“Does anyone know on average what it costs to build a drone?” a young man asked a group of twenty-somethings gathered in a colorful coworking space in Manhattan’s Flatiron District.
He was using an erasable marker to jot down notes on a conference-room window as the group outlined a plan to bring access to water and energy to remote communities around the world, using crowdfunding and internet-of-things technology.
This sort of scene is not unusual at Barclays’ Rise New York facility, where entrepreneurs regularly come together to brainstorm business ideas or participate in a 13-week accelerator program.
But on this Tuesday afternoon, the young problem-solvers were not startup founders; they were junior bankers from Barclays, working on a team-building exercise as part of their associate-level training.
The half-day “ideation workshop” was a new event designed to provide freshly-promoted associates an unusual setting for developing problem solving, presentation, and teamwork skills.
It also showed how seriously investment banks like Barclays are looking for creative ways to remain attractive career choices for millennial employees, who tend to seek a sense of purpose in the workplace.
Battle for talent
When it comes to the battle for top young talent, Silicon Valley is shaping the conversation.
Bright-eyed business school grads are increasingly looking to build careers as entrepreneurs, rather than on Wall Street — and investment banks are sitting up and paying attention.
Citigroup, for example, is giving junior staff the opportunity to take a year off and do charitable work while still earning 60% of their pay. A second initiative will let junior bankers spend four weeks in Kenya running a micro-finance project.
The banks are also rewarding top performers by fast-tracking them to promotions, and encouraging mobility between departments and cities. In the past six months, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Credit Suisse, Citi, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch have rolled out programs in that vein.
They’re all trying to fix the same problem: Investment banking is becoming a less attractive career choice for millennials, who want to do meaningful work.
“Feeling like they’re working for a place that has positive impact on the world — where they have an opportunity, if they want, to engage in volunteerism — is important,” Michelle Bucaria, JPMorgan’s head of campus recruiting, told Business Insider. “Students are looking for places where there is a breadth of opportunity.”
Barclays, for its part, is responding by letting junior bankers play entrepreneur for a day.
At the Rise center, the associate class was split into groups and each assigned a “social innovation challenge” related to infrastructure, refugees, or resource scarcity.
They were then tasked with finding “commercial and sustainable solutions” for the challenges.
“It’s just a really new way for us to think about how we can start to drive some of that social innovation-thinking into these individuals at the early stage of their careers,” Mark Thain, a director at Barclays who runs the firm’s social innovation fund, told Business Insider.
The young bankers came from Barclays offices around the world for a week of post-promotion training, the rest of which would take place at the bank’s midtown offices.
“It’s always nice to take a step back, hang around with some smart people who you have a daily interaction with but on a completely different topic, and just sort of pick away at an idea,” Dominic Harper, an associate in equity capital markets based in London, told Business Insider.
He was among the group tasked with bringing water and energy to communities that lack access. Their conversation during the brainstorming session ranged from drone regulation and international air law to the cost of solar panels and other technologies.
The mood was light, and associates were even dressed more casually than a typical banker’s uniform — the men had left behind their ties for the day and the women sported summer dresses.
They were visibly excited by the challenge they’d been set, and one associate gushed, “We’re like an episode of Silicon Valley right now,” referring to the HBO comedy series about a group of tech startup founders.
The junior bankers cobbled together two-minute pitches to present to a panel of judges that included Barclays’ global head of loan capital markets, Claire O’Connor, the global head of mergers and acquisitions, Gary Posternack, and Sandeep Patel, a managing director in the consumer retail group.
Most of the solutions were little a half-baked and relied on expensive technology that would be tough to scale and incorporate into a sustainable business model. The judges pushed back, for example, on the resource scarcity group’s ambitious plan to place solar panels on the backs of drones in the air rather than on the ground.
But Barclays clearly took the event seriously — the presence of a handful of other senior bankers in addition to the three judges was a testament to that.
And while it was unlikely their projects would ever come to fruition, the junior staffers certainly enjoyed themselves — even if just for an afternoon.
“I can’t remember the last time I sat down and had a blue box thinking session,” said Harper, the equity capital markets associate. “That was definitely enjoyable.”
For Barclays, that counts as a success.