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Nicole Giantonio: Hello, this is Nicole Giantonio with the Head of Global Marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you’re about to hear is part of our expert series featuring Elevate President John Croft talking with the CEO and Founder of the 93% Club, Herbert Smith Freehills’ associate, Sophie Pender. Sophie describes her background, education experience and the work of the 93% Club to clear a path for legal professionals from non-traditional social-economic backgrounds.
John Croft: Sophie, very nice to see you and thank you very much for joining today. A lot of the people I’ve spoken to have covered topics that are very obvious in law, and what I mean is you walk into an office, you walk into a law firm or a law department, and you can immediately see the sort of gender or racial mix in the room, good or bad, but one of the things that aren’t immediately noticeable when you meet somebody is their socio-economic background, so I was really fascinated by you and your story, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your background and kind of what you hear today?
Sophie Pender: Yeah, of course. So, I am Sophie, the CEO and Founder of the 93% Club, and I’m also a trainee lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills, although I qualify on Monday, so I can start calling myself a lawyer.
JC: Congratulations, that’s fantastic.
SP: Thank you. I’m excited to be able to say, “Okay, now I’m not a Bachelor lawyer now, I’m not a trainee lawyer, not a baby lawyer.” Over the last 25 years, I’ve had some incredible experiences; I have been to the House of Commons, I’ve been to the House of Lords, Downing Street, and I’ve presented on behalf of charities for fundraisers. I’ve travelled a lot through my work, so I just came back from my traineeship in Dubai. Day-to-day, I get to work with some of the world’s largest and most significant companies, I get to work with incredibly bright people, but I also spend time with people who have been dealt a very good hand in life, they were raised with nannies, supported by their parents, they went to top private schools, seem to speak several languages, and have several sports and hobbies under their belts.
These people are some of my closest friends, and it’s interesting talking about our respective backgrounds because it seems like they always knew where they were going to end up, and if you didn’t, you were doing something wrong. That was an interesting learning curve for me, and I think on the surface, I would come across as one of these people. I liked to think I’m relatively well-spoken; I’ve obviously got an incredible career; I went to Bristol University. I didn’t grow up that way; I was never someone who was expected to achieve any of these things. So, in terms of my upbringing, I was born in Edgware, North London, and I was born into a council estate called Grahame Park, where I lived with my mum and my dad. My mum is the youngest of 14 children, and my dad was from a similarly large family split between the UK and Ireland.
Both families very much had a traditional idea of what children should be doing with their lives. My mum was encouraged, aged 16, to leave school and get a job. She wanted to become an air hostess, but my nan just said they could not afford the books, you’re going to have to just go and get a job like the rest of your siblings. My dad had a very similar upbringing, I think he was kicked out when he was a lot younger before he met my mum. They both lived in a bedsit where the toilet was in the same room as the bed. My mum especially describes having an incredibly happy childhood but never really had a lot of resources, and then my dad was a lot more complicated as an individual because of everything that happened to him growing up; he developed a problem with alcoholism, and he had a drug addiction, and as a result of that, we were obviously quite poor, he was in and out of prison because of this, and it made him incredibly volatile as an individual.
I loved him very much, didn’t blame him for these things, you can’t blame people for sicknesses like this. When I was growing up, I very much remember things like having to fill up bathtubs with kettles because it was a cheaper way of doing things, or you had to put extra layers of clothing on when things would get cold. Despite all of this, I worked incredibly hard at school. The school was like a safe space where if a teacher told me that I was doing well, it was like the best pat on the head imaginable. I loved it, and I kind of felt like nothing could touch me within those four walls, but then when I was 12, I guess just to round off this chapter in my life, my dad passed away after his various issues, so that chapter was closed in my life and as bleak as it sounds, I was kind of ready to not have that hanging over me and just move on. I became the first person in my school to get three A stars, and I did this whilst balancing a job at McDonald’s and John Lewis. Then I got a spot at Bristol to study English. So, I guess that’s a bit about my background.
JC: That is amazing; what extraordinary strength you’ve shown through that period in your life. I’m delighted; it’s ended up where it has here with you in the job you’re doing. And if that’s your background, it might be obvious, but we also have a global listenership here. So, I know what the 93% Club stands for. Many people don’t. Would you like to talk a little bit about what that is and how you came to start that?
SP: The 93% Club, a nationwide student charity in the UK, supports state school students at university. And it came to be because when I was in my second year of university, I had enough, to be honest. So, I went to Bristol and was very excited, but within the first week, I realised that the university wasn’t necessarily this community of like-minded individuals interested in higher education. It was, to an extent, but mostly it was an extension of what we already have in the UK, which is the private-public school system. And I thought it was weird because, in my first week, everyone would say, “Oh, nice to meet you. What school did you go to?” And I’d think, “They’re not going to know what school I went to.” But what I realised was there are ten or so top schools, where if you say one, you’re going to know someone who went there, or their brother went there. It was I think my first experience of realising that people in the UK do judge others on the basis of their financial circumstances or their upbringing.
I remember people used to say to me, “Are they of good stock?” And I thought, “I have no idea what that means.” And I Googled it, and then I realised that it was referred to cattle or something, and it’s all to do with your upbringing and how you were reared. It was my first time experiencing this, and I think it just got worse and worse, to a stage where I felt incredibly lonely. I felt completely disconnected from myself as a person. I didn’t really know who I was anymore. I changed my accent a lot; my accent now is a lot more refined than it used to be. I took stuff out on finance because my phone wasn’t good enough, my laptop wasn’t good enough. And all these things I felt so pressured into because of how I was treated by students who had gone to certain schools.
At the time, I didn’t really feel like I was supporting those from working-class backgrounds or state schools. They were very hot on the other D&I fronts; as you’ve noticed, socio-economic status has been left out for a long time. I’m a working-class woman. I can find no support for being a woman. The disadvantages that I’m seeing in my life right now is stemming from my socio-economic background. So why is there no support for me in that? That’s when I founded the 93% Club, because I thought, firstly, I need some mates. The term, the ‘93% Club’ comes from the fact that 93% of the UK population is educated at state schools. So, when you compare that figure to the stats when it comes to how many say “educated individuals” are actually in law, medicine, journalism, it makes it all the more stark.