Written by
Tom Ritchie

Published
10 Apr 2018

Giving matchmaking a head start

10 Apr 2018 • by Tom Ritchie

Young entrepreneur and Headstart CEO Nicholas Shekerdemian is matching candidates with employers using machine learning, and supporting equal opportunities for all. 

What does Headstart do?

Using machine learning, Headstart is a platform that helps candidates find the job they love, and helps recruiters to find the right talent for them

Why did you found the business?

 I knew the student recruitment market pretty well from my own experiences. I studied Chinese at Oxford, and spent a year in China as part of my studies, where I started my first business, an online tutoring service for foreign students to improve their English.

I came back to university life, where my friends were applying for internships and graduate jobs. Everyone was applying for the same jobs at the same companies, based on the expectation of what these businesses were looking for, rather than truly representing themselves. That struck me as strange when there were so many amazing opportunities better suited to these candidates.

What are young candidates looking for in today's job market?

The past has always been about looking at a few data points on a CV: experience, qualifications and interests. Companies should be thinking more holistically and inclusively about what ‘good’ looks like.

Every organisation has to have an employee value proposition (EVP) – maybe it used to be career progression and pay, but now there’s a massive swing toward societal impact. People want to know what your organisation is about and that you’re genuine.

Organisations are trying to engage with millennials by throwing some shiny new toy into the process, for example, virtual reality or gamification. Young people care about getting value in the process, be it results, feedback or ultimately a job. They’re also used to having things instantly, so they don’t want to wait months to hear back from you. 

How do you aim to create equal opportunities for every job seeker?

Self-selection is a major issue – especially for diversity and inclusion. To be transparent and openminded, businesses need to be upfront about what they want. Do you want someone who can come in and do the job from day one? Or who will stay at the company for the next five years and grow? Few organisations can define what they want in a data-driven way.

On the flip-side, we have very little data supporting young people’s career decisions. If you don’t know what you want to do, and go to a careers advisor or to your mum and dad, you end up going for the same job as everyone else. Every career site says the same thing: ‘We’re a great company, we’ll pay well, you’ll have a great career trajectory’. Employers need to do more with their brand to attract specific people, and data will be key to that.

How can machine learning address unconscious bias?

The removal of unconscious bias in recruitment is pretty much impossible – regardless of how good the technology is.

When we look at what ‘good’ means for an organisation – we don’t actually look at much historic data. We create a questionnaire that is consistent across the company, that we ask hundreds if not thousands of employees to complete, and crowdsource the data. Rather than just looking at what would go on a candidate’s CV, we look at hundreds of data points, including what motivates employees.

We then add a second level of algorithm to remove opportunity related data from the process. So ethnicity, gender and where you grew up are removed. This allows us to point to where biases may lie in a process. It’s about allowing companies to see where the bias is, rather than removing it. 

How can young people and businesses benefit from the disruption tech brings? 

When you’re young, there’s little risk in doing what you want to do. Try things – many of us have creative ideas but very few have the risk appetite to make them happen. What are you going to lose?

Organisations – especially big multinationals – move slowly. That’s a fact. I would say spend money on an innovation arm, explore having separate units that can work on your cool ideas. Big companies tend to buy smaller businesses that are doing innovative work, and struggle to integrate them. Senior leadership have to ask: do we want to build? Or buy? 

What skills are the most important for people entering the jobs market?

We are in a period of change. Skills required today might not be needed in 2025. Obviously candidates entering roles in medicine, law and tech will need a base understanding, but most people will be learning on the job for most of their career.

If I was speaking to a 12 year-old, I would tell them to learn how to code. Technology coding is the best form of social mobility we have right now. The barrier to entry is not that large, all you need is access to a computer, and with free learning on the internet you open yourself up to opportunities. The demand for coding is never going to stop.  

What advice would you give to those job-hunting or starting a business? 

Ask for help. A turning point in our business trajectory was when I started reaching out to people. You’ll be surprised how many people will reply when you send a personal email with specific questions.

Every person you meet on your path is invaluable. Don’t assume that someone with a shiny job title is more helpful than your mate.