Helping young people be the best they can be

Alumnus Mike Power on where his passion for improving access to education came from

My dad, the boy who went down the pits at 14, was right: 'the best universities are for people like us.'
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Mike Power stands in front of the Old Building.

Despite humble beginnings, Mike Power OBE (BSc Economics, 1970) made it as a leader in business, working with Proctor and Gamble for 33 years and as COO of the 2012 London Olympics bid. Now a benefactor to a portfolio of causes, Mike talks to us about his life, how an LSE education has helped him, and why he has decided to give back by leaving a legacy to the School.

You are a great believer in the power of education to change lives. Where does that belief stem from?

I am the fortunate son of a far-sighted Irish immigrant labourer who, more than most, understood the power of education for social advancement, and whose primary goal in life was to see his children never to have to do manual labour as he had. 

My grandfather was a baker and, at 14, my father went down the coal mines in Wales. The family moved to Birmingham, where my father was a labourer on public works and, after World War Two, to London where he did similar jobs before becoming a factory worker for the last 25 years of his life. 

My father was a lifelong fighter against social injustice and had an obsessive belief in education as the vehicle for advancement and social change. But we lived in a council house, he was a labourer and his aspirations were countercultural. When my older brother won a place at Oxford in the mid 50s, thanks to an inspirational teacher who shared my father's ambitions, factory colleagues asked him ‘Why is your son going to Oxford? That place is not for people like us.’ 

So, when I heard a woman from a similar background say to me at an LSE reception, 'LSE is not for us, it’s a place for posh people,’ I was staggered. Without doubt LSE's strength is the diversity of people and thought from all backgrounds. Yet some 60 years on, the same perception my father encountered was here before my own eyes. 

Why did you decide on LSE?

LSE stood out for me because of its reputation for radical thought, its historical origins in the philosophy of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, its diversity, and its reputation for academic excellence. I have to confess also to wanting to go to University in London of the swinging 60s. 

I wanted to study economics, influenced by my father's belief in enterprise and significant employee share ownership as a way of employees having a stake in the commercial success of their business. The one thing I was relatively good at was mathematics and the LSE Economics degree with a specialisation in Statistics was irresistible.

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Mike's parents, Michael and Phyllis Power (c. 1968)

How can we nurture today’s young talent?

One of the things I have learned over my many years in business is that human beings can achieve extraordinary things if you give them the opportunity. If you hire, train, mentor, coach, reward and retain the best talent, then you can build a great organisation in any setting because organisations are all about great people, well-led and motivated.

Paradoxically, while the UK has a very large cadre of successful leaders, it is unusual for their experience and expertise to be offered to those who might most benefit - people about to embark on their careers. 

If you believe, as I do, that the role of every generation is to help the next one become the best they can be, we need to make that expertise available through mentoring and coaching. The most valuable gift the older generation can give is its time, expertise, and experience. 

I also believe that helping women, minorities and the less advantaged navigate the ladder of career progress is integral to the long-term health of the economy and society. It is no secret that these groups are under-represented in the highest echelons of the corporate world and that is an enormous loss to us all. Diversity of background and thought is the grit in the oyster that produces pearls of ideas.  

What informed your choice of a legacy gift to LSE?

My parents worked very hard to provide for their children, but I never felt deprived and certainly not poor. There weren't many luxuries and, when at LSE, I commuted daily from home in Hounslow. Yet our generation were, in some ways, the lucky ones -- free University education, maintenance grants (even if it wasn't enough to buy a pint in The Three Tuns), mortgage tax relief and so on.

The price of that good fortune, though, was that less than 10% of my grammar school class could go to University because the government deemed that the country's finances couldn't afford such largesse on a mass scale. In the intervening 50 years, access to higher education has expanded hugely and some welcome transformations have occurred. For example, on our undergraduate course, there were only two or three women; and there weren’t any on my master’s course. That glass ceiling has been well and truly broken.

But reality is that this progress has come at a price, and I am concerned that those who are in the position I was in may struggle to be able to afford the education opportunity I was given. To that extent, we make charitable donations to both LSE and Lancaster Universities (where I read my masters) and to some School causes. And while I don't entirely subscribe to Andrew Carnegie's view that "The man who dies rich dies disgraced", we have provided a legacy to both Universities in our wills.

While I accept that not everyone has a strong altruistic streak, let me, tongue in cheek, put the business case. Making sure that every student has the opportunity to be the best they can be is a good investment. For they will pay for your pensions in future and may even be performing life-saving surgery on you one day. 

So how would you reckon your Dad did by his kids?

Of my father's three children and nine grandchildren, five went to Oxbridge, three went to Russell Group Universities and the other four had successful careers. My dad, the boy who went down the pits at 14, was right: "the best universities are for people like us".