I recently had the pleasure of attending the Mosaic Enterprise Challenge Grand Finals in London. As Chair of the judging panel what I saw on the day proved to be hugely encouraging.
Five schools, each proudly representing a different area of the country, pitched their hearts out in front of a capacity crowd. Under the guidance of their Mosaic mentors, the student teams had to pitch a winning business idea to the judging panel - the winners securing £2,500 for their school plus a £500 seed fund to invest in their business.
My fellow judges and I were hugely impressed by the confidence on show from the students, some as young as 14. It got me thinking about why initiatives such as this are so important in helping to nurture business talent and giving young people the opportunity to shine.
For me, young students need to get a real taste for business. On too many occasions I've met 15-20-year-olds who don't have a clue about business because the school curriculum simply doesn't provide for it. An experience such as the Enterprise Challenge is one which engages the student, helps them to think from a business perspective and helps them to develop, so that when they do get out into the big wide world they are not completely thrown by the tasks they are being asked to perform.
This set of students have been through an incredible process involving pitching, thinking of ideas, being eliminated or getting through to the next round; experiencing success and failure. This cements the idea that business is tough and life is full of competitive situations, where they have to shine, show their personalities and actually use their brains. So much of what we learn at school is by rote but learning this way allows thoughts to be explored and opinions to be formulated.
Mentoring is hugely important in this process. My parents were my mentors but I'm of the opinion that the mentoring skills that are required now are greater than what can be provided by parents or family. Having a skilled mentor, someone with only the mentee's best interests at heart with no angle who only wants success for the mentee, is a great benefit. It's also a two way process - the mentor through engaging with young people and understanding them, can derive a great deal of personal satisfaction and the mentee benefits from sharing the thoughts of someone with experience in a particular field or just life and business in general. Done in the correct way, mentoring is greatly beneficial to both parties.
A good mentor must be able to understand problems and the student's needs. It's all well and good to be labelled as a mentor, but what's the outcome? There has to be a tangible benefit from this at the end otherwise it will have been a waste of everyone's time. The real skill of a good mentor comes in understanding where the mentee is coming from, why they've gained that particular view of life, business or people. The mentor's role is undeniably a difficult one and this is why picking the right one is so crucial. What nobody wants to see is the mentor indoctrinating a keen-to-learn youngster with thoughts or business ideas that could potentially be inaccurate. A mentor must be skilful, knowledgeable and have experience in equal measure but in addition to this, must also know how to pass on that experience so that it sinks in, without having to ram it home.
I would say that young people generally do lack entrepreneurial skills and sadly, I have seen little evidence of improvement in recent years. It's not that they don't have the ability it's just they haven't been exposed to it, so whether it's because they don't do a paper round or work in the local shop during the school holidays, this results in a very limited idea of what the world of work actually entails. Young people have very lively minds, they've got brilliant ideas and the skill is trying to bring those ideas to the fore. A scheme such as Mosaic's Enterprise Challenge is tackling this head on and I think for it to have the desired impact it should be adopted throughout the curriculum.
Where there has been massive change in the last ten years has been in social media and the internet, leading to huge opportunities for business start-ups with very little capital requirement. Young people no longer need to be top of the class at school, just coming up with a genius, brilliant idea can quite easily develop into a viable business.
It's vitally important to give young students a chance, but equally let's give them the tools to try to succeed. Give them the opportunity coupled with business education and real life experience and they will absolutely show just how clever they really are. Effective mentoring can be the key to unlocking this potential.
If you give young people the opportunity to shine, guess what? They might just actually do it!
Claude Littner is a visiting professor and an alumnus of the University of West London, and its Claude Littner Business School is named in his honour. He has also just replaced Nick Hewer as Lord Sugar's new advisor on the BBC's The Apprentice. Lord Sugar previously called upon Claude to expose the fabrications in candidates' CVs.