Interview: Geoff Leask, Young Enterprise Scotland
Geoff Leask knows what it’s like to feel you’ve let the team down. Almost literally. In his younger days in the merchant navy he was taken away at gunpoint in Libya after breaking a curfew by playing football.
It must have been a terrifying moment? “Not really,” he says, smiling as he recalls the incident. “When you’re young you just don’t think anything bad will happen to you. The worst thing was that we were winning.”
As he lived to tell the tale he was clearly vindicated in feeling things would turn out right. Nevertheless, it taught him a lesson in survival and how sometimes you have to expect the unexpected.
That belief in the unpredictability of outcomes is a key part of his current role at Young Enterprise Scotland, a programme based on fulfilling the potential of young people that too often lies hidden behind a curtain of personal self-doubt. Despite its name, YES is more than an exercise in unearthing the next generation of entrepreneurs.
“For the last four years I have been trying to bust the myth that Young Enterprise Scotland is about supporting young people to set up their own business,” says Leask. “It is more about developing skills, what we call meta-skills, or soft skills such as communications, resilience, problem solving.
“We want to inspire and equip young people to reach their potential. Technology will continue to play a hugely significant part of our lives, but we still need to communicate face-to-face and work things out with other people.”
The programme has been around since 1992 and Leask took over as CEO five years ago. He has built on its strategy of “learning by doing”, tweaking the delivery by greater collaboration with other organisations in order to make it more effective.
He’s working closely, for instance, with those involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), though he half-jokes that he would like it to be known as STEMIE, by adding innovation and enterprise (and perhaps sounding more Scottish).
“I believe we still have a gap in skills because the focus of education is too much on young people getting qualifications. Our programme gives them the opportunity to develop those other skills they need.”
He mentions Molly McFarlane, the Glasgow-born and educated fashion blogger, who gave a talk at the recent Festival of Youth Enterprise, organised by YES and held at RBS’s Gogarburn HQ for 200 schoolchildren on the programme.
“Molly said she did not enjoy school but she enjoyed the activities around school. Our programme picks up on this by working in a synergistic way with the academic.”
So how does he measure its success?
“I guess it comes down to skills and having more confidence. We have found that those going through the programme are less likely to be unemployed.”
Ultimately, the programme aims to get young people inspired by enterprise and become equipped to take on the challenge of doing it for themselves.
He mentions one particular success that would make any entrepreneur proud to have on their CV. A group of 17-year-olds in Orkney designed and manufactured a lamp which sold for £25 and was presented to the Scottish Parliament. They have since taken orders, including exports, in excess of £20,000. This year’s participants will be hoping to emulate their success and the winners will be celebrated this week at the annual awards dinner in Edinburgh.
“I would like to see the government follow their strong words of support with action,” says Leask. “Every year should be the year of young people. Enterprise can be a key differentiator in making progress in life.”
Occupation: Chief Executive, Young Enterprise Scotland
Educated: Jedburgh High School
Career highlights: Merchant navy; ran a bars business in the Borders which was sold; regional manager and later director, Princes Youth Business Trust; Launched Bridge2Business; joined YES
Other activities outside YES?
I have just started a radio show. I contacted Stirling City Radio [a voluntary group] offering my services and thought they might use me for some marketing and so on. Instead, I got offered a two-hour programme.
If you could arrange a meeting with three people, past or present, who would you invite?
Joe Strummer, lead singer of the Clash, my musical guiding light and champion of the phrase ‘without people you are nothing’
Muhammad Ali, a true champion of justice, peace and unity
Sir Alex Ferguson, no words need be said about the man’s greatness in terms of getting the best from others
The Festival of Youth Enterprise Awards Dinner takes place at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh on Wednesday 5 June. Daily Business is the media partner for this year’s Festival.