‘Dare to dream’ urges first black president of Bristol Junior Chamber of Commerce

April 4, 2014

From Bristol 24-7 www.bristol247.com

Karl Brown this week took on the role of president of the Bristol Junior Chamber of Commerce.

Born and bred in Downend after his parents left the Caribbean to live in Bristol in the 1960s, one of his aims during his year in office is to inspire the city’s underprivileged children who may think they can't aspire to a job in the professions.

George Bernard Shaw’s mantra is a guiding principle: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask, why not?”

Bristol24-7 editor Chris Brown spoke to him and heard how he intends to be a role model for underprivileged children across a city still divided between the haves and have-nots.

Tell us a little of your background

My parents came over from the Caribbean in the 1960s and settled in Bristol. I am a Bristol lad though, born at Southmead Hospital and grew up in Downend where I went to junior school and then Downend comprehensive.

I had a happy childhood, and was really interested in history and critical analysis. The school was great – we had some great teachers but it didn’t have the connections of the more established schools.

I studied law at the University of Hertfordshire, before coming back to Bristol for a year to do a diploma course. Then it was a case of getting my foot in the door. I did paralegal work, legal assistant work, in London before doing my training in Somerset.

I sent in the region of 100 applications to get my foot in the door – it’s a very competitive profession – but with help from mentors and my own perseverance I eventually got my training contract.

Since 2005 I have been at Clarke Willmott in central Bristol and now I am a commercial property solicitor.

How did you get involved in the Bristol Junior Chamber of Commerce?

Through a client from work. He was president of the BJC at the time and he suggested I should join. I thought it was a go-getting group and, six months after, I put myself forward for election to be the chair of education and skills.

I was chair of education and skills for four years, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the job was going in to less privileged schools and meeting children without the know-how of those going to the more privileged institutions.

We did mock job interviews and applications and I gave them tips and training to help them get their foot in the door, and I felt that I had given something back to the community.

I put myself forward as vice president of the BJC last April and the last 12 months has been very busy and a slightly different role – building relationships with major stakeholders in the city and developing our international links to similar groups in Germany and as far as China, where we visited last year.

What are you aims for the coming year?

I am passionate believer in social mobility. From my own experience of being a child of Caribbean immigrants, not having links to professions such as law and having to work my way up the ladder, I do see a real issue in improving social mobility in the UK. So I want to build on our existing education programmes to help children from less privileged areas get work in the professions.

I also want to try to promote the BJC as a diverse organisation, not just in cultural or race terms, but also the range of professions. I really want to recruit more from the creative industries, and to represent the Greater Bristol area, not just the central area – I do have a bias being a Downend lad, after all!

How do you create a more diverse workforce and help the less privileged into professions such as law?

There are no quick fixes. I am very passionate in my belief that Bristol is a great city, but in some ways it is a town of two cities. I believe the way to better Bristol will be if we build bridges between both sections of the city.

One of the direct ways we have been trying to promote diversity is not just with the school projects, but also other education initiatives such as the Bristol Leadership programme. We take children from disadvantaged areas and teach them how to prepare for interviews and to network. As a follow up, I have arranged work experience at Clarke Willmott, so children get practical experience which goes on their CV. Hopefully that has given them an insight into this type of world – and hopefully Clarke Willmott get an insight into those students and create links with them and their schools.

Why do children from more privileged background find it easier to succeed?

From my experience, it is a combination of a few factors. Students from privileged backgrounds tend to have parents in the professions such as law and accounting, and they have been able to help their children more in gaining work experience compared to parents outside of that network.

Privileged schools have also had a keener focus on preparing students for the world of work.

And having role models has been so important – if you grow up seeing a local solicitor or doctor in your day to day life, it’s not so difficult to make that leap of faith and believe you could follow them. If you don’t see those role models, even if you are ambitious, you get discouraged because you don’t see people you can relate to. It’s a vicious circle.

What do you think you will bring as the city’s first black president of the BJC?

I am humbled by being the first black president. Having someone of my background at the top of the BJC should send a signal that you can have diversity in business and the professions, and someone like me can make it. I want to see my role as setting an example, that children from any background can make it as well.

Who were your role models?

I have always been interested in history and current affairs, so my role models growing up included Robert Kennedy, who was very passionate about social justice. There was a former prime minister of Jamaica, Michael Manley, and beyond that I am big fan of sport, so I had heroes such as Michael Schumacher, Brian Lara and Viv Richards.

I have always thought there is not much difference between sports stars and how they prepare to achieve success to how other people in other walks of life prepare.

Around Downend, I would always start from home. I don’t need to look beyond my parents for inspiration. They came from very underprivileged backgrounds – my dad was a plasterer and my mum was a hospital ward manager. What I saw was a great work ethic. I learned to set myself a goal, work hard towards it, deal with the bumps along the road that all of us face, and then achieve that goal.

Have you come across racism as you grew up?

I wouldn’t say I have come across anything too nasty. There may have been the odd teasing when I was young, but nothing bad. I had great experiences at my local junior school and at Downend comprehensive.

There has been nothing overt to getting access to the law, but there may be wider barriers from not being from the public school kind of background.

But as with any barriers, I have just tried to work through or around them, and that attitude comes from parents.

My favourite quote is from George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask, why not?” That sums it up for me. We all have dreams and if they aren’t reality yet, it doesn’t mean that with hard work and application those dreams can’t come true.


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