Hello and welcome to the BCU Alumni podcast. I'm Bethan from BCU’s Alumni Team. And in each episode we welcome a different member of our alumni community back onto campus to find out what they've been up to since they graduated. Today, we're joined by Tom Clark Forest. Tom graduated with an executive MBA just last year, but since 2006, he's been the founder and CEO of Birmingham based charity Sport for Life UK Support for Life UK provides opportunities for young people to prepare for and move into sustained education, employment or training by improving their employability and key life skills all through sports themed personal development services.
The charity supports the personal development services designed to bring out the very best in young people by providing them with high quality sessions, mentoring and guidance. Tom has provided leadership and direction for the charity since its inception and over the last 17 years. He has led on the growth of the charity across the region. It now employs 26 full time staff, supports over 2000 young people each year and has a turnover of 1.5 million.
In this episode, we are going to find out more about what goes into growing and sustaining a charity. How support for life supports young people across our region, and Tom's impressive journey so far. Tom, thanks so much for coming on to the podcast today. Pleasure. Thanks for having me. So support for life is well known now across the region.
It's supported so many young people here in Birmingham for almost 20 years. But can you talk me through your journey? What were you kind of doing prior to finding the charity and why did you decide set it up?
Yeah, I think my personal journey probably started as a child. For whatever reason, I had a huge affinity to sport growing up.
Always played a lot of sport, watched a lot. And my older brother was only 18 months older than me. So quite competitive sport growing up, I think. But throughout my childhood, sport was hugely influential, not just for what it did for my physical and mental health, but also the key life skills, human skills it taught me about winning or losing.
Teamwork, leadership, sacrifice, etc.. And I think that journey was just consistent. Ever since I was a child. So at school I played a lot of sport as well. Really found that beneficial and believed in it. Then I did a gap year when I finished school and lived in Brazil for half a year in Sao Paolo, and part of that gap year was working with young people in a favela, so much more disadvantaged young people.
And we use sport as part of the work we did. And so that was probably my first introduction of using sport as a vehicle for social good, and that probably planted a bit of a seed that would then come later on a few years down the line. And then I went to university in Leeds for three years to do my undergrad degree and actually set up sport for life straight after finishing university.
Right. Which isn't necessarily something I'd recommend to everyone. I've been quite naive. Yeah. On how to run an organization, but the reason for setting up the charity back then was mainly from my passions. Huge passion for sport, as I just mentioned. Massive passion for Birmingham and the region. Born and bred here. And also a passion for young people and wanted to run my own thing as well.
So bringing all those key reasons and passions together just got something called sport for Life UK started and that's when the really exciting now 17 year journey that we've been on started.
So can you talk me through how Sport for Life helps young people then? And I guess almost like the impact it's had so far as well? Yeah, sure.
Yes, we are now a sport for employability charity, so we use sport as a vehicle and a hook and a conduit to support young people towards better futures and specifically on their journey through and into education and employment and how that works as we combine structured sport and physical activity sessions with other non-sports activities, so accredited qualifications and structured 1 to 1 mentoring with young people with a bit of wraparound support like work placements and workshops quite intensively for a period of 12 months to support them towards that better future and specifically, the kind of metrics that we support young people into is to transform key life skills to things like teamwork, respect, leadership, communication and to improve their mental health and wellbeing, to reduce crime and antisocial behavior, to gain qualifications, and to ultimately progress into employment, education or training. And in terms of our impacts that we have, each year we engage over 3000 young people. We meaningfully support about 1500. So that's intensively supporting them across a number of different activities and services.
And then we support around three hundred young people to gain accredited qualifications. 150 young people to to get into a sustained job education or training. And around eight out of ten young people we work with improve their life skills, employability and mental health. Mizen say the charity now employs 26 people.
So what really goes into building charity then, and what is it been like to see it become what it is today?
Yeah, it's obviously been a fairly long journey and that growth has been gradual. It's been a bit of an evolution, but it's been an incredibly exciting and rewarding one, I think, in terms of what goes into that. I think there's a few foundations that you need to get right to be able to build on sustainably and successfully. And I think firstly that's being values led.
So we've got core values as an organization and, and having that as your North Star to kind of dictate and direct where you're going is really important of values. Is, is part of our culture. It's who we are, it's how we recruit, how we appraise, how we've made decisions. So I think that's absolutely vital. I think having a clear vision and mission as well that people can buy into, that people can see and feel and and see.
And that's why people will join the organization as well. And I think as well for us, part of those foundations has been the importance of having a real clear strategy. We call that our golden thread. So how does our vision link to our mission? How does that then filter down to our long term strategy? So where are we going? What does it look like in five years time? But then from that, what are we doing over the next 12 months? So that links to every single person's objectives and roles and responsibilities across the whole organization. So whoever you are, whether you're working in admin or finance or on the ground working with young people, you understand and what your roles and responsibilities are, how what you're doing feeds into the wider strategy and therefore vision of the organization.
That's really important. But I think probably most importantly and ultimately it's it's all about people. We are a group of people that exist to support other people. And so if we can empower staff, give them the autonomy and responsibility to put their best self forward and achieve within the organization, if we can support staff's wellbeing, make them feel like they belong, like they are supported, like they are encouraged to to be themselves, and if we can hire really good people, then I think ultimately that's that's a recipe for success.
You know, over the years, I've always felt that I want to employ people who are better than me in certain different areas. And so yeah, it's all been about people. And, and I think that's what's in part down to the success.
I can imagine that there's a lot of pressure in leading a charity then. So how do you deal with that?
Yeah, I think at times I don't necessarily always get that right, but I think firstly is prioritizing my physical and mental wellbeing. You know, if you're operating from a deficit then you're always going to struggle. I think having clear boundaries in place are really important as well. I've got two young kids, I've got a family at home that needs to come first.
So having quite strict boundaries on when I finish what priorities are is really important. I think having a really supportive team around me is vital to that. You know, we've we've got an incredible team, really great individuals, really skilled individuals, and they're running the organization. And that still happens without me. There. So I think that's that's absolutely vital.
And, you know, part of our culture is that we do prioritize staff wellbeing and that includes myself, of course. So yeah, that really helps. And I think lastly, as a founder of an organization, there's obviously over the years been quite a strong emotional attachment there and that sometimes can be quite difficult because if something goes wrong or where or there's an area of concern or certain risks that's going to occupy more of my mind potentially than a CEO who didn't fund an organization.
And so I think over recent years, I've learned to try and detach emotionally a little bit and realize the sport for life isn't who I am. It's a role. I have a really, really important one and one that I'm really proud of. And it's been an incredible privilege over 17 years. But actually I still have a life outside of there and so yeah, that some of the key things I think have gone into trying to have a good work life balance.
So you return to education here at BBU a few years ago to complete an executive MBA. What made you want to go back to university?
Yeah, a few different reasons. I think. Firstly, was the opportunity. The opportunity presented itself. It wasn't necessarily something I was thinking about, okay. And that just got me on the path of thinking about it.
I think another reason is my curiosity. That's one of my core personal values. I'm always curious. I want to learn, I want to seek to understand. And so the opportunity to embed myself in that a bit more was quite appealing to the desire to learn, you know, sports life. We say every day is school day. Everyone can learn as part of our progressive value.
No one's made it, so to speak. Yeah, So there's always something to learn. And I think I knew it would help as well. You know, we're a growing organization. It comes with a lot of challenges and so the opportunity to get an executive MBA was kind of a logical next step. I'd done a level five in leadership and management, level six and change management, so was kind of a logical next step.
Yeah, Well, and I think finally it was the opportunity to work with other students who would be on the course. Um, I'm all about people. I mentioned that and to learn with others, to bounce ideas off them, to see other perspectives was really appealing. So as a combination of all those things, yeah, that's why I wanted to come back.
So how has your MBA helped you in your work since you graduated last year then?
Yeah. So I think couple of obvious things are the kind of knowledge and the theory within leadership and management that the course gave me was really beneficial and it was the course was designed so that I could learn on the job. So it was using the platform I have at Sport for Life as a lot of the case studies and example to apply the learning and reflect on the learning.
So that was really beneficial. I think the reflections that it's given me has really helped. You know, when you're in sport for life and in the work environment, it can be a bit myopic and sometimes you can't see the woods through the trees. And so to get that helicopter view to remove myself from the situation I think really helps.
And lastly, I mentioned it as one of the rationales for during the course the opportunity to work with others. I'm great friends with them now. Three of the other master students that did the course and it was really beneficial to see their perspectives, slightly different sectors, different sizes of organizations, different positions. That was just just hugely beneficial as well.
So what would you say to those who are also considering, you know, going to university, or further education or doing a postgraduate qualification?
Yeah, I'd say mainly go for it. And because it's been such a great experience for me, yeah, I think going in with your eyes open as to what's required in terms of the time and the resource input needed, you need to be able to commit to that and probably just to enjoy it as well.
It's gone when so quickly. Yeah, and sounds a bit cheesy, but when you go into it, you're always thinking of when you graduate. But actually it's the journey that was the most enjoyable and it just went too quickly. I think so, yes. Enjoy it. Enjoy the moment.
So what advice would you give to those who are, you know, really inspired by who you are and what you do? And, you know, those who are really keen to follow in your footsteps?
Yeah, I think firstly, and it might sound a bit ironic to say this, given my personal journey, but you don't always have to set up something new. And I wish I did. And we felt there was a gap and a niche there. But there are so many great organisations, great innovations, incredible movements already out there that actually you can apply your knowledge and your skills to an existing organisation doesn't always need to be new.
Yeah, I think less is more would probably be my second piece of advice to kind of be really clear about what you offer, why you do it, how you go about it. Having clarity is really important, I think, and probably most importantly is don't go it alone. Whether that's in a different organisation or you're setting up your own thing, you can't do it by yourself.
That's not sustainable in any organisation or any walk of life. So have support mechanisms and networks around you have people to bounce ideas off, put your wellbeing first. Everything I've achieved has been as a team. There's no way I could have done it myself. So yeah, yeah, don't go it alone.
A Birmingham Quick fire round. You said you were me. Born. Born and bred. Yeah. Would you say your war snobs or pop world snobs, Blues or Villa?
Neither, because I'm a West Brom fan, right? I guess. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not my choice. That was my dad's choice.
Okay. Would you rather go to Broad Street or Digbeth?
I have to say Digbeth.
And where is your, like, favourite Brummie landmark?
I was thinking about this quite a difficult one, but I'd probably go to the bullring and Selfridges. That kind of represents the new Birmingham. Yeah, I was going to say that kind of changed the whole face of that whole area, didn't it?
Exactly. Yeah. And often when I'm walking to our office, if I'm going from town to walk past there and yeah, it's just quite a nice landmark for me.
And what is your favourite Brummie word?
I think it's got to be Bab the classic. Yeah.
So you've been selected as one of our local heroes this year at the festival. So what does that mean to you?
So I think I'm very proud to be considered a local hero. A bit surreal, if I'm honest, but yeah, it's. I'm pleased. It's an honour. Really proud. Um, don't necessarily always like being centre of attention, but I think it's testament to the wider organization and the team at Sport for Life as well.
Yeah. So it’s recognised I'm often the face of it and I'm spearheading it and I'm leading it. Of course, but it's, it's been a team effort and I definitely haven't done it alone. So yeah, definite credit and testament to everyone at the organisation.
And final question then, if you could go back to your very first day here at BCU, what year was that?
2020 when I started. Okay, so interesting time. Yeah.
What is the one piece of advice that you would give yourself? Probably to be open minded. Um, it's all about being curious. See where the learning takes you. Um, think it may surprise you, the different paths you're learning and your curiosity can take you down, I think it’s really important.
Um, and as part of being open minded, I think it's being guided by what you find interesting and what you find enjoyable. Um, and that can lead you anywhere.
Tom, thanks so much for stopping by today and coming onto the podcast and hopefully we'll see you again very soon.
Thanks for having me.