Up until mid-last year, I was getting old in a very particular way. Not only was I in my late thirties (and utterly exhausted by my own doing), but I had started to believe negative things about young people. I’m saying this out loud, but I’m quite ashamed of it. I had written young people off as lazy, entitled, smart phone addicted millennials who had everything handed to them on a plate and didn’t want to work for anything. Being part of generation X, in some ways I am lucky to have lived both with, and without mobile phones and the internet, but I will always be bizarrely stuck between two worlds with a curse of pointless and false nostalgia that today’s teenagers won’t ever experience and, as a woman, having had to fight harder against being held back by my gender than the next generation (as will continue to be the case until we have full equality). Luckily, as disillusionment started to grab hold of me, fate stepped in to fix me.
I received and email from a friend who works locally promoting and reporting on everything and everyone that’s going on. There was a project being run though Wandsworth Council’s Education Department to promote careers in hospitality through a ‘Street Food Challenge’. They were getting all the participating schools in the area to enter a team of students between the ages of 14and 17, to set up a street food business from scratch, with the winning team serving their food inside our famous local foodie hub, Tooting Market. The project was looking for mentors, and I realise now, I was looking for a project. My self confidence wasn’t as its highest at that time, but I fired off an email anyway, hoping that I’d be considered. Looking back, it’s hard to fathom why I thought that I wouldn’t be considered, after all, I had the exact experience that they were looking for…and needless to say, I was asked to mentor a team from Burntwood Academy, a local girls secondary school. This was exciting but…I hadn’t stepped foot inside a school since 1996! I’ll add at this point that I loved school, I had a great time, and I appreciate that I was lucky in that respect as not everyone had as great an experience as I did, but still, walking back into an educational establishment after 20 years was going to be, well, daunting to say the least! As it turned out, I didn’t meet my team for the first time in a school at all, the project had been brilliantly organised, with so many local businesses involved, that I met my team in a local restaurant. We were there to hear how the owner got into catering, and, to my delight, to eat falafel (perks!). I was a late comer to the project, having missed the first session but I was shown to a seat and presented with my own exercise book, and I immediately knew that this was going to be brilliant.
Over the next couple of months, I got to know my team better, in one-to-one sessions and in group sessions where I talked all the teams through branding, packaging and marketing, passing on what I had learned from my own experiences in setting up my company. It felt good to pass this information on.
My team, initially shy and quiet, were growing in confidence, as was I. Their concenpt for a street food business was brilliant, taking the popular dish of tacos and switching up the fillings from traditional mexican, to asian inspired, all with their own recipes, reflecting their own culteral heritage. It was fresh, it was new, it was exciting. I was learning to be comfortable around them, and I was learning so much about a whole age group that I’d previously been segregated from just because I didn’t have teenagers as a part of my life. These weren’t the slovenly, disengaged, entitled millennials that I had had misconceptions about, they were quite the opposite. They were ambitious, smart, self-aware, driven and determined. They were inspiring. Despite having exams to concentrate on, university places to consider and full social commitments they were giving this project their absolute all. Sure, it would look great on their educational CV, but it wasn’t just about that, they were eager to learn. They started to talk about setting up their own food businesses around their already planned out careers, it was incredible to hear, and the more I listened, the more I learned. The more they were heard, the more they grew and progressed. I’d go so far as to say that by the end of the project, all three of us had gone from a little bit unsure, to pretty fearless, so when my team won, it felt right and deserved, because we’d all won so much more than just this competition. We’d won each other’s respect and friendship. I’d won a glimpse into how bright the future is for my industry with all the rising stars coming into it.
Today I’m speaking at the final wrap-up event for the project, where I’ve been asked to share the story of my experience of being involved. I have a speech prepared, I’m excited to babble on about how amazing these opportunities are for young people and how we MUST continue to give our time to these projects to help young people to excel at their own futures.