Arrival Education
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Arrival Education

How My Mum, The Streets, The Hustle And Tech Got Me Here

This month Samuel Okusaga shares the challenges and benefits in growing up in an urban, low-income home. He captures the things that made him, and the things that hindered him. Samuel is currently at Pearson as well as being the founder of Worth of Mouth, an online youth service. He’s also on our ‘Tesco Exec Mentors’ Programme currently and a member of the Arrival Network.

My Story

Like a lot of people from communities like mine, I had unnecessary stuff to deal with, which, perhaps if I were from a middle-class home, I probably would have avoided. It makes things a bit harder but also makes you motivated to achieve more, I guess.

If I were to capture the key components that have helped me achieve what I have, I’d list the following: My mum, learning to street dance, learning to hustle, the death of a friend and the fact I got digitally engaged early on.Let me expand.

My Mum

My mum has always been a positive force in my life, keeping me on the straight and narrow. My dad worked hard to put food on the table but he was working almost all the time, which meant I built a closer relationship with mum.

My parents left Nigeria for a better life in London when I was very young. They took whatever jobs they could get. Dad worked at McDonald's but he ended up being a manager. Everyone worked hard in my house. We lived in poor and cramped accommodation and moved around a lot at first. Money was tight but home life was solid. I’m lucky I had that. Many of my friends had messed up homes. That’s one of the reasons young people are on the streets, they prefer it to home. I went to Walworth Academy school on the Old Kent Road, London.

Street Dance

I learned to ‘dance my streets’. What I mean by that is, I learned to navigate the crap that you just have to deal with if you grow up in a low-income community like mine. Finding a balance between not being seen as weak, but still getting on.

In order to fit in, I associated with the boys affiliated to gangs, but only at school. To demonstrate I was like them, I would be disruptive, which meant getting sent out of class and having my parents in for ‘meetings’. However, I would then catch up at home in order to stay in the top sets and be around the ‘smart kids’, so I could learn better.

I kept the school and the streets separate. Growing up where I did, your reputation means a lot. I liked the association of being with the ‘cool guys’, and I liked some of them personally, but I also made sure I didn’t hang out with them in the streets, only at school.

The Hustle

The reason I’m so entrepreneurial is because I wanted the stuff that my gang friends had but without doing what they were doing. In order to do that, I sold stuff at school. Mostly sweets and cookies. I got so good at it that the school tried to close my operation down. When the teachers started checking my bag to confiscate goods, I bought the exact same bag for a bunch of other kids, so when I was about to be searched, I could swap bags. I would make sure my timetable was in every bag, so I could convince them that it was my bag.

Death of a friend

Violence became normalized. It’s not like every corner was dangerous but the threat of violence is always there. 3 kids were murdered at my school, for instance. We just got used to stabbings in our area.

The reason there’s so much stabbing is boys can’t channel their emotions. There‘s a risk in carrying a knife. You can’t read what people’s intentions are. It’s life or death. If you think you’re about to get stabbed, you stab them first. Everyone’s paranoid, jumpy and volatile. As a result, things escalate quickly. You think just stab them in the leg or something, but then you hit an artery. You get the picture.

Things can get pretty real, pretty quickly. It came home when a good friend was murdered. We were 16. It had the sobering effect of making me think about my life and where I was going. It also made me want to get away from it all.

Digital native

Although it was a dark moment, it also produced some positivity. Out of that tragedy, I created Worth of Mouth, a media platform, which creates positive content around under-represented young people within the UK.

Like many of my contemporaries, I spent a lot of time on my phone. The whole digital, social media engagement thing I got. I built digital networks which made creating Worth of Mouth a natural progression. We get up to 500K hits and have an online community of 11K+ and work with the likes of Facebook.

Things aren’t equal

As a result of that tragedy, I buckled down with my studies and got 2 A* and 6 A’s. That lead to me getting a place at a selective 6th form. However, that didn’t work for me as it was an experiment of sorts, where they took private school practices and applied to selected state school kids. It taught me how to work hard but I wasn’t mentally in the right place and home became impossible. I had additional challenging stuff going on, which I was too young to deal with. All of this meant my A Level grades weren’t as good as we had hoped for. I had to rethink my future. For a while, I was angry at the unfairness, but I turned it into a positive, which fuels my drive.

How businesses could become more diverse and inclusive

Businesses need to be more authentic about why they want diverse talent. We see through inauthentic marketing. It’s easy to spot box-ticking or mechanical efforts that are about quotas. Is there anything that feels worse than being told you got a job or a promotion because you are a quota?

Businesses also need to articulate their ‘why’. What are the commercial benefits for instance? Why aren’t they diverse now? What are they doing about it?

They aren’t marketing in the right places and don’t have the right networks. They assume that advertising on LinkedIn will reach new talent. The algorithms often create echo chambers so they aren’t reaching new talent.

When I look upwards, it’s obvious that there aren’t the diverse leaders. You ask yourself “when more experienced diverse talent can’t get ahead, what chance can I?”

Businesses should know when you’re diverse, you automatically feel like an outsider. The people you can relate to aren’t always at work, that’s OK, but it isn’t easy. But when you make the effort to change to fit their cultural norms but then people don’t make the effort to understand yours, it feels unbalanced.

I know it’s a small thing but take the pub for instance, it’s such an alien environment for me. White people always meet in the pub.

Why is that?

I don’t think the media helps. There’s a preoccupation with the negative. I’m not saying that bad things aren’t happening in our communities but where are the balanced positive stories?

The perceptions that white people can have about low-income black men are there due to the constant negative media bombardment which creates unconscious racial bias.

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