We talk to Nilesh B. Dosa, founder of icanyoucantoo, on his inspiration for starting the mentoring and coaching programme, how it works alongside financial services firms to help non-privileged kids, and the one person who has been the biggest influence on his life.
- Tell us about icanyoucantoo – what was it set up to achieve?
I grew up in real poverty. My parents were immigrants from India (mum) and Africa (dad) raising their two young children in a deprived area of East London. Having experienced scarcity first-hand, I deeply connect with the challenges faced by many young people and their families living with so little today.
Not only do they lack basic material needs, but for me, a large element of their struggle is an inability to change their surroundings, to climb out of their environments and to make things better, through no fault of their own.
It is a modern-day tragedy that there are so many youngsters who live and study a stone’s throw away from the wealthy skyscrapers in London, yet they cannot imagine that they too could be a part of that world. These are limiting beliefs I simply cannot accept.
This created a niggling voice within, which became ever harder to ignore as I advanced further into my own career in finance. However, there were stark reminder throughout my own time that I was a boy who did not understand ‘the system’.
After graduating in 2001 with a first, I landed a job at KPMG and was excited to begin. On my first day, however, I was crushed. I was a brown guy, wearing a brown suit (a faux pas in corporate circles), and I really struggled to fit in. Even after 12-months I still felt like an imposter.
Whilst I was passing my accountancy exams and doing my job well, I did not understand the deeper cultural structures e.g. the after-work drinks, the weekend socials – all of which lead me to believe that I just did not belong. This feeling stayed with me well into my future roles as well.
In 2016, a chance encounter with a young man called Joshua changed my life.
I had been assisting at my old secondary school where Joshua was a student. He had also come from a non-privileged background, and one day I invited him to come to Canary Wharf with me to see what it was like. My intention was to inspire him – but he asked, “Am I allowed to go to Canary Wharf? I thought all black people there are security guards or cleaners!”
This statement changed me. I knew I had to work with young people to tell them that nothing – not their postcode, their skin colour or their background – should deter them from striving to fulfil their dreams.
icanyoucantoo was born out of this. It is a grass roots mentoring and coaching programme, ensuring that young people are not held back by their social status. We offer a regular series of sessions to young people across the academic year, giving them access to real role models who then have an on-going mentor relationship with them and help to teach them life skills, give them confidence, a network and practical skills, that they can use to propel them up the social mobility ladder.
2. What are you trying to achieve long-term through icanyoucantoo?
Essentially, we want to level the playing field. We want to help young people from non-privileged backgrounds to have a chance to fulfil their real potential. Most of these students are often held back not through lack of talent, but an awareness of the etiquette and system the corporate world operates to.
We have three broad objectives. We want to provide 1.) access to real role models, 2.) opportunities and access to a wide variety of industries, professions and work locations, and 3.) coach the practical skills required for higher education and the workplace.
Overall, we measure our success in many ways. People who go through our programme tell us they leave with higher aspirations and are better equipped for the workplace. Furthermore, I am very proud to say 100% of the people who have completed our programme are now in further education, a full-time job or an apprenticeship.
3. The young, particularly the under-privileged, appear to be those now worst affected by this pandemic in terms of job prospects. What would you do to make sure we don’t lose a whole generation?
We need to appreciate that one size doesn’t fit all. The corporate world needs to acknowledge that if you take people from different backgrounds, then you must not, as a business, judge them on the same criteria. There needs to be greater efforts by the corporates to understand the lived experiences of those from under-privileged background, not just as a tokenistic gesture, but as a moral imperative.
Diversity is not a tick-box exercise – it leads to greater outcomes, both socially and financially. Companies that truly believe this have to invest and be in this for the long haul – as I say ‘it ain’t gonna change overnight!’
4. How has the current pandemic changed working habits at icanyoucantoo?
The pandemic has had a few major impacts on icanyoucantoo. Firstly, we offer more sessions online to our students and, to that end, it has actually been a positive because we can spend more time with them via online talks, mentoring sessions and just informal ‘catch up’ sessions – checking in that they are OK.
We also discovered quickly that our young people were impacted directly in terms of their wellbeing, with many struggling to cope financially and lacking money for essentials like food and clothes.
We therefore launched a new partnership programme to provide these essentials, working with supermarkets and our own sponsors to make sure young people have the basic things that most of us take for granted – 3 meals a day, shower gel, sanitary towels and access to technology from which to complete school work.
5. What does the relationship with companies like EY, Redington, and HSBC Private Bank give the initiative?
We get access to their people and their resources, both of which are invaluable. The youngsters we take into these places get real life experiences they never thought they could have.
The companies get to give something back to their community, and the staff who take part get to channel their own desire to give something back into something real. They are getting direct access to grass roots community work; a lot of people want to do that but don’t know how to get involved. We provide that opportunity.
6. Once lockdown is over, what do you think will change and what will stay the same?
Our online mentoring sessions have been great, and we will keep on delivering monthly virtual sessions going forward, but we can’t wait to have the face-to-face sessions back.
In terms of the life experience, it will be great to be able to send the young people back out to places like EY, to get that real experience of being in these environments and mingling with real-life professionals. Nothing beats connecting with people in the flesh.
7. What positives have you taken from the whole lockdown experience?
Human beings being human. There has been a real outpouring of desire to help.
8. What does your industry get right, and what needs improving?
This is the key point that is missing for me. We are working with these youngsters to get them ready for the real world, beyond what schools can achieve. These young adults on our programme want ‘this’ so badly, but now we need the corporates to be ready…
We are helping level the playing field for non-privileged kids, and now the corporate world needs to be ready to accommodate them and embrace them whole-heartedly. My honest view if that we need to keep working with the children – successfully as we’ve demonstrated.
However, firms need to also be ‘trained’ so that they too are ready. As I mentioned, this cannot be tokenistic. It has to be a genuine desire to learn, to get involved and to improve.
9. What are your favourite books?
My favourite book of all time is Tuesdays With Morrie (Mitch Albom). The Last Lecture (Randy Pausch), Thrive (Arianna Huffington), Legacy (James Kerr) and Shoe Dog (Phil Knight) are also up there.
10. Who has single-handedly influenced you the most?
Pandurang Shastri Athavale (also known as Dadaji), who has been an incredible inspiration to me personally. He was an Indian activist, philosopher, spiritual leader and social revolutionary. Much of his philosophy was practiced in India through his organisation Swadhyaya, and he promoted a real collectivism in society along with practical ways in which to make the world a better place.
One example is Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest. Dada mentioned that real humanity is about making the unfit fit to survive. I am hugely inspired by this philosophy and use this as a driving mantra behind what I do.
A good life is not only defined by what you do for yourself and just those in your immediate circle, but for society more broadly. Dadaji’s yardstick is ‘who have you served’ and ‘what have you done selflessly’, such that, in today’s hyper-connected world where every single achievement is broadcast on social media, you tell no one of your service and your actions.
11. If you could give a younger version of yourself one piece of advice what would it be?
Because I grew up without much wealth in my family, my life was always about pursuing that in a financial sense. But real wealth, I have learned, comes from what you are doing for someone else, and now I feel wealthier than I have ever done.
12. What is the one column or website that you read every day?
Being a huge sports fan – I make sure I consume a healthy dose of sports news 😊.
13. What would you do if you received a windfall of £10,000?
I’d put it towards recruiting my first team member. Our programme is run entirely by volunteers, so to be able to employ someone part-time would be great.