When Oxford Isn’t Enough: The Consequence of Network & Knowledge When Chasing Opportunity

When Oxford Isn’t Enough: The Consequence of Network & Knowledge When Chasing Opportunity

1426 946 Paul Breloff

Oxford University is probably one of the only places that Harvard could envy for name recognition and prestige. It’s one of the oldest — and widely considered one of the best — schools on planet Earth. Surely, graduating from Oxford (and not otherwise screwing up) would mean you’re set for life. Right?

Maybe not. I read a New York Times story by Jenni Russell recently that showed the ways that even a top notch education wasn’t enough to ensure professional success today. With a focus on the UK, but telling a story that is true most places, Russell writes: “New graduates are entering a working world that is pitched as never before in favor of the well-connected, the socially knowledgeable and the rich.” The story goes on to discuss the various ways that class and social divides widen through childhood, secondary school, and university, in ways that contribute to a truly uneven playing field.

At Shortlist, we’re no strangers to the unfairness of the modern opportunity marketplace, and addressing the above disparities is what motivates us as a company.

This story was different though. At Shortlist, we often focus on those who miss out on opportunities because they didn’t work at the right company or go to the right school, but this story shares how even Oxford graduates face an uneven playing field, albeit a different kind.

Russell tells the story of one Oxford grad who grew up in a lower income household, working much harder than many of his peers to make it at Oxford. After graduating, he faced a host of issues that caused him to realize going to the right school isn’t enough if you don’t have other advantages, like friends who know the right companies; mentors who guide you towards the right internships at the right companies; and a financial backstop that lets you pursue unpaid internships and front the working capital for an apartment, a wardrobe, and those other sizable professional startup costs.

So even among Oxford graduates, differences in class, socioeconomic status, and social capital dramatically determine what opportunities one becomes aware of and is positioned to grasp.

I know it’s hard to pity an Oxford graduate; many have it so much worse. But that’s exactly the point: If even a hard-working Oxford grad can’t find a good job, what does that mean for the rest of the world?

For me, this piece was a great reminder of the (unfortunate?) importance of social capital in how opportunities are discovered and pursued.

In a similar vein, political scientist Robert Putnam differentiated between bonding social capital (networks among folks that are largely similar to each other, like family or a tight group of longtime friends) and bridging social capital (networks among those that are different, like the diverse network of people you might meet across a series of jobs or at business school). People have said that bonding capital helps one “get by” (as, for example, family or friends may provide food or shelter in a pinch) but that bridging capital helps you “get ahead” (by changing circumstances or creating opportunities).

Bridging capital can serve as an informal referral network permitting access to more diverse ideas and opportunities, particularly career opportunities. This is the kind of network in which your college friend at DreamCompany pings you with a “Hey, I’m going to share your resume for this amazing job that hasn’t even been posted yet” or “Hey, you really should try to do a summer internship before you apply for a full-time role.”

For many, university is the time to create these “weak ties” that lead to lifelong professional networks and career opportunities. And often the most privileged and savviest college students figure out that they may be better served by getting to know more people through athletics, extracurriculars and socializing at the expense of those extra hours of solo study to get an “A.” Unfortunately, it’s often those from first-generation college and lower-income households that don’t get the memo.

I’m struggling with what to do with that, and how we can recognize those disparities and do something to help as we try to create a more level playing field for talent, particularly in markets like India and Kenya.

Do you have any ideas? If so, I’d love to hear from you.