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Mona Mourshed: Creating economic opportunity through education

Mona Mourshed

October 20 2016

Mona Mourshed, Vice President of the McKinsey Social Initiative’s Board of Directors and Executive Director of Generation, shares her passion for creating opportunities for young people through education and financial empowerment. [7 minute read]

The hundreds of millions of young adults who are unemployed and underemployed are disconnected from the economic sector…When tomorrow seems uncertain, long-term global sustainability is the last thing on their minds.

Thomson Reuters Sustainability: Please tell us a bit about your journey and your current role?

Mona Mourshed: I am Egyptian-American. Education has always played a huge role in both my life and that of my family. My father was raised in the Cairo slums; his family couldn’t afford electricity so he had to study outside at night underneath a street lamp. He studied so hard that he earned one of the top scores on the national secondary school finishing exam, which then won him a fiercely competed slot at Cairo University and enabled him to get a scholarship to study in the U.S. That determination to move forward through education has not only repeated through my life, but it is also the source of my drive to offer every child and young person that same chance.

Today, I wear two hats – I lead the global education practice at McKinsey & Company where I am a senior partner, and I am the executive director of a global youth employment non-profit organization called Generation.

What unites both roles is my passion for supporting young people in successfully navigating the transition from education to employment so that they can have fulfilling careers and achieve personal and financial well-being for themselves and their families.

One of the things I’m most excited about is the progress that Generation has made in the less than two years since it launched. Generation recruits, trains, and places young adults in jobs in each of five countries – India, Kenya, Mexico, Spain, and the U.S. – with a goal of helping young people achieve personal and professional success and providing employers with a better source of entry-level talent.

We have grown incredibly fast, and are now in more than 50 sites in 23 cities, on track to reach more than 10,000 young adults by year’s end. That alone would make us one of the largest global young employment programs already, but we’re not done there. Our goal is to reach 1 million young people by 2020.

The support we’ve received from the communities where Generation works has been extraordinary. And the young people who have graduated from the Generation program have excelled – they have achieved a 91% job placement rate and an 87% retention rate after three months on the job. And 98% of employers say they want to hire Generation graduates again!

TRS: How does your current work help contribute to global sustainability?

MM: Economic opportunity is a critical enabler of sustainable global development – as reflected by its inclusion in the UN’s sustainable development goals.

There are 75 million young people unemployed globally and nearly three times as many underemployed. At the same time, 40 per cent of employers say that they cannot find people with the skills they need for even entry-level positions.

This skills gap represents a massive pool of untapped talent. It is also a source of economic underperformance, social unrest, and individual despair. By addressing the skills gap – through programs like Generation – we can support young adults in finding not just jobs, but careers. We believe that their economic success will not only improve their own well-being, but that of their families and their larger communities.

TRS: Why does empowering women help make the planet more sustainable? And is economic empowerment the most crucial aspect? 

Over 60 per cent of Generation’s graduates are young women, and 40 per cent of them have children. So we experience firsthand the way in which their lives are transformed when they are empowered with the skills they need to achieve economic success. The impact is immediate – following a 5- to 12-week Generation program, our graduates attain jobs that place them above the 50th income percentile in their country.

Both men and women make valuable economic contributions to the regions in which they live. As research shows, when women gain economic freedom, they are more likely to invest in education, family, and community. And strong local and global communities are better positioned to support sustainability objectives.

TRS: What is the potential for your economic sector to contribute to global sustainability and why?

MM: The hundreds of millions of young adults who are unemployed and underemployed are disconnected from the economic sector – and in many cases largely disconnected from society. They are stuck in a state of despair for their own future and that of their families and communities.

When tomorrow seems uncertain, long-term global sustainability is the last thing on their minds.

Programs like Generation that connect young adults to jobs and, therefore, their communities provide a launching pad to changing that long-term view. We’ve partnered with Gallup to track the impact Generation has on the young people who participate in it, and we’ve seen the transformation in the results. Generation graduates are more likely to be “thriving” (the label we use for the highest level of well-being) than their non-Generation peers.

For example, in looking at community well-being – whether they like where they live and have been recently recognized for improving their community – they score more than 20 percentage points higher than their peers who did not participate in Generation.

TRS: How can men in particular lead on the empowerment of women?

Male leaders have important roles to play in creating the conditions for women to tap into economic opportunity and thrive. This is particularly important when it comes to frontline roles, where women will often opt out because they can’t make their work demands sync with their family demands.

For example, one of our Generation employers allows well-performing call center employees to work from home after their first three months on the job. This is a huge lever of flexibility for female employees who are struggling with child care. Another of our Generation employers creates stable work shifts so that female employees can more readily plan their family lives around them.

What’s the most important thing our leaders can do to empower women?

Supporting women begins by supporting girls. This spans enrolling and completing school to being safe from violence. As young women enter the workplace, gender equality is not just a moral and social issue; it is also an economic one.

A McKinsey Global Institute report, The Power of Parity, found that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by advancing women’s equality. The report finds that the most important interventions to achieve this parity include education, family planning, maternal health, financial inclusion, digital inclusion, and assistance with unpaid care.

What would you tell young people looking at all the problems faced by our world?

Education can catapult you through social and economic challenge. Focus on that, work hard, and be alert to people/programs who can help you along the way.

What gives you hope? 

The young adults I encounter through my work with Generation give me an incredible sense of hope and optimism for the future of our world.

Young people such as Jessica in the U.S., who has now been working in healthcare for over a year and has been recognized by her patients – and her employer – for her incredible attitude and work ethic. She has also been able to spend more time with her young children and stop living paycheck to paycheck.

Or Gabi in Mexico, who works in retail and was offered a promotion to supervisor in only two months, allowing her to start to realize her dream of a better future for her young daughter.

Or Stanley in Kenya, who is in a sales role at an insurance company and is working hard to cover the school fees of his brothers and sisters.

I’m struck by how many of our graduates are driven by the goal of improving the lives of their children or siblings – they fight incredibly hard to make sure that their families have a better future. That is the very definition of hope.

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