“We're talking about taking people's money, be it pension funds or long-term savings and things like that - and it's not putting it in the bank, but investing it for the future. We sometimes talk about it as looking after people’s hopes and dreams.”  

I’m getting a (much needed) crash course in investment management from Helen Bradley, CEO of an educational organisation called Future Asset.  

“It doesn’t just matter to people who drive 4x4s – it matters to everybody. If you have a pension it will be invested and when you see things on the news about bond yields and all that stuff then that affects you.”  

Now more than five years old, Future Asset was set up specifically to give high school girls in Scotland more information about, and opportunities to explore, possible careers in investment management. It’s an area that, like other financial services, has something of an image problem amongst young people who (like many adults) tend to assume it’s all “dull, boring, all about spreadsheets and all about maths.”  

The attempts to change this started in 2017 with “a big, professional style conference”. Made possible by generous funding by prominent investment management firms such as Stewart Investors, the event saw girls from all over Scotland invited to Edinburgh for the day, with those who lived more than 70 miles away able to stay overnight at no cost. The First Minister herself even gave a speech.  

Read more: Innovation And Wellbeing: How A Card-sized Computer Is Changing Scottish Classrooms

“The top line was: ‘girls can do anything - don't let being female stop you aiming for ambitious careers’. But the subtext of course was ‘by the way, why don’t you consider this?’  

For those behind the project it quickly became clear that it had to continue in some form. Initial plans for an annual repeat of that first conference were ultimately replaced with something much more ambitious: the Growing Future Assets Investment Competition.  

“Big conferences are great and they’re really impressive and exciting but it can be harder to prove a longer impact. And for teenagers it can be overwhelming. So we started doing little workshops and stuff but then the idea was introduced of doing the competition because when you talk about careers you can end up with adults going ‘Right boys and girls – I’m going to tell you about my career.’ And then everyone falls asleep.”  

“Also, the thing about investment management is that it’s quite nebulous and hard to understand.”  

The competition aims to solve these problems by providing a learning experience that is much more hands-on and reflective of the real world. Since 2020, more than 1000 girls from 99 different schools across 27 local authorities have signed up, and in three years the total number of teams competing has risen from 17 to 144. 

The Herald:

Oban HS, Future Asset Senior Video Pitch winners, June 2023

Teams of between three and six girls choose a business to be the focus of their ‘pitch’, selecting one of fourteen options such as Pets at Home, Taylor Wimpey, Hologic, Vestas and Greggs. The students must then prepare a report and three-minute presentation arguing why they have identified an excellent, long-term option for investors.  

This doesn’t just mean researching the company – the teams also learn about the relevant business area, identifying competitors, threats and opportunities that may arise, all while developing their understanding of the principles and practices of investment management. To that end, each group is also paired with a business mentor to support, and challenge, them as they progress.  

But for all the focus on finances, investment and, ultimately, profits, another trend has emerged – for the young women engaging with the project, environmental concerns are just as important as projected returns.  

“The kids just would not entertain investing in ‘damaging’ companies,” Helen tells me. “They would just say: ‘I don’t care how much money it makes – I’m not going to invest in a fossil fuel or an arms company or something like that.’” 

She recounts the story of a team who chose to argue for investment in Orsted, a Danish company that has transitioned from oil and gas to renewable energy. The students highlighted research showing that changes to turbine blades derived from biomimicry of whale fins could increase the energy generation of wind farms and, thus, enhance profits. 

Read more: Inside story: Probationary teachers' struggle for posts and impact on education

Competitors also learn that investment can be a powerful driver of change in the business world.  

“What they learned as well is that for investors, if you own through your shareholding a big part of a company, you can influence that company. So if they say: ‘These are our environmental standards’ you can ask if they are really doing that? Is that true? You can check that and you can push them.”  

“Money talks and actually a lot of people who work in that area will say this is how they make a difference.”  

So it’s not just about learning how the world works – the competition encourages girls to think about how they might change it.  

But why, if all this really matters, and young people get so much from it, is the contest only open to girls?  

The Herald:

Future Asset visit Franklin Templeton, June 2023

Put simply, financial investment is a gender issue. In 2020, the Scottish Widows ‘Women and Retirement’ report revealed a £100,000 chasm between the funds that men and women currently in their twenties are likely to have in their pensions on retirement, and it doesn’t stop there.  

“Women will live longer. They will tend to earn less over the course of their careers. They'll have more career breaks. They will be more likely to live in poverty when they retire.”  

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a financial sector specialism, there is also an enormous gender gap in the workforce. Although men called Dave no longer outnumber women in fund management roles the figures in 2022 are still stark: 1,512 men compared to just 184 women. Tackling such an enormous imbalance requires targeted action. 

There are also simple, practical concerns about changing the model to include mixed groups.  

“We do get push back and people say that there's lots of boys who could benefit from this, and there are, but if we have mixed teams of boys and girls you know what's going to happen.  

“And the girl say this too, you know: ‘Well the boys will just go on about cryptocurrency blah blah blah and we won't get a word in.’”  

Read more: Music project goes from burned-out shell to producing for Nextflix

Having already progressed from the one-off set-piece event to the annual competitions, Future Asset is now looking to build and maintain relationships with the students who go through the programme. This takes the form of workplace visits, work experience and support to find internships. Relationships with organisations like the Juniper Trust have also seen two full scholarships awarded to young women who had participated in the programme. 

“We're also increasingly saying that there's lots of apprenticeships available and they don’t seem to be as popular in Scotland as they are in England. That’s actually a real issue in Scotland.” 

“So there are lots of different routes here and different opportunities but also, as far as I'm concerned, what the girls get out of this is they try something, they give it a whirl, they open their eyes to different opportunities.”  

“I think the outcomes for the kids are really empowering and I think it's also a really good news story about teachers.”  

“You just see the pressures on teachers increasing and increasing and increasing. There's less time and there's more pressure and they're still hanging in there and they're still taking these opportunities because they believe in it and because they believe in providing opportunities for the pupils.”  

“We can only do this because of fantastic teachers.”