RARE  RISINGSTARS 2014 The UK’s Top 10 Black Students
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Melba Mwanje: Disruptive Influence

 
photo of Melba Mwanje
After appearing in Rare Rising Stars while she was at university for her achievements with youth charity SE1 United, Melba Mwanje is no stranger to making waves. Carlton McFarlane caught up with her to hear how she plans to make an even bigger splash in the corporate world.

Never having met Melba, I headed into our interview with a ringing endorsement from Rare’s Managing Director Raphael Mokades still echoing in my ears. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time at Rare, it’s that the foundation of its success is Raph’s amazing judgement of character. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. At the time of writing, Melba is two months into a new role as Head of Corporate Social Innovation at the Young Foundation. She actually wanted the title to be Head of Disruptive Corporate Social Innovation but soon realised that this was “already a bit of a mouthful” for people to swallow. While that may well be true, the extra word would certainly strike at the heart of why Melba and the Young Foundation would appear, for the time being at least, to be a match made in heaven.

Melba’s work has always been about looking at problems in new ways, and about challenging common notions around social problems. Seasoned followers of Rare Rising Stars will remember the reasons for Melba’s continued recognition in the awards. SE1 United – the South London charity she co‑founded in 2002 and now sits on the Board of Trustees of – works towards the provision of safe, creative and stimulating places for young people to meet, realise their potential, and become leaders of their own lives. She was also celebrated for research she conducted, as part of her MA in African Studies at Oxford, into the social processes underpinning inequality in Angola, from a variety of disciplinary perspectives

Things have moved on a long way since Melba last featured on the pages of Rare Rising Stars, and yet, some things remain exactly as they were. Whilst she did enjoy a dalliance with the corporate sector, training as an accountant with KPMG, she continues to push SE1 United forward and expand its remit with innovative programmes: the latest is aimed at providing young people with eight weeks of cultural, socio‑historical and linguistic training in advance of embarking on international placements.

The idea seems in keeping with Melba’s intellectual roots: she professes her love of ethnography and identifies herself as “a sociologist by trade”. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that she didn’t hesitate when the new CEO of the Young Foundation came calling. The foundation is the result of a 2005 merger between two organisations set up by influential Labour peer, Michael Young – the Institute of Community Studies (1954) and the Mutual Aid Centre. Like Melba, Young was a progressive sociologist and an ethnographer – he was a key figure in shaping the post‑war Welfare State and his work is responsible for a lot of what we now accept about the development of inner city communities. As such, the foundation has a rich history of disrupting the way we think about social problems, and of providing a nursery for innovative solutions.

melba with some children photo

Well‑known institutions like the Open University and NHS Direct can trace their genesis back to Young Foundation projects and ideas, and yet there is a perception that the organisation has retreated from the front line in recent times. Melba’s task, along with ten other new senior recruits across the organisation, is to return it to the battlefields: "In the 1980s, when Michael Young was still doing his work, there was a lot of research that led to action, organisations like Which? [the consumer watchdog] and the ESRC [the Economic and Social Research Council]. In the past decade, the Young Foundation has been a reputable think tank and we have made significant contributions to thought leadership and policy advising, but we haven’t really contributed to a 21st century reform movement. This is why I have set up our newest department. My role involves exploring new and collaborative ways to connect the social innovation world with the business world, and bringing them to life."

Melba plans to utilise contacts developed across four continents during her time in the public and private sectors to become the disruptive influence she has always threatened to be. She has been brought in as a leader in her field that has “a reputation for getting great things done, quickly”: she certainly isn’t wasting any time and has already sketched out ten separate projects that she will incubate until one “catches fire”. Whilst she is still in the stage of actively searching for corporate and institutional funding for these projects, her enthusiasm isn’t dampened.

“I’m working on a project now that attempts to re‑define corporate spaces, and inject life and random acts of social activity in the middle of our traditional corporate hubs – places like Canary Wharf, Bank and Temple. I’m most excited about that one as I’m a lover of the unexpected, of challenging ideas, shocking [people] and seeing what can be born from that.”

I have to be honest – I share her excitement. The combination of her drive, motivation and skills, with the network, reach and legacy of an institution like the Young Foundation, is tantalising. It remains to be seen whether the corporate world is ready to stomach the kind of disruptive change that is required to rectify the structural inequality in the current social and economic system. One thing is for sure, though: if anyone can be the spoonful of sugar to help the private sector swallow the medicine, then I, for one, am convinced that it is Melba.