Bernt Blankholm, CEO, Highered, Norway
Highered is the global strategic partner of EFMD, an international network of business schools and companies at the forefront of raising the standards of management education globally. The PIE News spoke with CEO and co-founder Bernt Blankholm about the development of the business, and the growth of virtual career fairs.
The PIE: Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into the education sector?
Bernt Blankholm: I have my feet in two camps. I have one in sports because I grew up competing in several sports, and one in HR. I got into the industry in 2008 when I was approached by a client in the ski boot store that I started – he was the CEO of a company now called Keystone Academic Services.
So, I was in on commercialising and taking that company global – that’s what reluctantly got me into the industry. And it’s quite funny because I thought the education industry? Sounds boring!
“We’re the only global platform, there are lots of local ones, but no one is really global”
They said no, Google is coming, and the students are searching online for good programs, and we can make money on placing them in schools. So, I got intrigued by the digitalisation, and I immediately fell in love with the education industry because you work with smart people.
The PIE: How did you come up with the idea to start Highered?
BB: I was at an annual conference at Vienna University in 2014, listening to a talk by Tracey Horn of Cambridge Judge Business School. She talked about the challenges for business schools going forward, and digitisation of careers was one topic.
And because I had been working in the HR industry with application tracking systems and consulting for quite a few companies, I went ‘huh. I could do that.’ That was the beginning of Highered. So funnily enough, I know exactly when I got the idea – it was 11:10am on June 16, 2014.
The PIE: How do you explain what Highered does?
BB: It’s a virtual platform with end to end solutions, connecting a recruiter directly with talent anywhere in the world.
Right now, we work with all the EFMD member schools, which is 681. So, we started with introducing this to management schools – we work with London Business School, INSEAD, IMD, China Europe International Business School – we have schools in 91 countries.
We’re also the only global platform, there are lots of local ones, but no one is really global. That is the power of the EFMD network.
There are some players in the market that’s been around for 15 to 20 years that are still struggling to get over 200 schools. And we have like 600 in one go.
The PIE: How did you manage to get 600 schools on board?
BB: When the school dean stands behind something, things happen quite quickly – it’s all about getting buy-in from the dean! Also, EFMD is a membership network, so all the decisions are made by the members. And when they said, ‘Highered is going to be our trusted exclusive partner on virtual recruitment’, we were immediately on board.
The PIE: Why was there a need for a company like Highered?
BB: Well, career services and career days haven’t really changed since the 1970s. You have companies coming to campus, spending enormous amounts of money and time going from campus to campus, hoping to find the right CV.
The system is unsustainable, and this is what caught my attention as a recruiter. So, we developed this digital platform.
Then Covid-19 hit, and everybody had to change – you can’t go to campuses anymore. You can’t invite companies for speeches. You can’t gather a large group of students. The old model is done. And the surveys that we did with the schools show that it’s not going back either.
“Covid-19 hit, and everybody had to change”
The PIE: How did Covid-19 impacted the launch of your first global careers event?
BB: Here in Norway, we’ve been super lucky [during Covid-19] due to some very clever government moves. So we’re happy about that.
But when everything shut down the second week of March, we worked around the clock to organise our first global careers event, and no one had done this because there wasn’t anyone with a global set of schools in the network.
In less than a week, we developed a virtual career fair. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we basically trusted the parachute and jumped, and the result was absolutely amazing.
I was just looking at it and going, ‘oh my God, no one’s going to go back to the way it was before’. So it’s a true, true gamechanger. A real paradigm shift.
The PIE: Will virtual fairs be the future of recruiting students?
BB: It will be the future of recruiting, and not just for schools but for any industry. I think there are two things that impact recruitment: the cost to hire and the time to hire.
If a company is going to do a full graduate program tour like the MBA tour, where you go to school after school with large teams of people, and you have a line of students that you hope will still be standing in line in 45 minutes to give you a CV – then at the end of the day, you have 20 CVs and maybe you can use two – it costs a fortune.
The PIE: How is your platform changing this?
BB: We looked at companies like big multinationals, and from the day they started until they gave the offer was nine months. With our digital platform last year, before the virtual recruitment platform was launched, we were able to reduce that from nine to six months. And now those companies basically can do their graduate outreach in eight hours.
The other thing is we are levelling the playing field for business schools and students. A lot of the big banks and consulting companies like McKinsey, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley have their core schools, but we think that will change.
“Virtual fairs will be the future of recruiting, and not just for schools but for any industry”
The reason they have picked their core schools is resources. They don’t have the people to travel around. They look at the Financial Times rankings, pick 20 and say ‘we’ll find what we need’.
Now, if you’re a student at a small school, you’ll still have the same opportunity as London Business School because the company is not limited to its core schools anymore, at least within our network.
I think that’s super important; we’re helping students around the world finding their dreams without being limited by a company. I think the virtual part will also give the opportunity to the smaller, more exciting companies that can also come on-board.
The PIE: But on the other hand, there have been a lot of hiring freezes during Covid-19. How has that impacted your business?
BB: It’s a good point, and I think it’s like if we were to start a new initiative in the company at the worst possible time in modern history, we did it. I mean, starting something new, getting people to hire, attending career fairs in April… you would have to be crazy to think that would work. But we did it and it worked.
Yes, we have seen that there are some industries hit really badly, but there are some industries that are not, so far. We just need to funnel the companies and industries that are hiring. You have banks, you have insurance, you have fast-moving consumer goods that are hiring a lot.
The first and foremost search for a graduate is that they’re looking for a job in their field. They don’t generally care so much about the sector or the company. If you have studied marketing, you’re looking for a marketing job, and the industry or company is secondary, especially in these times.
The PIE: What’s next for the company
BB: We are starting the fall series. We’re going to have a fair starting on September 15, running until Thanksgiving. And we already have over 150 companies involved and 2,000 recruiters.
“This is going to be the biggest virtual career show ever made”
This is going to be the biggest virtual career show ever made. We have 120 schools attending so far, and most likely 250-300 will give access to their talent in the fall.
You cannot do this school by school. If every school were to organise their own virtual fair, we’re back to the 1970s.
We had 25,000 students attending virtual fairs in 72 hours, resulting in 35,000 applications at a conversion rate of 35%. You never see anything like this on LinkedIn. You might have 2% applications on a job you post or on a school job board. So, this just made things way more effective overnight.