How Stephanie Burras of the Ahead Partnership has provided hope for 200,000 young people

SHE was once a junior member of Sir Elton John’s legal team, but today Stephanie Burras is on a mission to help thousands of young people achieve goals that seemed beyond their wildest dreams.

Stephanie Burras

Ms Burras stunned her colleagues when she decided to abandon a lucrative and successful legal career to set up a social enterprise.

A decade and a half later, the enterprise she established - the Leeds-based Ahead Partnership - is earning plaudits for its work to tackle the social and economic problems caused by Britain’s skills deficit.

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The partnership connects employers with schools and other public and private sector partners. It helps employers to engage, inspire and motivate tens of thousands of young people.

It’s a far cry from her earlier work as a lawyer, when she had a few “glitzy days” in the Royal Courts of Justice providing legal support to Sir Elton.

She moved to Leeds in 1996, rising to the rank of partner at Pinsent Masons, before her interest in social justice drove her to quit the law. One of the partners described her resignation letter as one of the most shocking things he had seen in an email.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised. This humanitarian impulse had always been there. After graduating from St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, Ms Burras had spent four months working at a bush hospital in Kenya, in a village with no electricity or running water.

Over the last 14 years, the partnership has worked with more than 2,000 businesses and partner organisations. It has supported the creation of hundreds of jobs and helped 200,000 people connect to potentially life-changing opportunities.

In 2010 the partnership joined forces with investment bank Goldman Sachs to help bring its global entrepreneurship programme - 10,000 Small Businesses - to the UK.

In Yorkshire, the scale of the partnership’s work is breathtaking,

Ms Burras said: “In Bradford alone, more than 35,000 young people, over 350 businesses and more than 1,500 volunteers have been involved in our work over the last 18 months. 

She added: “In Doncaster, we also ran 52 separate events involving over 260 volunteers in 21 different secondary schools.”

The partnership has also helped to promote discussions about the future of Bradford. Young people were encouraged to come up with ideas for improving housing, making better use of green spaces and creating opportunities for people to come together to improve health and wellbeing.

As the Ahead Partnership moves into its 16th year, it plans to focus on areas which are likely to need motivated and well-trained staff, such as the built environment and digital sectors.

“Transport is also an emerging area of work, with an exciting programme of activity with the West Yorkshire Bus Alliance around climate change and the benefits of public transport,” Ms Burras said.

“We are delivering ongoing work within the built environment, which aims to engage young people around developments in their local area and interest them in related careers,’’ she said. “One example of success is Arup’s Engineering Awareness Week, which offers sixth formers a week of work experience focused around infrastructure and the built environment.

“Young people who have been on this programme have now succeeded in securing apprenticeships and graduate jobs in Arup’s Leeds office. 

“A number of digital businesses have also grouped together to tackle the digital skills gap across the region under the mantle of our #AheadinDigital programme. This is supporting activities such as our female-led Girltech event which aims to encourage more girls to consider a career in digital.”

The Ahead Partnership is also focusing on the need to confront the challenges caused by climate change.

Ms Burras added: “Ahead Partnership is actively incorporating this agenda into our work, and we have made key interventions such as the Sustainable Christmas Campaign.

“The initiative brought together the three biggest shopping centre owners in the city - Leeds Trinity, the Merrion Centre and Victoria Leeds – for the first time, to harness young people’s ideas on how everyone, individuals and businesses, can tackle the climate emergency over a typically wasteful period.”

The partnership works alongside financial and professional services firms to change perceptions about routes into professions.

She added: “In 2019, 995 students from disadvantaged areas of Leeds took part in our #AheadInFinPro scheme, helping them to develop understanding of career opportunities in the sector.

“The increased demand Ahead Partnership is experiencing for its activities demonstrates a clear need for skills initiatives that help address gaps in key sectors,’’ she said.

“There remains an urgent need to address inequality across our communities, and the lack of social mobility in particular, by improving the aspirations and opportunities available to all young people.

“Getting this right will be one of the key drivers of the ‘Northern renaissance’ over the next couple of decades. 

“We are constantly looking for new businesses to join with us to help deliver this vital work,’’ Ms Burras added.

“It helps businesses to deepen the available talent pool, improve the diversity of their workforce, improve engagement with their own employees and strengthen the communities in which they are operating.

“It demonstrates that they have purposes beyond profit.”