Sherry Coutu has an international reputation for bringing business leaders into the classroom to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs. She talked to Mike Hughes about her new mission for Scotland and the key role played by former US president Barack Obama
The visit of former US President Barack Obama to Scotland has ignited an entrepreneurial surge – with a call for 1,000 Scottish business leaders to give one hour of their time, in schools, to inspire students.
Founders4Schools, a high growth charity founded and chaired by Canadian angel investor and philanthropist Sherry Coutu CBE, connects students with local business leaders to close the skills gap and increase youth employability.
Earlier this year The Hunter Foundation who brought President Obama over, also invited Founders4Schools to introduce their free services to Scotland after success south of the border which has seen 16,000 businessmen taking part and 80,000 students helped across the UK.
Sherry said, “There is an urgent need to close the skills gap that threatens the growth of the Scottish economy. Students are leaving school without the skills required by employers in a rapidly changing world. Research proves that students with four employer encounters are 86% less likely to become NEET.
“So we are calling upon 1,000 Scottish business leaders to volunteer one hour of their time to boost youth employability and help young people understand through dialogue some of the pathways open to them that they might not have considered, or that they might not know as much about as they should.”
Her mission is as driven and perfectly pitched as you would expect from someone with such an international reputation. As chairman of the Scale-Up Institute and author in 2014 of the Scale-Up report, she has called on the government to focus on helping ambitious businesses grow to their full potential.
Despite her success, she doesn’t always seek the spotlight. But her contacts book must run into several volumes by now and she has the ear of many of the country’s best-performing businesses. But she knows that building an entrepreneur needs to start before school starts shaping minds and ambitions.
“We have certainly had an outstanding take-up from businesses, with those 16,000 being moved into schools as we speak and if we look at the number of schools we are interacting with, we are within 72 hours of a teacher asking and us having a business leader saying ‘yes – I would be delighted to help’.
“The young people in those schools might not be getting an unbiased view of things because teachers very naturally don’t usually run in the same circles as entrepreneurs and business leaders,” she says.
“It could be that some children are very lucky and have parents that might instill the virtues of running their own business, but some portion of them won’t have access to that in their own family, so it is important to highlight these alternative careers.”
Being able to launch on the back of an Obama visit gave the call to businesses a huge boost. The Obama effect is well documented and can be applied to a small number of people where the charisma and presence from a single visit can change and inspire people. The Hunter Foundation recognises that and has the resources to bring the biggest names to Scotland, like Leonardo DiCaprio at last year’s Scottish Business Awards.
Business leaders are suitably impressed by that sort of pulling power and have been quick to put their hands up and start the wave of action young people are looking for.
“Founders4schools has presented to The White House when Obama was present and they are very much aware of our work and I think if they had their way we would be operating in the US – but I’m not going anywhere near there for the next three or four years!
“But Obama is inspiring and many people will be moved towards working with the government because of his excellent work. The point he is making is that they will be inheriting the earth that we happen to be polluting, so let’s look to them for leadership.
“In our work, what we are looking for is a child to have four student/employer encounters every year, one might be mentoring, one might be in a classroom talk, or in a workplace visit. That variety is really important, and on our platform there are about 23 different types of encounter so that however a teacher wants to play it, it can be arranged.
“By volunteering the business we need are letting us know about their business as well as giving us permission to harvest details from LinkedIn and Companies House so they don’t have to fill in any lengthy forms.”
Such impressive insight comes from an equally impressive background. She is a serial entrepreneur and was an angel investor for more than 15 years in big names like LoveFilm, Zoopla and LinekdIn, where she gained a keen awareness of how important fast-growth businesses would be.
With children now aged 14, 16 and 17, she knew that the career education they were getting was not focussed in the right areas.
“The teachers just were not aware of these fast-growth companies and how to reach out to them and I thought if we can make it easier for them then the businesses would respond because they are constantly hungry for more talent. So when we were asked by the Hunter Foundation if we would provide our services in Scotland I thought it was a great environment for us, but if we were going to asked teachers to fish in our pond, we needed to make sure there were fish – our business leaders – in that pond. We needed that response.”
Her timing is as keen as ever, with the wider environment Founders4Schools is working in being positive and supportive. Wearing her Scale-Up Institute hat, she persuades new entrepreneurs to picture themselves in ten years as serial entrepreneurs and philanthropists and give them the tools they need to get there.
“Our spirit here is excellent and we saw in 2011 the UK pass the US for the creating of start-ups and I want to make sure that as well as getting those businesses started, we help them continue to grow after 2,3,4 or 5 years. Key to that is getting bright children to choose them for careers.”
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