Business leaders can help reshape the perspective and life chances of Britain's youth – it's a compelling case for mentoring
A year ago I gave a talk to school leavers in London who wanted to go into business. As I left, one of them approached me and asked if I would be his mentor. I gave him my card and said he should send me a short but compelling email to convince me to do so. That day I received this: "My father and my brother sit at home all day because they can't find a job. Sir, I don't want to be like that." Needless to say, he won me over.
Once a month I meet him and we talk about the trials of living in the inner-city – neighbours on his council estate selling drugs, youths in his school carrying guns, the overall expectation to fail. He was going to be head boy of his school until he was caught up in a scrape, someone pulled a gun and the police were called. I thought I had been through a rough time growing up in south London but nothing compared to his story.
Richard is one of eight people I mentor. He's by no means the most challenging person I commit to – one has HIV and had stopped taking medication, which meant he would have died, but I have persuaded him to restart the treatment. Another is a 19-year-old who has been jailed twice and desperately wants to find a better way to conduct his life.
One thing they all have in common is a lack of positive role models in their families and wider communities. If you're a Director reader, you could consider becoming one – if you're not already. A common gripe among employers is that today's youth are work-shy and lack ambition. Sadly, that conversation invariably stops there without us thinking how we could be involved in helping to reshape the perspectives and life chances of the youngsters we are so quick to condemn and so slow to reach.
The grumpy old man in me could easily say: "Well, no one mentored me yet I turned out all right". But that's not entirely true. I did get into more than my fair share of trouble and, along with the rest of my south London gang, spectacularly failed my O levels. Thankfully my parents, who were academics, convinced me to retake them, and I went on to do the stuff I have done. My mates had no such push and their lives have been uniformly meaningless.
When I first started in business I was pretty rubbish at it and unaware that I could ask for advice from those more successful rather than getting told off by my bank manager. I could have generated profits quicker, employed more staff, paid more to the public purse, shared my success with more people as well as reward myself faster and more effectively if mentoring had been available to me.
When we look at last summer's riots, the swelling of our prison
population, the appalling jobless figures, how many of us ask about our responsibilities in being part of the solution? Blaming government is no longer a credible response. Business leaders must step up and become more active. Duty to our businesses is not simply driven by shareholder value but increasingly by our role within the communities in which we are based – and our responsibility to the people there.
People need help to deal with the pressures of a recession. The dependency culture is not subscribed to by all yet those who want to move away from everything that entails often lack the knowledge of how to break out of it and have no access to those who could guide them.
I recently visited a girls' school in an impoverished part of east London where none of the families whose daughters attended had a mortgage. A group from Bank of America was there to engage with the girls about personal finance issues they might face in the future. Both the pupils and the bankers found the gathering hugely rewarding.
And here is the most compelling case for mentoring – the sense of personal satisfaction gained from helping to steer someone's life. One young man whom I had convinced to go to university sent me a message saying: "Words cannot describe the effect you have had on my life". How good did that make me feel?
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast www.roast-restaurant.com