time with First Workings is that of a young student we assigned to an energy derivatives broker. This Democracy Prep Charter High School student had never even heard of financial derivatives, but we had noted both his aptitude for mathematics and his charismatic personality, which are ideal for a broker in these complex products. Within the first few days of his internship, he had mastered an instinctive understanding of energy derivatives and even began creating strategies for the company to present to their clients. He performed so well that the brokerage company asked him to extend his internship for the entirety of the summer. Using this experience as the central feature of his college application essay, he was accepted into Brown University a few months later.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

My “big idea” is that all corporations that accept summer interns allocate slots to the underserved high school students in their cities. It is crucial that these opportunities are also paid because these students typically cannot afford to work for free.

How do you think this will change the world?

This will broaden the pool of talent available to these companies, especially amongst students of color. With a more diverse talent pool comes more diverse ideas and solutions.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

So far we have not experienced any unintended consequences.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

The “tipping point” really arose after our first year of operation when we worked with a mere 16 students. Seeing the impact their experience with First Workings had on their confidence and college prospects convinced me that we needed to expand the program. Five years later, we’re in the process of accepting 80 of the 260 applicants for our 2019 summer program.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

We need to get the word out about the impacts and success of the First Workings model. I believe this is replicable in any major city in the country. When you find a model that works, the growth potential is exponential.

Kevin Davis with First Working Students

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You can never provide too much support for these students before the first day of their internship. During our first year, we only offered one training session for our students before their internships and quickly realized that it wasn’t enough. We now offer a spring and summer training session and break students up into smaller groups to give them a more personalized experience. We cover everything from email etiquette and Excel training to professional dress and handshakes.
  2. Securing summer internships for our students is really just the beginning of our relationship with them. After our first year we realized that we wanted to keep in touch with our alumni in a more formal way. We created our Alumni program for our students who have completed their summer internships through us as another way to help them develop their skills and for them to network with their peers and build upon their social capital. We now conduct additional trainings sessions and events specifically for alumni and offer support and resources as they continue to develop relationships with their former supervisors and mentors. We’ve even had alumni assist with our next cohort.
  3. Before you can connect students with the perfect internship opportunity, you’ll first need to help them narrow down their interests. Because we work with 16 and 17 year olds, many of them are not yet sure what they want to do for the rest of their lives or even what they want to study in college. We ask our applicants to rank their top interests on their application, but their preferences typically changes when we begin matching them to their internship sites in May. We’ve learned to check in with accepted students regularly about any changes to their career and industry interests to avoid placing a student at an internship in an industry that no longer interests them.
  4. The top career industries changes constantly, so our program needs to adapt year to year based on these trends. When we began in 2014, students were mostly interested in finance, business and medicine. Over the years, fields like technology, research, communication and law have been consistently ranked as a top or second choice among our students. This means that we must partner with new companies and stay up to date with what industries are in high demand.
  5. That the students we have the pleasure of working with would exceed my already high expectations. Despite the obstacles our students have to overcome, they are hungry for opportunities and willing to work extremely hard to succeed. More than once our company partners have told us that our high school students outperformed their college-aged interns. It’s an honor to work with such remarkable students and I can’t wait to see where their careers take them.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Clearly, the evolution and implementation of new work technologies will shape the future of virtually all working environments. It is therefore vital that today’s students do all they can to attain proficiency and confidence in using as many of these technologies as they have access to. The most obvious is learning how to code, which an increasing number of employers require of their new recruits.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

If we had a million dollars today, we would expand our team so we can accept even more students and enhance our training program.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Always treat people as you yourself would wish to be treated. And always, always, always: KEEP YOUR WORD.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

In my opinion, the most important habits are hard work and humility.

Kevin Davis at First Working Session

Some very well-known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I think our students tell our story best. Check out these videos of our alumni Lemuel and Khalyhia explaining their experiences with First Workings.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram — http://instagram.com/firstworkings

LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/company/first-workings/

Twitter — https://twitter.com/firstworkings

Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/FirstWorkings/

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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