Starting from scratch: building a career without experience or qualifications


“If you don’t have sparkling exam results and an impressive CV, how do you get your foot on the first rung of the ladder?”

That was the question posed by BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, on which everywoman Co-founder Maxine Benson chatted to host Jenni Murray in a show curated by fellow entrepreneur and guest editor Lady Michelle Mone, the founder of lingerie company Ultimo and fake tan makers UTan.  


“Everything in life is about stretching yourself. If you are willing to work hard and take risks now and again… you can go wherever you want to go.”


Michelle Mone OBE


Where there’s a will there’s a way

Max revealed that like Michelle, who grew up in a deprived area of Glasgow and left school at 15 with zero qualifications, she too took a less conventional route into business.

“I didn’t come out of university. When I left school I went and got a job and within the first week I realised I couldn’t possibly do it for the rest of my life and had to work two weeks’ notice to get out of it – longer than I’d actually worked there!”

“It was just a case of then looking for opportunities. I ended up finding entrepreneurs, small business owners just getting started that wanted people like them - energetic, prepared to work hard and roll their sleeves up and do anything. That was me, and that’s how I got through the door.”


Who you know is as important as what you know

As you might expect from someone who went on to co-launch the world’s largest network of women in business in the form of the everywomanNetwork, Max understood the merits of making your face known early on.

“If you don’t have a network - and many people don’t - it’s about finding people with common interests. Ask yourself what are your passions, what are your interests? There are groups of people that share those passions and interests everywhere - online and offline. Expand your network through that; get to know people through something that you have in common. Most of those people will also be working and in places that you could never have thought that you could possibly get your foot in the door. And that’s the beginning of a conversation.”


Remember that a job interview is a two-way street

In the preparation for a job interview, it’s easy to focus exclusively on how you can best showcase why the company needs you. But the interview is equally designed for the organisation to demonstrate why you should apply your talent within their four walls.

“Go in and be confident that if they were to convince you to take a job at their organisation they’d be lucky to have you,” advises Max.

High self-esteem and good self-knowledge are key to operating with this kind of confidence. If you don’t have a string of A-grade qualifications to your name, you can figure out what your strengths are by asking your friends and family. “Take a good hard look at what abilities and innate talents you can bring to any role, and be prepared to demonstrate these at interview,” says Max.


Put yourself in the employer’s shoes

Getting a foot in the door when you’ve no qualifications or sponsors can be tough. How do employers spot talent if there’s little on paper?

“There’s an energy that we’re looking for, a willingness, something that resonates so that you can say ‘actually this is what our team needs and would benefit from having’,” says Max.

“The challenge that we have as a small business and that most small businesses have is ‘how are we going to pitch what we have to offer to this talented person we want to choose to come and work for us?’”


Find powerful mentors

Powerful in this sense doesn’t mean billionaires with a string of successful enterprises under their belts. Relatability is every bit as important as success when it comes to choosing the business people whose careers you’ll follow from afar, or who you may be lucky enough to pull into your inner circle for formal mentoring. These men and women have the power to inspire you and pass on the benefits of their experiences.

A £5,000 grant from The Prince’s Trust, a UK charity supporting young entrepreneurs, saw Michelle Mone on her way. But the mentoring she received, she says, was every bit as important.

“I was made redundant when I was 24 and was devastated. I went to the Prince’s Trust and said that I wanted to invent a bra. It’s the loneliest job that you can ever do being an entrepreneur. Funding is one part [of what you need to get started]; mentoring is another part, and bringing the two together is a powerful thing.”

If you’re just starting out, whether in your first entrepreneurial venture or in a more corporate role, finding someone a few years ahead of you in the game makes for a more meaningful mentorship connection. Mentoring doesn’t always come in the form of formal relationships though; TED Talks, online seminars and audio books can also hold keys to unlocking new thinking in everyday life.


Build a whole portfolio of role models

Don’t confine yourself to just one or two leaders in your field who you can look up to and learn from. Aim for a whole portfolio of men and women, each of whom, through their social media channels, blogs, books and online videos and articles, can inspire you along your way.


A classic ‘no qualifications’ role model in entrepreneurship

Anne Beiler grew up in an Amish community. After dropping out of high school during ninth grade, she aspired to be a housewife and mother. “I had never heard of the word ‘career’,” she admits. But after the tragic death of her young daughter and the near breakdown of her marriage, she went out to work to help keep the family afloat.

Making and selling pretzels at a farmer’s market brought in a few hundred dollars a week but it gave Beiler a taste for entrepreneurship: “I enjoyed managing; it was fun and I began to get a feel for business.”

When she learned that a store was available for rent at $6,000, she wrote a cheque without even visiting the property – evidence, she admits, of her lack of business acumen. The move saw the birth of Auntie Anne’s, a multimillion-dollar chain of 1,500 franchise stores worldwide.

Watch Anne discuss her rise from market seller to millionaire franchise owner in this video by Forbes.


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