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The initiative that wants to democratize higher education

Nearly 300 students, teachers, and representatives from Swedish companies and banks gathered on November 16 at Tumba High School for the F1RST initiative's largest event to date. The goal is to inspire more students to choose a career in business.

At Tumba High School, there is no shortage of ambitious students. For many, it is a given that they will go on to further studies. But where and in what field is less clear. Not everyone has parents with an academic background, and the idea of a good and respected profession is often limited. Principal Johan Heltonen wants to showcase the wide range of exciting jobs and career paths available to his students.

Johan and a number of teachers from the school first learned about the F1RST initiative during a visit to the Stockholm School of Economics (SSE) and they immediately knew they wanted to collaborate. It is important to the school that the students know that studying at prestigious schools is a path open to those who are motivated.

“When applying for a job, recruiters often look at where you studied. It's important that students understand early on that they have the same opportunities as everyone else to get into the country's most prestigious programs. I want our students to feel that if they have good grades and are motivated, it’s natural to apply to the best schools. It opens doors,” says Principal Johan Heltonen.

F1RST Day inspires

Martin Andersson Westerlind, a senior teacher in social studies, history, and financial economics, was designated as the contact person for F1RST at Tumba High School. Along with Program Director Sabinor Haas Lönnroth, he planned F1RST's first major event – F1RST Day at Tumba High School.

“Mentors are important. It’s crucial to be able to identify with people you meet. You may have the ambition, skills, and capacity to do something, but not know how because no one you know has made the same journey. Then, it's good to have someone to identify with who has already walked that same path ahead of you.”

Many of his students dream of working in banking or financial services – or starting their own business. Others do not dream at all, and Martin wants to help open their eyes to all the choices available to them.

Mattai Kassabian is one of the students planning to start his own business as soon as he graduates from high school, while also pursuing higher education. He would like to study in the US just like his older brother. Nike Sjölander wants to study outside Stockholm and experience living on her own, while studying economics at a Swedish university. Both were happy with the experiences of the day, meeting representatives from BCG and participating in a case study to solve a task as a team. They are interested in attending more events in the future.

“It gives us students greater insight into the choices available to us after finishing high school, ideas of possible careers, and a better understanding of what our working life could look like,” says Nike Sjölander.

“It opens many doors”

Mattai sees the benefits of networking with people from universities and companies.

“If you have a strong network, you can get a lot of help with what you want to achieve. We can get help with university applications, and if I want to start my own business, I now know who to ask for advice. It opens many doors,” says Mattai Kassabian.

Mattai and Nike both met Omar Abumaria from BCG. Omar himself was involved in building student engagement during his time at the Stockholm School of Economics. He has worked at BCG since he graduated and is now both an ambassador for F1RST and a representative for BCG. When asked why companies should participate in F1RST, he gives a big smile and explains that there is just so much to say on the matter.

“All companies should be involved in this, really. Society loses out if it fails to tap into the talent pool available in the suburbs and neighborhoods with big immigrant populations,” says Omar Abumaria.

It is all about democratization, he adds. Our society suffers from an information asymmetry, impacts all of us negatively. Some groups are unaware of the opportunities available to them compared to others.

“Second-generation immigrants who don't have parents with an academic background, for example. It's important that the business sector engage with young people early on to show what they have to offer. People like me can provide inspiration by showing that there are people with similar backgrounds in the business sector and share the stories of how we got here,” says Omar Abumaria.

“Diverse backgrounds are incredibly important”

Cecilia Steen, a service designer at SEB, also met with students at Tumba High School. She emphasizes the importance of bringing new perspectives into the business to better understand different target groups.

Since collaborating with F1RST, SEB has conducted workshops with young people and hosted interns who have helped design features for SEB's new app for children and youths. Many students at Tumba High School dream of working in banking, and Cecilia Steen hopes to present an attractive and inspiring workplace with a bright future.

“Our bank has gone through a transformation in the past 10-15 years. Nowadays, we are more like an IT company that has banking as its core business. You can sketch and design digital services, and you can do programming, in addition to all the other jobs that exist within the bank," says Cecilia Steen.

SEB is currently intensifying its effort to provide services for children and young people in order to meet challenges in a society that is becoming increasingly digitalized and where children are often excluded due to the lack of appropriate digital services. There is also much work to be done in terms of democratizing financial knowledge.

"The fact that we come from different backgrounds is incredibly important. It enriches the company as a whole. It should go without saying," says Cecilia Steen.

The first F1RST day has come to an end, and all the participants hope to see more events in the future. Institutes of higher learning need to increase their efforts to broaden student recruitment. It is not just about ensuring fair representation in higher education but also about enriching the learning environment with a diversity of perspectives and experiences.

To read more about F1RST and how to get involved in the initiative, read more on F1RST's website.

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