Private equity groups working at the grass-roots may inspire youth, but they're also nurturing financiers of the future
But private equity firms are the devil, aren't they?" This was the question the BBC's Declan Curry asked me at St James's Palace when I reported back to the Prince of Wales and Business in the Community chief executives on a visit I had made earlier that day to Apax. The private equity group had showcased a programme it had developed for mentoring charity Mosaic. Called the Enterprise Challenge, it engages with pupils from inner-city state schools.
Some of the youngsters have been lucky enough to visit the group's swanky St James's offices where Apax team members have volunteered their time to work with potential entrepreneurs of the future. Obviously you have to be smart to work for a company such as Apax and these teenagers have been given an opportunity to be exposed to a major international financial institution.
What started as a personal interest on the part of one board member has now become a key corporate goal of the organisation. The son of a Birmingham bus driver, Khawar Mann rose above the challenges of his peer group and studied both law and medicine at Cambridge and then won a Fulbright scholarship to do an MBA at Wharton in the US. He now heads the company's pharmaceutical interests worldwide.
Mann's enthusiasm for inspiring others who previously harboured lower ambitions led his senior partner to bring that spirit to the heart of Apax rather than have it remain as an individual endeavour. The group now runs a competition between schools, where cash prizes are offered to the winners, and has even developed a computer game about how to build a successful business start-up. I teamed up with a director of Pepsi and a property developer to play the game against three 15-year-olds who nearly beat us. We weren't joking when we told the trio that we'd want them working in our companies.
Bright and ambitious graduates will always apply to companies such as Apax, but what this kind of grass-roots intervention does is instil a buy-in from fresh talent that might otherwise simply go to waste.
I remember a couple of years ago attending a reception to celebrate Barclays sponsoring to the tune of £1m an international arts centre in Shoreditch, east London."Why did you do it (sponsor the centre)?" I asked the guy who approved the deal. "Why do you think?" he replied. "I guess because one day you looked out from the top of your Canary Wharf building and saw that Hackney and Tower Hamlets might provide your next generation of traders." He smiled and said: "Crude, but not far off."
Private equity firms may not be the devil, but they're not angelic either-we all know their reputation. They're out to keep their competitive edge over their rivals and to do that they need the right people. They're investing in their future and if that involves empowering young people who would never otherwise know what private equity means, then that can only be good for us all.
Responsibility to our environment in all senses of the word will be the next enterprise challenge and let's see who's ready to step up to that. That's when we will know who the devils and angels really are.
Iqbal Wahhab is founder of Roast restaurant