Speaking for Ourselves

Meet Elham Fardad, the campaigner unlocking young migrants’ potential

Meet Elham Fardad, the campaigner unlocking young migrants’ potential

Silvia Tadiello

 Migrant Voice - Meet Elham Fardad, the campaigner unlocking young migrants’ potential


Elham Fardad thought she had “done alright”, as she puts it. Originally from Iran, she had lived in the UK since she was 13 years old, and had now worked successfully as a Finance Director in large companies for 23 years. Things hadn’t always been easy, and in her first few years in the country, she had faced her own challenges: she had to learn a new language, had changed three state schools in three years, and her family had broken up.

At 18, she was living with her single mother and younger brother, and she was sure that only through education would she be able to get herself out of that difficult situation. She wanted to go to university.

“But I was going to be counted as an international student, because I had only been in the UK for a few years,” explains Elham. This made a sizeable difference in terms of fees and other support granted to students. “So I camped outside Birmingham City Council offices for three days, until someone agreed to count me as a home student.”

“That was such a lifeline, and it felt really good – not only because I got to go to university, but because it confirmed what I knew in my heart: that I was a Brummie.” By the time she was 25, Elham had landed her big break as a Financial Controller in GE, and went on to work as a Finance Director for over two decades.

But in 2017, Elham read the Parker Review, an independent report about diversity in UK boards. “It opened my eyes and my heart sank, because I realised that there were still others who were facing the same difficulties that I had, and maybe even more.”

The review showed that ethnic minorities and migrants made up a tiny percentage of UK board directors, less than 2%, and even those were almost always privately educated. Elham realised that more needed to be done for young people from migrant backgrounds to give them access to better career opportunities. “Migrants in Britain are very talented, but they lack the social capital, connections and insight they need to fulfil their potential,” she says.

Today, Elham is the CEO of Migrant Leaders, the charity she founded as a response to the Parker Review. She speaks confidently about her story and her work, recalling precise information with ease, and her brown eyes brighten up as she speaks of the young people the charity has been able to help in the past four years.

The charity works with first- and second- generation migrants between 16 and 25 years old, as well as white British young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Everyone who gets onto our programme, which is completely free of charge, gets a senior mentor from one of the companies we work with,” explains Elham. Migrant Leaders now have 890 mentors from nearly one hundred prestigious firms in different sectors, from finance to medicine. Mentees stay in the programme for three to five years, and throughout this time, mentors (and the wider Migrant Leaders programme) help them with internships, workshops, career advice, industry insights, interview practice, networking and more. “We now have 865 mentees on the programme” in 52 locations across the UK, says Elham. “They stay with us until they land their first job, and even later. It really feels like a family.”

Elham, who now lives in London and is married with two children, explains that her family was “supportive but surprised” when she decided to launch Migrant Leaders charity. “They couldn’t at first see the vision I had for it in my head.” Her own strong belief in her plan is what motivated her to carry on in the first few months, she adds. Today, it’s the mentees’ stories that drive her.

The stories are published on the charity’s website and their impact reports: there is James, the first in his family to attend university, who after three years with Migrant Leaders was able to secure his dream graduate job at Kantar; there is Wasifa, who thanks to her mentor’s insights was the first in her school to attend Medical Sciences at University College London; and many others who have been able to step out of what they thought were their limits.

“I expected young people would be interested in the programme,” says Elham. But the initiative exceeded her own expectations, gaining support from the firms themselves: “The programme has been really successful in delivering results, and mentors and corporate partners like to see positive, tangible outcomes” like the mentees’ employment and internship rates. However, Elham thinks there is something more to it: “I think it’s because there are more good people in the world than we think.”

Although most professionals she worked with have been enthusiastic of the project, Elham admits that a handful of voices have mentioned the ‘migrants taking our jobs’ trope, voices which have been more vocal with Brexit. But, she adds, Brexit also compelled some corporate executives to work more with migrants, refugees and charities.

And last year, the Covid pandemic has hit the team hard - emotionally. With offices closed, Elham says, “at first I thought this would be an operational challenge.” But the charity adapted quickly, developing virtual work experiences with its partners, and organising Covid-safe, on-site internships in the summer. What Elham didn’t expect was how tough it would be to be faced with stories of loss, homelessness, unemployment. “Those went to our heart,” she says, adding that it helped to focus on solutions and providing support for her mentees.

After four years, Elham feels that Migrant Leaders is ready to scale up its programme and reach even more young people, and she encourages anyone who is eligible to apply to it – and to not lose hope. She has a message to any struggling young person: “In your darkest moment, even when everything seems hopeless, do not give up,” she says. “If you give up, it’s game over. Even if every bone in your body says ‘This is a disaster, I’m never going to get anywhere’ – accept that you have the talent and the strength to get yourself out of that situation… Do not lose hope, do not give up.”

Image description: Elham Fardad (centre) with young people from the Migrant Leaders' programme.

Image credit: Courtesy of Elham Fardad.

To know more about Migrant Leaders and its work, visit the charity’s website. If you would like to join the Migrant Leaders Development Programme, visit this page and complete the online application form.


Get in touch

Migrant Voice
VAI, 200a Pentonville Road,
N1 9JP

Phone: +44 (0) 207 832 5824
Email: [email protected]

Registered Charity
Number: 1142963 (England and Wales); SC050970 (Scotland)

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