Denise Stephenson, founder and CEO

My day job is … a partner in planning law.

In ROK, I am … founder and CEO.

I started ROK … in February 2011 after seeing all the negative press about children, youth and gang culture and the knife crime. I grew up on a council estate but there were things for us to do and we had role models, positive black and Asian people who wanted us to make more of our lives.

Recent government policy and austerity measures means that, for many, this does not exist anymore, which just adds to the feeling young people have of being bored, hopeless, helpless and disconnected.

I also realised that even though it’s been 20 years since I was at school, there were still few opportunities for young people who were from more modest/disadvantaged backgrounds to interact with or even be exposed to people who looked like them and had similar experiences to them, but who had succeeded in their respective careers. I sought to bridge that gap by bringing BAME professionals into the school environment and taking these students into the world of work, to show them that they were capable of achieving what we had achieved and more! They just need to be given the tools to achieve it, the encouragement to believe it and the practical support to succeed in it.

I think the work ROK does is … crucially important, especially at this time. It’s so important children and young people are supported by people who look like them and have gone through similar life experiences. Diversity is a buzzword for many, but is key to the work we do. The media and some elements of society would have you believe that BAME/working class children do not achieve and only end up in gangs or as dependants. Young people are very impressionable so it’s down to us to help them change the story and to make the media and society sit up and take notice of their achievements.

It starts with hope. Once that lightbulb moment occurs for a child/young person and they begin to believe in themselves and start to apply themselves, the world really is their oyster. But it takes a lot of hard work, strength and determination.

My favourite ROK memory … is our very first presentation in 2011. Two close friends of mine stepped in at the eleventh hour as I was unable to find anyone to present for us! We had no time to prepare beforehand so practised in the car as we drove down to the school. 45 excited young students turned up and were so surprised to see and hear from three black women from working-class backgrounds: a solicitor, a barrister and a DJ and supervisor working with young people.

They sat and heard our stories and their eyes widened as we went along. At the end of the presentation, there were so many questions that we ran over into the next lesson and the teacher had to (somewhat forceably!) bring the session to an end. Lightbulb moments occurred all over the classroom on that day!

If I could sum up ROK in three words, they would be … dynamic, passionate, driven.