As part of the School House Starter Careers series, Charlie Mayhew, MBE, who is co-founder and CEO of Tusk, a conservation charity in Africa, explains how a job in the City launched him into charity work.
Like so many of us, I selected my A-levels and then left school without any clear idea of what I might do as a career. My initial thinking was to become an engineer and pursue my passion for motor racing. I got a place to study engineering at university to do just that when I left Wellington College in 1979, but first, I was determined to take a year out. It was during this period that I was introduced to Africa and my eyes were opened to a much bigger and more interesting world which, unbeknownst to me then, would eventually shape my life as it is today.
During this gap year, I experienced a sea-change in my thinking, and rightly or wrongly, I gave up the place to do engineering and spent a further year working my way around the world. Returning to the UK, I was faced with the stark reality of starting a career, or at least getting a ‘proper’ job – but what? I really wasn’t sure, but I managed to secure an interview to become a trainee Lloyds marine insurance broker at Willis Faber – the only non graduate recruited thanks to having experienced the ‘university of life’.
This early phase of my working life was great fun and provided me with an invaluable insight into the corporate world and indeed the City of London – an experience that has forever been helpful to me in later life. But Africa was always beckoning. In 1985, Willis Faber was good enough to sponsor me to lead a major six-month European expedition overland from London to Cape Town. The trip became a turning point in my life, as I was suddenly made aware of the very real conservation issues facing Africa’s wildlife, which ultimately stimulated the creation of Tusk, the African conservation charity.
I returned home knowing that a future in the Lloyds insurance market was not going to satisfy me and I was anxious to earn more money. I was enticed into the financial services industry where the rewards were greater and I had the chance to develop my own client base and business. However, the magnetic pull of Africa and my growing concern for its disappearing wildlife led me to co-found Tusk in 1990. It was only meant to be a hobby and a way of giving something back, but the charity developed a momentum of its own and in 2005, I was faced with the reality that I must focus on either my business or the charity.
Following my heart rather than my head, I chose the latter – not a clever decision financially, but for job satisfaction I have absolutely no regrets. It has sometimes been tough for my incredibly supportive wife, Caroline, and our four children, who have all made sacrifices, but thankfully we have all developed a deep love of Africa, its people and wildlife.
I don’t believe that opting out of university was a mistake – although I am quite sure I could have benefitted from it and had fun – and I am grateful that I gained some very useful experience in the City, and from running my own business before I embarked upon establishing the charity. I am convinced that an appreciation of the business world is essential for anyone entering the voluntary sector (I feel the same way about our politicians, whom I feel should have real experience of the world outside politics before entering it). The contacts that I gained in business and the lessons I learnt from selling have proved to be vital assets for driving Tusk forward and building it into the organisation that it is today.
I worry about how today’s school leavers are seemingly forced into university and in many cases, undertake mediocre courses rather than embark on starter careers or choose to do an apprenticeship. University is not, and should not be, for everyone.
Life is too short to pursue a career that does not bring you some happiness and satisfaction. I feel fortunate that I stumbled upon a path that has enriched my life considerably and the decisions that I took when I left school have never haunted or hindered me. As ever, it is so important to recognise and take opportunities when they present themselves early on in one’s career. It is not about being lucky but creating one’s own luck and being master of your own destiny.
READ MORE: Starter Careers: How I Became a Journalist