by Ninder Kaur
We caught up with the former Apprentice star and Founder and Director of InspirEngage who has had a whirlwind of success. She has built a social enterprise in a 100 countries that has managed to reach 1 million people.
Career aside, Melody has had a pretty extraordinary life. She was born in war-torn Iran, was held at gunpoint at the age of 12 and then kidnapped by a deranged taxi driver who dumped her in a desert.
Tell us a bit about your journey as an asylum seeker?
I was 3 years old when my family and I fled Iran during the Gulf war. We fled by land and ended up in Sweden. I grew up in Sweden before immigrating to the UK 18 years ago. I was a refugee and an asylum seeker.
How do you feel about the current crisis? What can be done?
We’re witnessing one of the largest population movements in modern history. Syrian refugees who are being forced to move (no one willingly leaves their home and undertakes risk of death of your children unless the risk of staying is higher than leaving), are being taken in neighbouring countries with Libya having accepted some 1 million- yet the UK has only committed to accepting 20,000 over 5 years. That is simply not good enough.
We need to respond with kindness and help. It’s not a gift – it’s their human right!
You are an inspirational woman in Business. Tell us a bit about your career journey.
I started volunteering when I was 13 years old and co-founded the UK Youth Parliament. As part of this, we managed to change laws and policies to benefit young people, had meetings with Tony Blair before the Iraq war and developed youth engagement platforms for young people across the world. Two weeks before I was due to graduate in Law, I got a job in the youth sector in order to make my passion, my career! I never looked back.
I set up InspirEngage International in 2009, in a rented room in a shared house, with £0 and a Hotmail email account. I realised that there was a gap in the support for young people to develop the right mindset and attitude along the practical life skills to enable them to achieve – academic achievement alone, isn’t enough to prepare young people for the world of work. My very first contract was to deliver skills training in Japan, and my second was to manage the youth programme at the United Nations conference for young people across 100 countries. During this time, I have been honoured to have worked with 12 nobel peace prize winners, worked with corporates such as Philips and Facebook and best of all, got the opportunity to train young people who have been able to go onto do great things.
What motivates you in business?
A few years ago I was delivering training for homeless young people on behalf of Barclays Bank. After the session, one young boy called Ashley comes up to me and asks how we can start volunteering in his community and give something back. Here’s a boy who has nothing and wants to give something. This inspires and motivates us at InspirEngage to keep helping.
How do you manage to balance your career with motherhood?
I’m still trying to figure it out! I love being a mum to Kian but I also want him to learn about my work with InspirEngage and the value of helping people. It’s all about balance! I am also lucky to have a good support system!
You have recently won the European Most Influential Woman of the Year award, how does that make you feel?
It was a shock, especially since the European Parliament select their own nominations from their own online research so I had no idea! On The Apprentice, Lord Sugar joked that I must collect awards (which I don’t!!) but this award means a lot to me as it recognises those originally not from Europe and how they have contributed. In winning this award, I will also be involved in supporting the immigration and refugee agenda.
Who inspires you?
Everyday people inspire me- mothers who find a way to do a hard day’s work and come home and still give their children lots of energy, young people who have nothing and want to give everything and people who perform random acts of kindness like helping someone off the bus. It’s the little things that shape our society.
The new Apprentice series has just started, tell us about your experience on the show.
The Apprentice is one of those things I watch and just can’t believe I was actually on it – quite surreal! Something to show the grandkids! 75,000 people applied and I was grateful to be given a place. But at the same time, you have to have very tough skin. It’s edited and you don’t get to watch it until it airs on TV- so conversations you have are cut to make it look a certain way, and they show your character a certain way, but as I say, it’s TV! It’s what you do afterwards and with the platform you gain, that says a lot more about you.
How do you feel about Nick leaving?
I really liked Nick and got along with him as he was so fair, so I am sad to see him go. But I recently got to judge an enterprise competition for Mosaic with Claude Littner (Nick’s replacement) and think he’s absolutely lovely and will be great to watch! He’s tough on the show but in real life he’s a softy!
How have you found the contestants over the last few shows?
It’s so easy to judge the candidates! I have respect for anyone who puts themselves on the line like that and goes for it! I’ve made some really good friends. I’m looking forward to watching the new series and will be live tweeting with all the behind-the-scenes secrets!
I saw that there was a real gap in support for vulnerable adult women- so InspirEngage launched ‘Startup & Stilettos’- an intense 2 month, residential Bootcamp with childcare for women who had suffered from domestic violence, homelessness, ex-substance abuse or just needed a break. We trained them to develop confidence and the skills to turn their tragedy into a business that made them economically independent and which also helped others: a social enterprise. Seeing the transformation in these women, and their children, has probably made it my biggest achievement.
How was it working with 12 Nobel Peace Prize winners including Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama and Shirin Ebadi?
I learnt a few important lessons from each person. Desmond Tutu taught me the importance of humour when dealing with serious issues. Humour brings people together and breaks down barriers.
Being trained by Al Gore on climate change taught me the importance of feeling a sense of personal responsibility. Shirin Ebadi, a female role model of mine, reminded us that the world is all connected and a decision made has a knock-on effect – we aren’t indifferent.
Social Enterprise Revolution is the UK’s first programme that embeds social enterprise into the curriculum in a hands on way. How has it helped?
The revolution is here! The ‘Social Enterprise Revolution’ is all about supporting students at school, colleges and Universities to develop their skills, make money and make a difference in their community! We’re seeing students who are using what they’re learning as part of their studies, and through the programme, we train them to set up their own social enterprise, going into the community using their curriculum skills to help people, but also making an income which bridges the employability gap.
What is the secret to being a successful entrepreneur?
The secret is to know that there’s no secret or quick fixes to success- it takes hard-work, kindness and resilience.
What advice would you give to young people?
So many young people tell me that they can’t get a job because they haven’t got enough experience and that they can’t get the experience because no one will give them a job. I do a lot of speaking tours, meeting a lot of young people around the issue of careers, skills and social enterprise. My advice to young people is start volunteering. Build your experience, skills and make a difference in your community.
To find out more visit – www.inspirengage.com