ICAS Foundation Director, Sanjay Singh, shares how he is supporting the next generation of CAs
New ICAS Foundation Director Sanjay Singh joins the charity at a time of rapid change. He tells Anna Melville-James why his own experience motivated him to move from banking to the third sector
I was never destined to take a uniform route through my career,” says Sanjay Singh, Director of the ICAS Foundation, who took up the role in October last year. Having grown up in a low-income, single-parent family, Singh says the charity’s mission is close to his heart: “My family is of Indian heritage – I was the first generation to be born in Britain. Growing up in the 1980s in a very deprived part of London I had to spend a lot of my younger years defending my background. I also observed the deep levels of discrimination against hard-working people who came from the wrong postcode or who looked different.”
Entrepreneurial from a young age, Singh was determined to make opportunities for himself. But by the time he got himself to university to pursue a degree in computer science he was struggling financially and having to work “all hours” on top of his studying.
As a result, he made the difficult decision to leave his course (”I decided that building a career for myself was more important than attaining a qualification, and nobody was around to tell me any different”), entering the finance industry instead and working his way up over the next eight years, from ground level to specialising in business banking.
“My priorities began to change after my first child was born, when I realised how privileged their upbringing would be relative to my own,” he says. “Up until this point, I’d been very motivated by earning money, probably because I’d never had any growing up. I had changed the perpetual cycle of poverty for my own family, and this made me think about the impact I could have on others using what I’d learned from my own experiences and my financial services skills.”
When the banking bubble burst in 2008, Singh took the opportunity to put his epiphany into practice: “I was 28 and it was a turning point in my life. I didn’t want to chase profit without purpose any more, so I decided on a career change, looking to the charity sector to use my skills in business development.”
From a role in a large children’s charity, he then moved to the People’s Postcode Lottery in 2014, managing the distribution of funds raised from lottery ticket sales and creating long-term partnerships with charities. “It was a wonderful opportunity to be part of a movement that enabled social change on multiple platforms,” he says. “I spent seven fulfilling years there, and by the time I moved on I had contributed to the management and distribution of over £200m pounds to over 4,000 charities, domestically and internationally. I also got to visit projects across Africa and the Middle East that were tackling issues around poverty, community engagement and development, and the refugee crisis. I was trying to enable projects that could help charities such as Unicef, British Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.”
The pandemic marked another watershed. During the first lockdown, he involved himself in immediate needs closer to home, leading patient and staff programmes and coordinating grant-making across Edinburgh’s NHS charity. Two years later, the ICAS Foundation came onto his radar.
When Singh heard that the ICAS Foundation was looking for a new director, he knew little about its purpose. “I started looking into the work it does and what it’s trying to achieve and it didn’t take me long to realise I was coming full circle,” he says. “To step up to lead an organisation whose mission is to improve social mobility for young people from low-income backgrounds was a really easy decision.
“When you have lived experience, you don’t need to research why the organisation does what it does, because you know. The ICAS Foundation resonated with me for so many reasons and I felt I had a lot to give back. The opportunity to take an organisation from its formative years and develop it was also appealing.”
Social mobility as a barrier to diversity has gained increasing awareness in the EDI space over the past few years – the ICAS Foundation is a leader in this sphere, via its work to help young people create a better future for themselves based on merit, rather than background. It’s an important lever for progress in the accountancy industry. For Singh, its wider impact on the profession is rooted in perspective and context. “Picasso felt that we don’t see an object from one angle, but from many, selected by sight and movement. And for me this has the same imperative,” says Singh. “Research shows that diversity and inclusion is not only right, but it is good business. If we just surround ourselves with others from the same background as a company or as a profession, you’ve got to then ask where’s the innovation going to come from?
“The focus for us is about reaching those that come from low-income backgrounds – and within that you get intersections of other marginalised groups too. We have an opportunity to encourage a wave of diverse talent into the accountancy sector, and to make sure that it’s both inclusive and representative of all types of people. The young people we’re working with might have been classed as disadvantaged but it doesn’t need to define them. They’ll go on to be future leaders in all sorts of industries and within the profession itself. And whether they decide to speak out about it or not, they’ll be advocates of social change and amplify the work in many different ways.”
That is something Singh knows a lot about. “Lack of financial support forced me to take a route I wasn’t necessarily planning to take when I was younger,” he says. “If anything like ICAS Foundation had existed for me at the time, would it have made a difference? Of course. That’s the truth of people in the situation I was in. It’s not because we lack academic talent, it’s about the multiple obstacles you face that affect your choices. Perhaps if I had stayed at university I would have become a tech entrepreneur, who knows? What I do know though is that all these young people need is a helping hand. We’re not creating the talent that’s already there – we’re just enabling them to move one obstacle out of the way so they can progress.”
The willingness of ICAS members to play their part is critical to the foundation’s work. “They are a crucial part of our core proposition, and key to our success, not only by providing funding through donations, but in offering to mentor too,” says Singh. “Many of our students say that while the financial support was important, it was the mentoring that made the biggest difference. They can often be the first person in their family to go to university and that monthly contact helps them to understand the journey you need to take to succeed in a finance or CA career path, to share challenges and to get insight from someone who understands.”
Chain of change
A few months into the role and Singh is already looking to the future, working on the foundation’s strategy for the next 10 years with the board of trustees. The ambition to grow the programme across the UK and internationally means the concurrent need to attract more funding and mentors as well as to create more partnerships with firms. But as the cost-of-living crisis hits, he says the need to support young people is greater than ever.
After 15 years in the charity sector, Singh feels the humility he brings to his new role is a key attribute. “Working in the sector has taught me I’m just a custodian,” he says. “At a charity, you’re there to protect its work and to make it better for the future. Everything I do at the ICAS Foundation will do that, just as the foundation continues to bridge the inequalities that exist between young people from less advantaged backgrounds and access to higher education and successful careers.
“Supporting young people is not just about the immediate impact, it has positive ripples for their families and their future for years after they’ve left our programme. That’s what excites me. It’s also about making sure whatever I do lives on far longer than my tenure. In a charity, you’re there because you genuinely care, because you believe that change can happen and you do the best you can. But it’s always about doing your part in a longer journey. Real change is about seeing the bigger picture.”
The ICAS Foundation was set up in 2012, since when it has supported 300 young people from low-income backgrounds studying an accountancy or finance-related degree by facilitating mentoring and making awards of £2.2m, with maximum bursaries of £10,000 over four years. More than 40% of ICAS Foundation students come from the most deprived areas in the UK (as measured through deprivation indexes) and 68% have progressed into CA trainee roles.
To learn more about the ICAS Foundation or to donate visit icasfoundation.org.uk