Serial dropout Vend founder shows his company's 'no qualifications' commitment

Vend founder Vaughan Rowsell would still like to finish his degree.
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Vend founder Vaughan Rowsell would still like to finish his degree.

He might be the founder of fast-growing software company Vend but Vaughan Rowsell says he could be described as "a serial dropout". 

"I tried," he says. "I tried university and high school –  but I'm one of those people the system doesn't quite work for."

Vend was last year named the Deloitte Fast 50 fastest growing technology company in New Zealand. It now has more than 200 staff and has raised millions of dollars in investment to propel its international growth.

Rowsell left school at the end of sixth form, for a computer science degree at university. He dropped out after six months, then tried again, but left again when he was offered a job at a tech start-up firm in South Auckland.

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"I found I could learn the skills through other channels," he says.

Vend is one of the companies that signed an open letter saying that they did not necessarily require applicants for skilled positions to have tertiary qualifications. More than 100 firms have so far signed the letter but the goal is to grow that number to 1000.

"We don't look at the qualifications, we look at their adaptability and their creative thinking, their ability to work in a team and to fail  - these are the things you don't learn in a formal qualification. Definitely not failure, but that's also the biggest thing that you learn from," Rowsell said.

Rowsell was raised by a paraplegic single mother who took a second mortgage on her home to buy a computer for her three sons.

That nurtured an interest that continued through his life. 

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"Just by having access to it, I taught myself. I played on the computer, took it apart, learnt how to code and then the internet came along when I was in my late teens or 20s and it was 'how does this work'. That led on to founding Vend seven years ago, a software company built on the internet. None of that would have happened if I hadn't had that computer at eight years old."

He has now also founded charity OMGTech, which is designed to expose kids to technology that they might not otherwise have access to. Many kids from poor families decided they could not aim for a career in technology, he said, because they assumed it would come with prohibitively expensive tertiary education costs.

But he said there were other ways for them to learn and enter the industry, if that was what they wanted to do. 

"There's no reason a brown kid from Rotorua can't be the next 3D game designer. All they need is access to the tools, encouragement and a safe environment to try things, take risks, fail a few times. That's what is going to create the next wave of innovation."

Fran Bellingham, marketing manager at Trade Me Insurance and LifeDirect, shares Rowsell's view that there are more important things in hiring than a tertiary qualification.

She left school half-way through seventh form, for a six-month radio course in Wellington. From there, she started working in the industry, across a range of jobs over 10 years.

"It was almost like an apprenticeship in radio, I worked hard. I went form that into account management at an ad agency and worked across different brands."

After four years off to have her children, she returned to a role as an international campaign manager before applying for the job at Trade Me.

The lack of a degree had not been a hindrance to her career, she said.

"I'm not the type of person that would have been able to spend three or four years focusing on the one degree," she said. "I always struggled with exams… It hasn't held me back from any of my personal goals at any of the stages."

 - Stuff

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