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Davos Reflection: The Time is Now to Engage Employees as Youth Mentors

Arundhuti Gupta | February 6, 2014

I was incredibly frazzled on my ride to the airport in Bangalore to catch a plane to Davos, Switzerland where I would be one of 50 Global Shapers to participate in the World Economic Forum. It felt wholly inappropriate to be so preoccupied with funding proposals, technology issues, and the administrative needs of my social venture when I was poised for a week of amazing interactions. As the mental anguish continued, I suddenly realized that what made my presence at Davos interesting to those who invited me was probably the amalgam of all these scrappy social entrepreneur experiences, alongside the fierce drive and sense of possibility that myself and my social change peers possess. It would be a fun juxtaposition, I realized, to have the leaders of million dollar institutions engaging with the 50 of us, bristling with intimate knowledge of our communities and ideas for setting them right. So I gave myself up completely to every worry, excitement, thought, and impulse that came my way that week and got so much back in return.

My social change journey started in 2009 with the founding of a youth mentoring non-profit called Mentor Together. We identify young people, ages 14 to 19, facing economic and social challenges and connect them to caring mentors. There are many dimensions to our work, including promoting mental health and wellbeing, building employability skills, and enhancing social networks. At the International Business Council deliberations on youth unemployment in Davos, I got the perfect opportunity to talk about these and other challenges young people face.  During the three-hour meeting, I advocated passionately for two things: that businesses should take a long view on employability and that business leaders should engage their workforce in improving the employability prospects of young people.

Employability is often looked at from the demand side. In other words, businesses have requirements for people with ‘x’ skills, and need to find young people in the most timely and cost effective manner to fill those roles. In my opinion, that’s shortsighted. Business should proactively work to ensure the workers of the future have the skills needed to meet labor market demands. One way to do so is to create avenues for their employees to mentor youth in the community—and on the job. Young people base their aspirations and future selves on the people who surround them. They won’t aspire to be hardworking, persevering, critical-thinking workers if they do not experience other adults being that way, and get opportunities to try it out themselves while in school and beyond.

I see no better long-term, win-win than for businesses to get their employees engaged in providing such role modeling opportunities to young people. For one thing, many young people in countries of inequality don’t have such role models in their immediate networks. Second, it can give employees a seat at the community table and give them a sense of accomplishment beyond their career achievements. Facilitating these types of relationships is very much at the heart of what we do through Mentor Together.

My suggestions along these lines were well received. The leaders of global companies in my group brainstormed how they could strategically use their local business operations to support efforts by community organizations. And those local government representatives present spoke about empowering mayors through toolkits enabling them to kick-start such mentoring efforts.

One lasting impression from my experience at Davos was the focus on pragmatism over ideology and the imperative to bridge the divides that keep us from working together toward solutions. While I represented the civil sector, I also work very closely with businesses in my community. In the busy halls at Davos, there was an overriding desire to come together to develop and pursue practical solutions to issues such as youth unemployment that effect us all. Seeing so many civil society leaders I admire hold their points and engage in tough conversations with business and political leaders, emboldened me far more than if they chose not to engage at all.

I’ve already identified one important issue that I want to take up within my own work system, but had never before thought was within my control. That issue concerns the signals we send to young people through the larger confluence of business, civil society, media, and culture, about what we value in them. We have been very focused in Mentor Together on ensuring that a child has one adult at least who champions the good in them. I have a vision now where we all work together to ensure that everything a young person sees in the community where he or she lives reinforces what it takes to be a responsible and productive adult.

Arundhuti Gupta is Founder and CEO of Mentor Together, which provides children and youth at-risk in Bangalore, India with empowering one-on-one relationships with mentors that help them to achieve their goals and dreams. In 2011, the International Youth Foundation selected her as a YouthActionNet® Global Fellow.