You don’t need a degree to succeed in business – and I’m proof

Zoe Baker, 31, went from salon stylist to residential surveyor. But she had to break down plenty of social barriers to get there.

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Zoe Baker

I’ve achieved a lot in the last decade. After leaving school to become a hairdresser at 15, I headed back to the classroom in my mid-20s, launched my own surveying business at 28 in the middle of the pandemic, and even wrote a book. And I did it all without a degree.

It definitely wasn’t easy. Switching careers takes a lot of courage. We’re hard-wired to dislike change and we have to muster the skills and determination to break out of boxes we’ve been consigned to by others.

When I started to look at office-based careers, people looked down on me. They assumed I didn’t have the intelligence or capability to shift to another career because of my salon background.

But, after gaining a foot in the door of a residential surveying company, I quickly worked my way up to management. I fell in love with the sector, so I enrolled with Sava to undertake their Diploma in Residential Surveying and Valuation and began studying part-time.

Upon completion, I set up my company called Your Surveyors in November 2020. It might not have been a traditional route, but I haven’t looked back since.

Don’t do it by degrees

Last week, many students opened their GCSE and A Level exam results. They should know there’s a wealth of choice for pupils leaving school now which goes far wider than university.

I completed my course in 18 months after moving into full-time study. It was a flexible and vocational option which proved to be a fantastic learning experience. Yet plenty of people still think you have to get a university degree to succeed in business.

Academic degree courses are usually recognised as the main route into the surveying profession. But they’re not for everyone.

Higher education is worthwhile if you have a goal in mind, but graduates don’t necessarily land their dream job. Startups’ research has shown that uni leavers earn around £5,000 less than they expect from a first job. Plus, they accumulate a vast amount of debt while studying.

The younger generation needs to be aware that doing what you enjoy is far more important than studying for a degree, just because your friends are doing it or because you’ve been told to study a trendy subject like AI.

I’ve never regretted not gaining a degree. In fact, I learned valuable transferable skills, which I couldn’t get at university, around customer service which have served me well.

I realise now how much I benefited from working in a salon – it was probably equivalent to a degree qualification but without the paperwork.

The gender issue

Having broken down one barrier by moving away from hairdressing and into surveying, I was then confronted by misogyny in the early years of my career. I learned that being good at what I did left others feeling threatened, so they felt compelled to bring me down.

To be successful in my industry, you need an eye for detail, a methodological mind and a passion for property – gender is entirely irrelevant. I found that seeking out and networking with experienced professionals was paramount.

Older men have been the general make-up of the surveying industry for a long time. I sense many people are surprised when I arrive to carry out their survey because it’s obvious they’re expecting a man.

At Sava’s last training intake in 2022, 42% of the class were women which is fantastic and a sign of how far the industry has come. I want to demonstrate that young women can achieve whatever they desire – regardless of background.

My advice to others who aren’t sure what they need to set up a business is never to think you know everything, because that stops you from growing.

Think of your core values and why you’re doing what you are doing, these will then form part of your company mission statement and set you on the path to success.

Written by:
Reviewed by:
Zoe Baker
Zoe is a residential surveyor and is accredited by RICS (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors). She launched Your Surveyors aged 28 in 2020 during the pandemic and went on to win the RICS Young Surveyor of the Year award in 2022. 

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