For our Sort Switch series, we'll be chatting to people from all walks of life about their experience switching careers.
We chatted to him about everything relating to his career change from being an investment banking trader to a teacher, his advice to others, and even the inspiration for his trademark waistcoat!
For those who don’t know you already, could you tell us a bit about yourself and some of the work you’ve done?
Before moving into education and media, I was an investment banking trader at Lehman Brothers, and then qualified as a Chartered Accountant at PwC. I also co-founded an educational social enterprise called OxFizz that supports students applying to university and we donated a million pounds to charity.
Since going viral on the BBC quiz show University Challenge, I have used my platform to become an advocate for education, maths and reading. I’m now an ambassador for charity National Numeracy (alongside Countdown’s Rachel Riley and Money Saving Expert’s Martin Lewis, Strictly dancer Katya Jones and Bake Off winner Peter Sawkins) and took on the role as the UK’s Libraries Champion from Stephen Fry & classicist Mary Beard. In the media, I have since presented two BBC road trip series of Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Guides and am a resident quiz expert on Channel 4’s The Answer Trap.
Bobby mentioned his education, moving from an East London state school at 16 after obtaining a scholarship to study at Eton. He described this as 'eye-opening'.
What made Eton an eye-opening experience?
For my peers in my state school, only a few of us went to the very best universities and accessed the most coveted graduate careers. However, for my peers at Eton, there was the expectation that you have to go to university, and a top one if you do. I think expectations help feed into a culture where people want to achieve. So whatever field you go into from Eton, you reach the top.
At my state school, the kids were equally as capable, but they just weren’t presented with the same opportunities. It's these opportunities that make the difference. That’s one of the reasons I set up the social enterprise OxFizz - there are students that are capable, but don’t necessarily have the support networks to get them to the top universities.
Could you tell us a bit more about OxFizz?
It was with a friend from my uni days at Oxford. At university, both of us were passionate about volunteering and supporting young people, tutoring students who were under 11 from disadvantaged communities (for free). Then after university, we knew that lots of people from underprivileged backgrounds were capable but didn't necessarily have the school support or the network to help them succeed, so we initially tried to support them on a pro-bono basis so they could apply to universities, giving them the lowdown on which universities accept different types of students, and how to complete the application process.
What was your first ever job?
I would have been 18 during my gap year - I worked for the accounting firm KPMG. My gap year was nine months earning money, which meant that university was comfortable financially because it meant I’d earned income. I combined that with a few months of education youth work in Scotland. So again, that’s always been my dream. I’ve always understood business and finance, but I’ve also always been drawn towards education.
Why did you decide to switch careers from trader to teacher, and when was the moment that sparked your decision to switch?
During my time at the accountancy firm PwC, I took time away from my regular client facing role to teach new graduates joining the firm. In this educational context, I found that I came to life and was really able to use a more rounded skillset. From my experience of being an educational social entrepreneur, I knew that I enjoyed delivering education. However, this teaching of new graduates confirmed that I could use my skills in a different direction.
I went to Cambridge University to train as a teacher, as well as completing my Masters. This then set in motion a new career path for me.
What skills did you transfer from your old job, and what skills did you need to acquire?
Finance requires being able to possess an eye for detail and this is something educators need, especially when dealing with the lives of so many individual learners and young people. As a teacher, I have formalised my skills of communicating to large audiences. This is something that has helped in my new media career, communicating complex ideas in a clear and engaging manner.
Was there ever a moment where you wondered if leaving the trading world was the wrong decision?
Chartered accountancy and investment banking are fields that when you get into your 30s, you could earn substantial six-figure (or even seven-figure) salaries! It’s a lot of money. I did have a lot to think about what my objective was in my career; it’s a perfectly acceptable desire to want to earn lots of income, because that’s the way the world works.
I enjoyed the money, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t, but I think I got a better kick from when I was helping other people. Again, when I was at PwC, I tutored new graduates joining the firm. And I enjoyed that more than anything I’d done in the corporate world. I don’t think I’d go back to it now, but I definitely enjoyed my corporate career - I’m glad I did it.
In fact, even if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have become a teacher at 22. The right thing for me was teaching once I’d done my corporate career, because then I can make the comparison between the two.
What have you learned from switching careers, and what would your advice be to Sort users who are considering a switch but are feeling nervous?
We live in a generation where there are new jobs and industries being created all the time. So be prepared to rethink how you consider your role in the world. Consult others who already are on the path you wish to join. I did this with both teaching and the media. You can learn valuable lessons and avoid some of their pitfalls.
It’s really important to get a mentor to get advice. If you’ve got a network, such as friends and family, that’s the first line of pursuing advice, but otherwise, even making speculative contacts on LinkedIn can be helpful. I always tell people who are 16-18 to set up a LinkedIn profile. Start putting out stuff that you’re doing, like any blogs you’ve written, and build up a profile, because what you’ll find is that there are lots of people out there who have achieved and have become successful in various career paths.
It’s really flattering to be asked to give advice to someone.
If you send a message to 10 people, nine of them might ignore you, or let’s say 100 people - 99 ignore you - but it only takes one person to say, ‘Actually, let’s have a chat.’ It requires a bit of bravery and courage, but you’ll find that there are a lot of people out there that actually do want to share your journey.
Also, by sharing your journey (as a mentor), mentors can start thinking about why they’ve taken their career path, and what they need to do to progress, because it makes them take a step back. Just be brave and ask people - and the worst they can say is ‘sorry, I can’t’.
To read about the power of mentors, click here.
What’s your goal at the moment and how will you celebrate when you achieve it?
I want to become someone who can influence education in the UK and beyond, especially with regards to maths and the power of reading. I want to write more books - non-fiction and fiction for children, as well as books for adults that make us think about modern Britain. And in the TV world, I want to continue to bring my brand of positivity to everything I do - perhaps taking on existing roles such as the presenter of University Challenge and creating new gameshows that I host.
I celebrate by watching my beloved West Ham football club!
What 3 words would describe your approach to your working life?
Who is one person who really inspires your approach to work and life?
In his early career, he missed a penalty, which cost England the possibility of winning the European Champions in 1996. But he used this to spur him on in his career, beginning with England in 2018. We beat Columbia in a penalty shootout, and England had lost every single penalty shootout in a World Cup before then.
What he did is he looked at systems and processes; he tried to look at the way in which we took penalties, recreating the penalty conditions and training, making sure players aimed for the same positions, that the goalkeeper had on his water bottle the names of every opposition player and where they typically take penalties. Rather than just relying on luck and how you feel, he had a proper process.
I think I’ve tried to channel that in my roles as a teacher and educator. Obviously, as a teacher you bring your flair and personality, but if you build in processes and systems, you can change things. He has a big emphasis on bringing young players through, and I’m a big believer in moving young people through education.
Funnily enough, for my typical public attire I always wear waistcoats, modelled from Gareth Southgate after 2018!
I actually took on Gareth Southgate in a quiz about football after winning Celebrity Mastermind (my topic was about England and world cups). Afterwards, I asked him what advice he would give young people. His advice was ‘Don’t compare yourself to others.’
What he meant by this was make yourself the best you can be. In our modern world, we’ve got Instagram and Tik Tok etc - use it for inspiration, but don’t use it to beat yourself up. I think he’s a really empowering role model, not just in football, but beyond.
Have you switched careers or know anyone who has? Get in touch with firstname.lastname@example.org - we'd love to hear from you!