Raphael Mokades (Class of 1996)

Raphael Mokades (Class of 1996) has been working to increase diversity in elite professions and universities for nearly 20 years. His company, Rare Recruitment, works with over 80 of the world’s most prestigious employers, using a mix of innovative software and personal mentoring of candidates from under-privileged backgrounds. Raphael studied History at the University of Oxford and has also written for The Guardian, Times and Financial Times.

Is your work now set against the kind of privilege that you had yourself, in going to City of London School?

No - we are not looking to knock anyone down. I got straight As at A-level and I went to Oxford and I got a First. Someone like me is always going to get hired. Our product identifies pupils who got those grades from a less good school and highlights their achievement. If you are a brilliant pupil, you will probably get the same A level and GCSE results at your local state school. What our contextual recruitment software does is identify people who are borderline but who have a lot of potential. And maybe if you get two As and a B at CLS, personal circumstances aside, and if you get the same results and you live in care and you’re on free school meals and at a state school – the latter candidate, from the point of view of an employer, has more potential.

The issue with a kid that might not get hired is not that they aren’t privileged, it’s that they are borderline. So, it’s not an attack on privilege it’s more of an attack on people who are not that good!

Where does the stated aim of some Oxbridge colleges to include more state school pupils in their intake fit in?

The state-independent distinction is not one that we use in our products: what about the candidate at an independent school on a full bursary, on a low-income household, maybe from a very deprived area or background and maybe even only comes to City at 16? That kid is underprivileged, but they happened to get a two-year bursary to an independent school.

And there are a ton of state schools in this country full of privileged kids. Schools in Cambridge where the catchment area is full of families who work in the tech industry there - the socio-economic make up of those schools, those kids are very well-to-do. But there are also some areas of the country where there are still grammar schools, which - our research finds - are way less socially diverse than comprehensive schools. The pupils on a bursary at City of London School would come from a less advantaged background.

So, in our products we don’t use the state-independent distinction. I get why Oxbridge does. Mansfield College, Oxford, say, has done a lot of good work on inclusion, but you look into it and a lot of the state-school pupils going there are actually from quite privileged backgrounds and often from only certain parts of the country – not the Northeast, not mid-Wales, not Cornwall or the Isle of Wight for example.

The analysis we produce is more forensic and based on individual data.

Is your work all about disadvantages based on ethnicity?

There’s two different parts of the business. Firstly, the software that employers buy and use on everyone who applies to them. That can identify the AAB candidate from a school where the average was BBD. Then, we have the candidates who come on our books and with whom we work very closely. Anyone can apply. We use contextual data in deciding who to take on. The focus is generally on candidates with black heritage. Some programmes are for all non-white backgrounds. One programme is for anyone from a socially disadvantaged background. Everyone we work with uses the software as well.

We have a programme called Target Oxbridge, where we go out and recruit a cohort of black year 12s – all good GCSEs, about a third on free school meals, many at schools with no relationship or history with Oxbridge. We give those candidates a residential, access to tutors, visiting speakers, mock interviews. And when they come to apply to Oxbridge, they do it under their own steam and get in or not on their own merit – but we have prepared them properly for it. It’s the same with an elite employer – they pay us a subscription to find them candidates. They don’t pay us any more or less depending on how many they actually end up taking. Our job is to find the candidates and work with them to unlock their potential.

What are the soft skills these candidates don’t have that come more easily to people from a privileged background?

Well, one skill they do have is that they are all good at passing exams. But you can go all the way through the system without demonstrating the ability to think on your feet and then speak in a fluid and analytical way. Our education system stresses written ability. But most jobs – Law and the Bar being the most acute example – involve talking things through and not giving written answers. Those are skills you tend to be taught and to practice in more privileged educational environments.

There is a cultural lens on this as well: lots of Asian and African origin pupils come from an environment where they are encouraged to keep their head down and work hard and pass your exams. But in our system, that’s not enough. Rightly or wrongly: the great failing of our system is that it gives you characters who seem charismatic or quick on their feet but who may lack more substantial qualities. So maybe we overvalue that trait.

We passed on an employer’s feedback once to a young woman from a single parent family… she went for a job and the feedback was she scored low on something like ‘Intellectual Fluidity’. She said that was fair enough – she knew she was up against people who had sat around the dinner table discussing what was in the papers since they were five years old. So, we work with our candidates in that area. Some of them turn out to be brilliant at it and they just need to be given a chance. Some of them aren’t great at it. But if you don’t give them a chance you won’t know.

You can’t expect an employer to take a total chance on someone just because they are from a disadvantaged background. The employer needs some evidence that that candidate has some potential, something to work with.

A lot of ‘diversity warriors’ have told employers that they have got it all wrong, that they shouldn’t even look at exam results. But employers do see a correlation between good exam grades and the ability to process information quickly.

So, we are not here to challenge employers on what their requirements are. Maybe, we might talk about whether their needs are too dogmatic: is a 9 at Maths GCSE really a requirement, even if they have a PhD in Biochemistry? These are nuanced conversations we are looking to have, rather than just saying employers have got it all wrong and they shouldn’t judge by exam grades.

Maybe ‘non-privileged’ people look at Oxbridge or Law or Politics and think they are full of particular types of people they don’t want to spend time with… 

People do say: ‘Places like that aren’t for people like me.’ So when we take our candidates to Oxbridge for a residential we introduce them to black students who are already there. People like you can succeed in places like this.

I remember when I arrived at Oxford in the autumn of 1997 – my mum had been to university, I was quite confident, I’d had a gap year, been to a good independent school and I was at one of the least posh colleges. I was a bloke. And I turn up and I meet this guy from Eton, who’s turned up with a case of Bollinger and he thought he was in Brideshead Revisited. He was an absolute parody.

I was quite intimidated by him even with my background. But I went to my first JCR [students social] meeting and the Chair was this short, bespectacled chain-smoking bisexual British Asian woman, the total opposite of the Eton guy – and I thought if she can do it so can I. There’s something powerful in seeing role models.

Anyone can do it if they work hard enough. Yes, maybe it’s easier for the Eton guy – or maybe it’s not, because he’s arrogant and lazy and won’t do any work. I ran against him to be the first-year rep and I won. He assumed the world owed him. I worked hard at my campaign, and I beat him. A lot of what I have done in my life since was a reaction to meeting this guy. I learnt that hard work and organisation trumps privilege.

What was your first experience of work?

Not counting clearing snow and leaves from people’s drives and asking for a couple of quid? After I finished my A levels, I went and did a summer job at a charity. I was an admin assistant. I remember on my first day, my first boss said, ‘Never ever say when you will do something by. That way, you’ll never have any deadlines’. It was the worst advice I ever had! You want to build trust and get things done! We teach people the exact opposite now!

How did you come to be at City?

In my penultimate year at Primary School, my teacher suggested to my parents that they put me in for selective schools. I had an interview with Martin Hammond, the then-Head, in 1988-89 and he offered me a place on a half scholarship.



Which subjects and teachers most inspired you at City?

I loved History and I loved Mary Short, Gary Griffin, Lionel Knight as teachers. We had very good teachers in other subjects too – Jonathan Keates in English, Alastair Laidlaw in French; Tony Nelson in Design and Technology. Peter McDonagh was good in the Lower School.

Mr Dyke and Dr Short taught us to think. They were the two who most stressed independent thought. They ended up getting married.  Dr Short in particular taught us how to read a history book – which is not as simple as it sounds!

My experience of school got better as I went on. The Junior School was run by a man who was only interested in you if you were good at music. It was like something out of a Roald Dahl story. On the last day of term, he read out the class rankings in reverse order. This all made me miserable – but I guess it made me determined not to come 23rd in the class again!

By Sixth Form I thoroughly enjoyed it. And many of the boys who were miserable in those early years seem to have gone on to do very well later in life. In fact, of the 25 boys in the scholarship class, 23 ended up going to Oxford or Cambridge. And now I look for potential for a living, I would say that’s a pretty good ratio!

I still have a couple of school friends I am in touch with.

Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?

Oh – basketball and more basketball. I also lifted some weights to see if it would improve my basketball.

A lot of alumni say that City’s culture was nothing like the culture at other independent schools…

Oh no – absolutely not. I would say the culture at City was always competitive, irreverent, and fairly informal. In the Sixth Form there was a genuine atmosphere of intellectual curiosity in some if not all the classes. But it was totally different to some other independent schools – no-one at City thinks they have a God-given right to something; that sense of entitlement.

Which personal qualities have helped you make your business a success?

I enjoy building teams. I have been watching teams being built since I was very small: my father was a basketball coach; my mother was a theatre director. A lot of people have worked for me for over ten years. We have a really good team and a great culture. We have people who came to us as candidates and are now on our board.

I am really competitive, and I like to win and I recruit people who are similar. So we have an informal and friendly culture, but we are not relaxed in the slightest about whether our business is successful.

Something else that is important is a lack of greed. I don’t care if I get rich. I take my work seriously, but I have a balanced life. I own most of the shares. I mean, I am open to investment but really, I would prefer to be in control and be moderately successful instead of being wildly successful. Our turnover is still under five million after 20 years: our company is stable but it’s not Facebook or Tesla. I’m not a megalomaniac.