Everyone deserves a second chance
As first-year students in the UK and around the world embark on their university studies this quarter, for many, this will feel like their one shot, their only chance of getting the qualification they need to get a foot in the door of employment during a tumultuous market.
I can understand why they may feel anxious. The global economy has been through a huge amount of upheaval over the last two years and the situation isn’t likely to calm down in the next 12 months. Many countries are already in or facing a recession, against the backdrop of the highest energy prices many of us can remember.
Employment levels in the UK, the US and much of the developed world remain high, but a combination of rising interest rates, high inflation and reduced spending will impact the job market. Job prospects for graduates have been improving in recent years, but competition for the best positions remains fierce.
The situation is equally challenging for young founders and entrepreneurs,
for whom the costs of failure can seem overwhelming. The fear of not performing perfectly can also discourage people from applying for new roles or accepting career-boosting opportunities.
As societies, we need to do more to encourage risk-taking and to be understanding of setbacks. Some countries, such as the US, are better at this than others, where addressing failure is a key topic incorporated into MBA programmes. In Mexico, where 75% of start-ups fail within two years, a group of friends founded a series of events where business people stand up and talk frankly about their failures. The movement has now spread to 100 cities worldwide and has inspired a social enterprise called The Failure Institute that helps companies drive a cultural shift where they learn from failure, rather than be defined by it.
But for many, failing remains a taboo, discouraging people from pursuing their ambitions. This is why, now more than ever, we need to do a better job of embracing the virtue of the second chance – whether as employers, educators or policymakers. I discovered this myself as a teenager in America, where I had travelled from Egypt to study my undergraduate degree in the 1960s. At North Carolina State University I enjoyed all the perks of a carefree freshman. But my world came crashing down when Egypt’s President Nasser, under the political sway of the Soviet Union, nationalized the private sector and sequestered many privately-held assets, including my father’s company and property. My dad, Loutfy Mansour, went from being a wealthy entrepreneur to losing his home and being paid 75 dollars a month on a state salary.
The cheques from home dried up, and I started to struggle as I balanced waiting tables with studying. I faced flunking out thanks to my poor grades. One of my professors told me he intended to give me a fail, which would have meant I would have had to leave the university and return to an uncertain future in Egypt. But when I pleaded and explained what I would face if I went back home, he offered me a deal. If I promised to redouble my efforts, I would be given a second chance to pass the course. It was a turning point in my life.
Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think about what I went on to achieve after being given that second chance. I had been a waiter in America, living in a damp, overcrowded house and struggling to pay my debts. But I graduated, did an MBA, and returned to Egypt in the 1970s to manage parts of the family business, which by then had been re-established. Today, we employ over 60,000 people from the UK to New Zealand. The investment firm I set up in London in 2010 has provided long-term capital to organisations in a range of sectors from education and tech to renewable energy and sport. My not-for-profit foundation has provided over four million micro loans to women entrepreneurs in Egypt – all driven by the ethos of second chances.
I have been privileged to see my story come full circle. Earlier this year I returned to NC State University to receive an honorary doctorate and deliver the graduation ceremony address to an audience of 20,000 students and their guests. I urged the class of 2022 to pursue their dreams, and if they are given a second chance, to seize it, learn from it, and be grateful for it.
There are clearly huge challenges facing the world. But seeing all those graduating students reaffirmed my optimism. We are human and we all fail, but we all deserve a second chance in life.