Director of Product Apolitical
Ella Mae’s career has already taken her to sub-Saharan Africa to investigate modern day slavery and to Berlin to work on a start-up called Apolitical, where she now has opportunities to interact with some of the world’s brightest minds in government. She tells us about her school – which was put on Ofsted special measures – and the role that hustling plays…
Tell us about your background
I grew up in a small town in West Sussex, where I was one of seven children. My parents didn’t attend university themselves but they surrounded me with books and supported me when it became clear that I was academic.
The school I attended was always under pressure and it didn’t have the best reputation. The staff were over-worked and the situation was challenging. It was eventually put on Ofsted special measures, and after my GCSEs I went to a sixth form in another county so I could do all the A levels I wanted.
The difference was stark. There I was one of few who had come from a less privileged background and I think this was what led one amazing teacher to recognise my ambition – and my background – and they suggested I apply for the Sutton Trust’s Summer School.
What was your experience as a Sutton Trust student?
I had never been to Oxford before, nor anywhere particularly like it. When I arrived in the city it was a little overwhelming – and so beautiful it was like something out of a storybook.
It was the mock tutorial that proved a turning point and made me truly want to go there. The way Oxford approached learning was completely new to me and transformed my attitude to education. It wasn’t like how we were taught at school where it was understandably quite structured and focused on getting you through the system. We were encouraged to think critically, and the questions were big and existential – more so than anything I’d been asked before.
After the programme, how did your career develop?
I attended Oxford the next year to study history, partly due to my growing interest in international relations. I was in an excellent college which wasn’t at all stuffy, and I got to meet so many amazing people.
Studying at Oxford was a brilliant, eye-opening experience, but when I graduated my path was not at all clear! Paid work in human rights – where I wanted to be – is hard to come by, and I didn’t have the luxury of years working unpaid. I moved to Barcelona and lived with my cousin as her nanny whilst volunteering for the United Nations volunteering service. After writing forty letters seeking paid work in non-profits, I was offered a position at the Walk Free Foundation as a research assistant. I was hungry and I wanted to prove myself, which meant I got promoted quickly.
I then moved to Washington DC where I worked for the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, and was fortunate enough to be put on field investigations in sub-Saharan Africa, investigating cases of child labour, sex trafficking and indentured servitude. I realised that I wanted to move from working for a NGO to developing policy, as it became clear that government is where the real decisions get made.
It was then that I met two of the most impressive women I had ever known, Robyn Scott and Lisa Witter. They wanted to set up a company – Apolitical – which would connect governments around the world to the best ideas, people and partners in order to solve the hardest policy problems in the world.
They asked me to join them and help set up the company, which meant moving to Berlin, a city I’d never been to, taking a big pay cut, and teaching myself all kinds of new skills – from coding to product design. The risks were high but I realised I was not afraid of the prospect of being a bit broke or out of my depth – the opportunity was too good to pass up. When you grow up in a family where there’s always a risk you can’t pay the bills, you get accustomed to a bit of uncertainty and stress!
In my role as Director of Product I manage around half the people in the London office, covering engineering, design, data and community. We are a start-up but we’ve grown fast and our platform members now come from 120 countries. We’re excited about where things are going.
Any words of advice for other Sutton Trust students?
Be audacious, take risks and don’t forget that when you are young you have nothing to lose. Apply for jobs that you think are beyond your reach – because the more privileged people are definitely applying for things they’re underqualified for. I had to learn everything I do now from scratch. There were times when I was getting up at five am to do coding courses and it showed me that with some grit you can often learn what you need to get the job you want.
I definitely prefer hiring people from disadvantaged backgrounds – they are more resourceful and they aren’t afraid to get stuck in. So be proud of who you are, and keep up the hustle!