“A shared taste for the sea”: why Britain’s young people need both opportunity and inspiration
Sajid Javid tells the UpRising gala dinner about the people who changed his life, and how we can all help others find the same inspiration.
I’ve had the privilege to live and work in different countries and cultures all around the world.
And I’m not exaggerating or being trite when I say that the UK is, by far, the best.
It’s the most open, the most tolerant, the most diverse in every way.
My parents had very little when they left Pakistan for Britain.
This nation has given them so much.
It gave them a place to start again.
The opportunity to work hard and be rewarded for it.
The chance to make good on that most basic of ambitions.
To secure for your children a better, more comfortable life than your own.
So I have a lot of love for my country, and I never take it for granted.
But I’m not blind to reality.
I know things are far from perfect.
That the playing field is far from level.
And that equality before the law, equality on paper, does not guarantee fairness in the real world.
I first noticed it when I was a kid, in a Bristol playground, when I saw that people who looked like me were treated differently by some people.
Called different names, told different things, presented with different expectations.
Today, 40-odd years later, it’s impossible to deny that our tolerant, diverse, open society still has a long way to go.
Just look at the statistics.
Only 6% of MPs are from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to 14% of the people they serve.
More than half of FTSE 100 CEOs went to private schools, even though only 7% of Britons do.
Not even a third of Britain’s local councillors are women.
Young black men are more likely to be in prison than in a top university.
And if they do make it into higher education, they can expect to earn 23% less than their white counterparts after graduating.
The first Race Relations Act was passed 4 years before I was even born.
But after half a century of equal opportunities legislation, race, class and gender still play an immeasurable role in people’s life chances.
And even if we could click our fingers and eliminate, overnight, all the explicit and unconscious bias in society, it wouldn’t be enough.
So much in our society depends on networks, on experience and on expectations.
On knowing people who have been there and done that.
On having someone pushing you in the right direction, telling you what is possible rather than what’s not.
It’s the kind of support that many people in this country take for granted.
But for too many of us, it is still sadly lacking.
And that’s why UpRising is so important.
Because it creates those networks.
It provides the mentors that more privileged individuals have always had access to.
It gives young people a positive message, the support and encouragement that has too often been denied them because of who they are or where they come from.
Above all, it gives them the confidence to go out there and fulfil their potential.
To follow their dreams rather than limit them.
And that’s not just morally sound, it makes good economic sense.
As Business Secretary I know that the job descriptions of tomorrow have yet to be written.
But I do know for sure that, if Britain is going to remain competitive, we will need our workforce to be diverse, innovative, flexible and mobile.
And that’s a perfect description of UpRising’s alumni.
I’ve been particularly impressed by the Emerging Leaders Network (ELN).
It reflects, far better than the House of Commons or the City boardroom, what modern Britain is all about.
And I was delighted to hear that many ELN members have set up their own companies.
A nice boost for the long term economic plan!
So I’d recommend to any aspiring young leader that they become a part of this network.
And I’d urge all the organisations here tonight to support it.
Because I know what a difference it can make when you find the right champion, the right mentor, the right inspiration at the right time.
I know it because I was lucky enough to find 3 of them myself.
I was born in Rochdale, but I grew up in Bristol in a place called Stapleton Road.
A tabloid newspaper - one based in a tower just over there! - once dubbed it “Junkie Street”.
They said it was the most dangerous road in Britain, “a moral cesspit”.
So when I was doing my O-levels and thinking about what to do next, my school was very clear.
I should leave at 16 and go get a low-paid, low-skilled job.
Not because it was the best thing for me, or because I wasn’t clever enough to do A-levels.
But because that’s what kids from Stapleton Road did.
We didn’t do A-levels.
We didn’t go to university.
We certainly didn’t set our sights on the FTSE 100 boardroom or the green benches of Westminster.
In the end I had to change school in order to be allowed to carry on with my studies.
And it was at my new school, the brilliant Filton Technical College, where I met the first of my great mentors.
A guy named Stan.
Stan taught economics, and he was great at it.
But he didn’t just teach.
People raised eyebrows when I announced I was thinking of going to university.
Voices all around me were saying I should quit while I was ahead.
Leave school at 18 and get a job in an office somewhere.
They said there was no point applying to university, I’d only be disappointed and dejected when I got turned down.
That people like me didn’t go into higher education.
He encouraged me, he supported me, he wrote me references.
Above all he made me believe in myself, gave me the confidence to apply and to succeed.
So, thanks to Stan, when I was 18 I packed my bags and headed off to university.
The first Javid to ever do so.
And that was my first great UpRising.
I loved Exeter University, thrived there.
I made good friends, lifelong friends.
I studied hard, I had fun, I learned more about myself and more about the world.
But after nearly 3 years, when I started thinking about what to do next, the naysayers surfaced once again.
I’d become fascinated by international finance…
I wanted to go to London and work for one of the big city banks.
And people told me not to:
“Don’t bother applying Saj…”
“People like you don’t work in the Square Mile…”
“You’ll only be disappointed…”
And in many ways they were right.
I applied to all 5 of the major British merchant banks.
I was rejected by every single one!
I remember an interview at Rothschilds, I was full of excitement.
I walked into the room, and was faced with a panel of 7 old, white men in pin stripe suits.
It was the living, breathing embodiment of the old boys’ network!
One of the first questions they asked - after whether I’d gone to a private of state school - was what my father did for a living.
So I said “He used to drive a bus, now he runs a little shop selling women’s clothes”.
The panel didn’t so much answer as make a noise: “Ewww….”
And at that point I realised I probably wasn’t going to get the job!
Fortunately there were some more enlightened minds around, and I got a job with Chase Manhattan on Wall Street.
It was a brilliant place to work, mostly because of my boss, an American woman named Cindy.
And she was my second mentor, the next person I have to thank.
She showed me the ropes, she invested a huge amount of time in my career.
She wanted me to do well and she made sure I did.
When people ask how I got to be a vice-president of Chase Manhattan at the age of 25, I can answer with 3 words: “Because of Cindy”.
So that was my second great inspiration, and my second great UpRising.
Now I’d always loved politics, I have my dad to thank for that.
And by 2005 I was thinking about switching careers.
About becoming an MP.
A Conservative MP.
And yet again those voices came whispering back.
“It’s the Conservatives, Saj, they’re the whiter than white party…”
“They’ve been around since 1834, they’ve only got two BME MPs and have never had a single Muslim one…”
“People like you don’t get selected…”
“Know your limits, don’t overreach, you’ll only be disappointed.”
By now I was getting used to ignoring such advice!
I found a wonderful association in wonderful constituency.
And in May 2010 I had the honour of becoming the Member of Parliament for Bromsgrove.
A constituency that’s more than 95% white!
I was as shocked as anyone!
I remember driving home after the count, I turned to my wife and said “Laura, in your wildest dreams did you ever think I’d actually become an MP?”
And she looked at me and said: “Darling, you’re not in my wildest dreams.”
Received wisdom for new MPs says you should keep your head down, learn the ropes, find your way around.
Park any thoughts of promotion until you’ve clocked up a couple of terms on the back benches.
And the usual suspects were there once again, warning that people like me shouldn’t be too ambitious.
But the third person I have to thank saw things differently.
You might have heard of this one, he’s called George.
He gave me my first real break in government when, in 2011, he invited me to become his Parliamentary Private Secretary.
A year later I joined his ministerial team at the Treasury.
And I continued working with him right up until I joined the Cabinet in 2014.
So he was responsible for my third great UpRising.
I’m still in touch with Cindy, I saw her last year.
I don’t know what Stan’s doing now, or even if he’s still with us.
If anyone at Filton knows where he is I’d love to thank him in person.
And as for George… I hear he’s doing quite well!
I can honestly say that if I hadn’t stumbled across Stan, Cindy and George when I did, I wouldn’t be standing here today.
And I am absolutely committed to making sure that the next generation don’t have to rely on being that lucky.
Now I know the world of politics is a pretty partisan place at present.
The dividing lines between right and left are starker than they’ve been for some time.
And it’s certainly not fashionable for an MP to praise a member of the other team.
But you know what?
Some things are bigger than party loyalty.
That’s why I cannot praise Rushanara Ali highly enough for her work with UpRising.
Rushanara, thank you so much, what you’re doing is just incredible.
And that’s why I was delighted to see the Prime Minister recruiting David Lammy to lead a review of perceived racial bias in the criminal justice system.
Last weekend you will also have heard the Prime Minister saying that he wants to tear down barriers of race, class and gender at our top universities.
In 2014 just 27 black students entered Oxford University out of an intake of more than 2,500.
And only 1 in 10 of the poorest white working class boys enter higher education.
That’s why we’re introducing a new transparency duty for universities.
It will highlight those universities where representation of ethnic minorities and those from disadvantaged groups are low.
And it will help schools, colleges and higher education institutions identify where more work needs to be done.
Of course, such challenges aren’t limited to the education system.
So tonight I can announce that we’ve asked Baroness McGregor-Smith - Ruby to her friends! - to lead a review of the issues faced by businesses in developing BME talent, all the way up to executive level.
Ruby has been there and done that.
Born in Northern India, raised in West London, she has worked her way up to become CEO of a £2 billion company.
She’s seen for herself the challenges that young BME people face.
She knows all too well how your background can be a barrier in too many workplaces.
And she’s shown us all how it’s possible for an Asian woman to succeed in modern Britain.
Ruby is an inspiration, a role model, and I wish her all the very best.
Because we have a claim to be the most successful multiracial, multifaith democracy on earth.
But our success isn’t enough if there are young people who don’t feel like there’s a fair chance for them.
Take that guy in the video we just saw.
He could see the towers of Canary Wharf looming over his estate.
But they may as well be on a different planet for all the contact he had with the people who worked inside them.
You shouldn’t look at people like me or Rushanara or Ruby and say it’s amazing that we’ve succeed in spite of our backgrounds.
You should be asking why more people with our backgrounds haven’t made it this far.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the Little Prince, once wrote that:
Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky.
It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea.
We can ban discrimination.
We can pass legislation.
We can guarantee equal rights.
But that alone is not enough.
If we’re going to deliver the true equality that Britain’s disadvantaged young people deserve, we can’t just open the doors.
We have to let them know they are open.
We have to give them the confidence and the means to compete with their more privileged peers.
We have to give them a shared taste for the sea.
So I applaud the work being done by UpRising to make that happen.
And I’d urge everyone here tonight, and everyone across the country, whatever their politics, to play their part in making the UK a fairer, more equal place.
One where everyone can find their own Stans and Cindys.
One where what you can do matters more than what you look like.
Where everyone has the chance to experience their own UpRising.
Because the UK is the best country on earth, and its young people deserve no less.