Career Talk - Episode 9: Sarah Nantume

Transcript of podcast episode with alumni guest speaker, Sarah Nantume.

Podcast length: 35:02

Cate: Welcome everyone to this episode of Career Talk. My name is Cate Linforth, I’m the International Employer Liaison Officer here at Careers Network at the University of Birmingham. I am so excited because for this episode, we are joined by Sarah Nantume. Welcome, Sarah. 

Sarah: Thank you, so glad to be here.   

Cate: We're really, really glad to have you and I’m so excited for us to talk because, of all of the graduate career paths we've discussed on this podcast so far, yours is a little bit different. I’m really excited to hear a little bit more about your journey and what brought you to where you are now. With that in mind, would you mind just introducing yourself a little bit and telling us where you're from, what you studied at University of Birmingham and just briefly what you do now?   

Sarah: Sure, so I’m from Kampala, Uganda, my favourite place in the world. The UK is definitely my second home now. I came to the University of Birmingham in 2016 and I was doing the undergraduate law degree, specifically the senior status LLB, which just means that it's the same law degree, but its accelerated so you do it in only two years.  

After that, I did the legal practice course which is mandatory if you want to be a solicitor, which is the route that I was taking at the time. After that I went back to Uganda briefly, I got an offer there for a law firm that was ENSafrica. That was a really large law firm, there was over 600 lawyers. It was quite a little work, it was really busy. So I worked there for close to a year and I wanted to continue my further studies, so I wasn't sure, so I did a couple of courses online, and also revived a set of projects that I’d started while I was at the University of Birmingham with my co-founder and former classmate.    

After we went through our sets of projects, we were like, ‘oh we could probably apply for the Start Up Visa’ because before we left we had attempted to do that but they changed the rules. So we wanted to move forward with our start-up and we contacted University of Birmingham and we got all of what we needed. They really liked our idea and they endorsed it for the new will be Start Up Visa, and that's how I came back to the UK. While I was here, I still didn't want to let go of my career because I had sacrificed a lot in trying to be a legal professional, so I started applying for roles as well and right now I work as part of the legal operations team at LOD, which is a flexible legal services firm. We supplement in-house legal teams, so we handle the operations of processes behind the scenes of the legal work. So right now full-time I work as a legal operations professional, as well as in the start-up project full-time.   

Cate: Wow it sounds like you have a lot on your plate right now. Can you tell me a little bit more about your start-up and how did you come up with the idea, and what is the business, what do you do?   

Sarah: How we think the idea was that when we were at the University of Birmingham, I think, at the end of first year, there was this thing that they used to have called the Birmingham Project, I’m not sure if it’s still there. So we had to build an app or use a technological solution to solve real world problems. Basically use an app or website to address some of the problems that we face in the world today. We were working on something different back then because the project they gave us were the titles we could work on or what problems we could solve. By the end of it, we were able to build an app ourselves. After I was done, I started getting interested into what it takes to build an app and the other problems that happened around this that could probably be solved by tech.    

Initially it started as a travel app because me and my co-founder were really passionate about travel. But then, when COVID happened, we were like ‘hmm probably not the best idea’. And then we noticed that besides how scary COVID was in the beginning, there's still some people who are moving about, and it was people who had to relocate for work or go back to their home country. For some people it was mandatory for them to move regardless, so we started thinking about the relocation space, and we also reflected on our own experiences moving to the UK, and how it was hard to sort out a few of the things that seem so simple, just knowing what a postcode is and knowing were to pick up your BRP, how to use the tube and the train and getting to London. So that’s what formed the idea of our start-up. We wanted to be able to help people have better settlement experiences when they relocate to the UK specifically, and that’s what we do now.   

Cate: That's so helpful. You touched on this, but as international students you have the experience and you have that first-hand experience of what you wish you had and what services are already offered, whether it's through the university or through organisations, or easily found online and what's a little bit trickier to find. I’m from the US originally and I moved over to do my undergraduate degree in the UK. I think had there been something like that, I would have found it really helpful because, like you say, it's the little differences, like what is a postcode and how do you take the train. I grew up in an area where we didn't really have a lot of public transport, so that was all really new to me, so it sounds like it's a really worthwhile app.    

I think so much of our lives now revolves around travel and so much of what we do as a society involves a global experience, whether it's working with colleagues or traveling for work or relocating to a different country, I mean everyone has some form of a global experience, so I think it's really relevant as well.    

Can you just tell me a little bit about how it's gone with getting your visa? How did you find that process? I understand that you worked with the B-Enterprising team, how did you find that visa process, what was tricky about it, was it easier than you expected or more difficult than you expected?   

Sarah: Good question. We started from way back in 2017 when we realised we wanted to stay in the UK because of the opportunities. We were taken aback by the fact that we could even build an app ourselves, as there’s experts that do this. So back then, we wanted to do the start-up idea, and so we went to B-Enterprising to have a look at our idea, to have a review to get their thoughts of what they think, if it meets the criteria for the start-up visa. Everything went well, they accepted it, and all we had to do was wait for the endorsement, the government was doing updates in the start-up visa. Unfortunately for us, just when we were about to apply, it was stopped because they were making changes to the visa. This was about a week before we applied. That's when I went back home.    

So when we wanted to apply the second time, when we wanted to revive the start-up project, we contacted B-Enterprising again and they had these really useful workshops where they would go through the criteria and how you meet the criteria, and what support is there to help its application, what kind of businesses get in the door. So we attended that in January, I think they had other sessions in April as well. But the next application period, they do this twice a year, it was either January or July. So January was too close at the time so we opted to give time to build our idea and apply in July. So for that we needed to submit an application to the B-Enterprising team. Once that was submitted, we had an interview in about three weeks, they invited us for an interview, so it was just to ask us about our business basically. Then within the next two weeks, they were excited to endorse us for a visa, and they also encouraged us to apply for other programmes that could potentially support us, incubator programs as well. So we were able to successfully apply for that.    

With regard to the visa, all we needed was to use the endorsement letter to submit that to the visa office, but it was pretty straightforward. It was not as expensive because the requirement was about £1000 in your bank statement, so it was fairly not too expensive. Also the NHS searches, overall it was about, I would say less than £5000 overall. So I think the process easier.   

Cate: What a relief as well, I mean it sounds like it was quite stressful at the beginning, the first time around when you went to apply for it. I can imagine that the second time when it was relatively straightforward, and you got the support that you needed from the institution and the government approved the visa relatively quickly without any hiccups, it sounds like that would have been a huge relief.  

Talk to me a little bit about the incubator program, what was the process involved with that?    

Sarah: Okay, so for the incubator program, for the first time, the university was having an incubator to help early-stage businesses realise their potential. So by providing support in terms of mentoring, workshops and access to networks within the community, access to other specialists programs. Basically, support to help your business grow. With that also there was opportunity to apply for a scholarship of about £15,000, which was a grant to help your business grow. So yes, it was all this support.  

The incubator had all the support that was necessary to build your programme because at first it was scary, we were like ‘oh my, we are going to have to do this alone. We don't know enough about registering the company and having to put it up and being caught up in legal requirements. We were worried, but they've been supportive all the way and they do have regular meetings to check up on us, which has been great. We’re able to also meet our visa compliance requirements. So it's helping us keep on top of things and it's a really amazing programme. The applications, I think, are open for a certain period of the year so we just applied and had an interview and that was it.    

Cate: That's fantastic, and I’d imagine deciding to move more permanently after your studies back to the UK and working here and starting a business and making sure that you're compliant with all of the requirements of the visa and registering your company and all the legal requirements that come with starting a business. Those are all of the hard things that come after the idea, so I imagine having that support has been a bit of a relief to help make sure that you're on top of things and that you guys are falling down the right path, you're not missing any big deadlines and you're doing things in the right way to make sure that your company is able to grow and start off on those good foundations.   

Sarah: I just want to also add that I think the biggest benefit has been the fact that there's a whole community because there’s also 30 other businesses. So sometimes I call it like therapy sessions, you talk to someone else who's in the same position as you, and you’re like ‘I’m struggling with this’ and people are like ‘me too’, but then we come up with ideas and how to help each other or maybe they've already gone through so we are able to share resources among each other.  

Cate: That's really nice to have to have that community of peers who are in the same or at least a very similar situation and a similar timeline that you can help each other and learn from each other's experiences is fantastic.    

So you're doing all of this whilst working a job on top of that as well, is that right?    

Sarah: Yeah, yeah.  

Cate: How do you find the juggle? I mean normally at this point, I would ask you how you find the transition from university to work, but you've not only transitioned from university to work life, but you've also transition from university to work life to moving country again and starting a business. So how do you manage all of that workload?   

Sarah: That’s a really great question because it's definitely not been easy. I would say, for example, my first job was the typical legal role working so many hours, it was really busy, working on weekends, I had no time for other things. I was able to move away from that into a role that sort of suits this lifestyle so I’m able to still achieve my legal dreams, in my legal operations role. It doesn’t really have any overtime and I work from home and it's quite flexible. When I was seeking the role, my non-negotiable was that I needed the flexibility and I needed to be able to cut off from work at the same time. So that has really been a plus, I’m still able to develop that side of my career as well as working the business. It's also flexible, we’ve managed to build systems and put systems in place where we work remotely so we use an online tool for collaborating online and so we're able to keep up on top of each other's tasks, so it's hectic but it's very important for me to have a work life balance.    

I always try to squeeze time and lucky enough with three co-founders we are able to fill in for each other when the other doesn't have time. So we just managed to create time, it's just about managing and prioritising.    

Cate: I think that's such a good point, because I think it's a tricky transition to go from studying to a full time job, but then also when you have several different priorities within your working environment and whether it's different projects that you're working on, or in your case different companies, it's really important to be able to manage your time and juggle. You’re no longer just focusing on one end goal in the same way that you are when you're studying full time.   

Whilst you were at Birmingham studying, was there a particular type of law that you wanted to go into? Did you have a very defined career path that you dreamed of or were you more exploring your options, I know that typically law students go into the field of law but were you exploring your options in terms of what type of legal work you wanted to do or was there one specific area within the legal sector that you had your heart set on?   

Sarah: To be honest, I didn't have my heart set out on anything specific. So that's why I applied to loads, because I heard that you could specialise in different things that you wanted, like medical law or human rights law or company law, which wasn’t the case but at the time that was the advice that I got. When I went into university I thought human rights, it would probably be human rights law that I wanted to do, but when I did the classes, it was just political. I just wanted to help people, I really do want to, you know. It was different but I've always wanted to do business from as long as I could remember so I easily caught on with more of the commercial law modules, the company law modules, those were my favourite, it was like natural for me. So I focused on that when I also did my legal practice, I picked specifically company related modules.    

Cate: It's no secret that a legal profession, especially with regard to company, corporate law is incredibly taxing from a time and energy standpoint.   

So when you were when you were studying for your LPC and looking at your options and I’m guessing looking into different training contracts and opportunities, at that point were you considering staying in the UK or were you always hoping to move back to Uganda?   

Sarah: Okay, so when I did the LPC the tricky part was at the time, we had to apply for a training contract. That was in 2019 but the training contract started in 2021 so there was that gap that I wasn't able to account for and would potentially cause visa problems. Besides that, I don't think I was determined enough to stay, I’ll be very honest I think I made like one, two or three job applications. Even if I got to the next phase I just wasn't as determined to get to the point, because I hadn't been home in a long time so I had an option. So I was still weighing my options and so when it didn't work out here, I didn't really push for it, I just said okay I’ll go back home. But then I went back home and I realised how much had changed and how I was used to a different life now and I was like ‘this is probably not going to work, I have to go back’.   

Cate: Did you did you experience some of that reverse culture shock when you returned home?    

Sarah: 100%.   

Cate: We talk a lot about that within Careers Network with international students, everyone is prepared for the culture shock of moving to the UK or maybe not prepared for it, but at least aware that it's going to happen. But then you spend an amount of time in the UK, whether that's three years on an undergrad or four years, certainly for some students you do either a foundation and an undergrad or an undergrad and postgrad, and then you plan to return home and you think ‘oh well, I’ll just slip back into my life as it was before’, but the problem is with that is that things have changed while you've been away but also you've changed, your perspective has changed, what you're used to has changed, you have had different experiences and they all shape who we are and it's very difficult to just pick up where you left off. I think that sometimes can be quite shocking for some students who are looking to return home after their studies, so did you experience that?   

Sarah: I experienced it in 101 ways! Back home people are like more calm, if you’ve noticed I talk really calm. So in Uganda, it is pretty much like everybody is on a holiday so just moving and getting things done takes time so I found that particularly irritating because I was just now used to making sure things were done within a day or making sure things are as efficient as possible. I remember at work, you could get something sent online but they still wanted the traditional walking into someone’s office and getting it done there which I found so exhausting. And the other little things like being able to order Amazon Prime and get it that day, everything was just different, the customer service. The food’s better back home but then again I think I miss things that are here in the UK and not in Uganda, because it’s a landlocked country and there’s no seafood.    

In terms of dealing with people it was also different, like I was used to being like ‘hi this’, ‘hi that’ and back home it’s so official, it’s like ‘dear Mr this and this’.   

Cate: It sounds like it's a tricky adjustment and I think when you factor that into starting your first job out of university as well, not only that transition to work, but also that transition to just being back in a different country and that reverse culture shock is a lot to contend with.   

Tell me a little bit about your time at Birmingham, you mentioned you did the Birmingham Project were you involved in any societies or did you engage with any careers type activities besides the Birmingham Project?   

Sarah: Oh yeah I took everything I could. I’ll just start with part-time roles because they're really useful as well. So we have Worklink and they used to send out opportunities to work part-time at the café, at different events that the university had. That was really great in terms of meeting new people and new friends around you and getting to know what it’s like, like the UK work culture.    

Besides that, in terms of support for long term professional career goals, we had a lot of career workshops, there were so many. I attended everything but I can’t remember now. We used to have employers come to university and have talks with us. Those were really good because we could have one on one sessions and ask them, get the actual insight about the companies, create networks. We also had job fairs so yeah besides the freebies, those were really great.    

Cate: Those networking events, I think, are really beneficial because whether you go into the field that you're hoping to go into during your studies or whether you go into something else or like you, whether you start a business and continue on in the field that you are studying, that networking experience is so crucial. It gives you an opportunity to learn more about different people, learn how to meet different people and talk to lots of different types of people, learn how to engage with everyone and level with people from lots of different areas and within that hierarchy of companies as well, which I’m guessing you do quite well, both in your legal career, but also, when you're starting a business you need to be able to talk to lots of different people to pitch your company and get funding and network as well. So I’d imagine that was really helpful for you. 

Sarah: Yeah definitely helpful. We also did have an Impact Internships which I thought were really great where we would help an under sourced company or small community company to rethink their strategy. 

We were like we’re so young to do this, but it was exciting the ideas we came up with because, for example, they needed help with marketing, but they were not in tune with like social media things like that. So yeah that was also cool. So we had like a variety of things that we could get involved in. 

Cate: Sounds like a lot of the experience you had whilst you were at University of Birmingham, in terms of your career experience and whether it was through the college or the law school or through Careers Network central activities, sounds like you had a lot of opportunity to develop your career skills and develop a lot of insight into how businesses run and how work culture is in the UK, and those are all things that I’m sure you're probably taking with you as you start up your company now.  

It has been so interesting to learn about your career journey because, whilst I know that you have loads of career ahead of you, you have a really fascinating pathway so far and we don't talk to many people who have started their own company, and certainly not those who have started their own company whilst working in their area that they studied as well. It's really fascinating to hear your story.  

Before you go, I just have one more question for you, if that's okay. If you could give advice to any current University of Birmingham students who are in the position that you were in when you were studying as maybe international students or students who are in a similar situation to what you were in of how to either make the most of their time at Birmingham or make the most of their time in the UK, either professionally or personally for personal development, what advice would you give to current students? 

Sarah: Definitely, if you’re new definitely make friends because you definitely need that support going forward. For some of the things and opportunities that have made me who I am, it was a friend who pointed out to me so I was glad we had that. Or if you’re not able to attend class, you’re able to ask someone. Friends are a really big deal because the support you have makes who you are. 

The other most important is to make sure you find the balance in terms of your careers goals, your studies and also having a life, because when you’ve just joined university try and find out how to apply for jobs. For example, start applying for jobs straight away if you can because you get to know in terms of how to perform at interviews and at the same time you still have to be able to be on top of your work because they’ll obviously look at that. At the same time, you have to be able to live your life so find the balance but don’t wait too late. Don’t wait until third year to start applying for jobs. I think that would be a major point. For example, I’d never failed any assessment, but it was always hard for me to go beyond the interview stage, but the more interviews I did, the better I got at it because I started early on. 

Cate: That's such a key point of advice is to start early because so many people wait until their final year or, their final semester in their final year, and then we tried to give them advice and we try to help with different opportunities, and then they find out about all of the opportunities that they could have engaged with us in or all of the things that they could have done either earlier in the year or in previous years. I think sometimes there's that little bit of regret that they didn't engage more. 

The students that do start from an early point in their university career are much more in tune with what the process is and like you say, the more interviews you do the better you get at it. It's the same with networking, it's the same with any of these new skills that we're expected to have when we finish university. The more you do them, the better you get at them so it's good to have that practice whilst you're studying. But at the same time, your studying is the key reason why you came to University of Birmingham. You can't forget that life experience as well, because our life experience and our support network and the social experiences we have, and the people that we surround ourselves with help shape who we are and help mould us into the people that companies will hire anyway. So, all three of those elements are really crucial to your experience, your life experience as well, so I think that's a really good point. 

Sarah, it has been absolutely lovely talking to you. Thank you so much for your time. We wish you all the best with your venture and your legal career as well, but we're really excited to keep tabs on you and see how things are going, and we really appreciate your time. 

Sarah: Thank you so much for your time, thank you for having me. If anyone wants to reach out, they can contact me on LinkedIn or they could follow Maze if they need help with settling experiences that they need sorted out in the UK. 

Cate: Definitely, I will for sure, be recommending Maze to anyone that I know that moves over! Thank you very much for your time.  


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