Stephen Dawson

Welcome to Hello World’s interview series showcasing the work of individuals and organisations that are championing education and helping marginalised communities to shape their own future.

EDUCATION IS… Lifting young people out of poverty

After leaving university, Stephen Dawson spent two years as a volunteer teacher in Madagascar. In his business career, he was one of the UK’s first venture capitalists and was involved for 30 years with ECI; he stepped down as non-executive chairman in 2014. In 2002 Stephen co-founded Impetus, the first British venture philanthropy organisation, which focuses on scaling up charities which improve educational attainment and work readiness for young people. Impetus is a partner in the Education Endowment Foundation and runs the Youth Endowment Fund. It has recently launched a new online tuition pilot to support disadvantaged pupils.

Stephen was a founder trustee of the European Venture Philanthropy Association. He was co-founder and chairman of Jacana Partners, the pan-African SME investment company. He was co-founder and chairman of Galleries Ltd, a community shop and café and is chairman of FLECS, a community energy company. He is currently focusing on helping disadvantaged communities in the Bristol / Bath area, where he lives.

He has received various awards for his work, including an OBE for services to the voluntary sector in 2011. 

If you could write on your own school report, what comments would you make?

Every school report from 5 to 18 talked about “appalling writing” and “chronic untidiness” – don’t worry too much about that one, computers will sort it out. “Frivolous”, “casual and light-hearted” were also frequent accusations. Like most children, I needed inspiration; I had some good teachers, but none was inspiring until sixth form when my Economics teacher helped us to see the big picture and things started to click into place. No rush to find that inspiration; teachers and parents are obvious sources and you are lucky in both departments

What did you dream of becoming as a child and what obstacles got in your way?

Apart from the inevitable train driver ambition (steam of course), I didn’t have a particular dream until the Economics teacher referred to above who stimulated my interest in business and led to my degree in Economics. At university (in the rebellious 60s) I was keen not to settle down and become a “middle class mediocrity”. That in turn led me to become a volunteer – see next question.

You co-founded and were the first chairman of Impetus Trust, the pioneer of venture philanthropy in the UK, with a focus on education for disadvantaged young people. Tell us about the journey that led to Impetus and what you have learned along the way.

Being a volunteer teacher in Madagascar was one of the formative experiences in my life. At first I struggled as I had only a few weeks’ training, class sizes were huge, there were some serious discipline issues and the books and teaching methods were very French – hard to make the Paris Metro relevant to children who had never left their village. But by the end of my two years I felt I was making a difference in a modest way.

The benefit to me was twofold: first, teaching is a key part of any job and I have never been fazed by presenting, whether to a small group or an audience of 1000; and second, I learned about poverty, the accident of birth and the importance of education in lifting young people out of poverty. I also fell in love with Africa which led to numerous fantastic holidays there, to my Jacana experience and to continuing support for charities and businesses which are helping Africa and Africans.

I did then pursue that business career and was fortunate to work with some great colleagues and brilliant entrepreneurs – as well as to make enough money to “retire” in my mid-50s.  Since then, most of my work has been in the social sector, locally, nationally, and internationally. Three key strands from my life led to the formation of Impetus: helping disadvantaged people, the importance of education and using venture capital models to build and strengthen organisations.

There have been many key lessons since we founded Impetus, to pick just a few: the importance of focus (even taking a niche like disadvantaged young people, the only way of having real impact is being very clear about who you are helping and how); the importance of leadership (there is no chance of building a strong organisation without a strong leader and a supportive but challenging Board); and working towards a sustainable funding model from the start (there is not point in having fantastic impact if the organisation doesn’t survive for the long-term).

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