With the North East known far and wide for its entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to innovation – spawning inventions like the railway and lightbulb, which have changed the world and the course of history – a ‘can do’ attitude is a staple of the region and its people.

But over the years, with the decline of many of the North East’s traditional industries which have underpinned the livelihoods of generations of families, confidence and aspiration in many areas of the region has understandably been tested.

While new industries are emerging and thriving, with the region being at the very forefront of innovation in the likes of the digital and technology sectors, the ambitions of many people in the North East continue to be modest. But with efforts to address this, now reaping rewards, there are tangible signs of change.

One such effort to address the ambition of people in the North East is the Primary to Prosperity campaign, which combines a number of initiatives aimed at people, at all stages of their education and career, to promote the message that it is never too early or late to advance your ambitions through personal development.

“At a time when the world is becoming more divisive, it is critical that we all work together to collectively, collaboratively and cohesively support everyone within our community.”Ammar Mirza CBE

Primary to Prosperity – which includes the hugely-successful Primary Inspiration through Enterprise (PIE) Project, the region’s biggest-ever enterprise challenge for primary schools, which this year is being extended into secondary schools – also includes innovative projects such as the Cadet Apprenticeship Pathway, which offers apprenticeship opportunities to cadets, and a wellbeing and business boot camp for unemployed people, through to offering a ‘professional MOT’ for people already in the world of work. Such an all-encompassing and holistic project has been created to address aspiration and skills, particularly soft skills, at all stages of life, to offer support and encouragement to people no matter their age, background or circumstances.

Ammar Mirza CBE, founder of the Primary to Prosperity campaign, understands the struggles many people and families face in striving for success when the odds seem stacked against them. Having been brought up in Newcastle’s West End and enduring hardship for much of his formative years, he then went on to become a single parent aged 22, working all hours to support his daughter. But he believes his own experience shows that anything is possible with commitment and determination.

“I was brought up in a big, interesting family – where mum and dad were teachers and eloped to England from Pakistan, but my dad was already married so my step-mum followed them. We lived in a house in Arthur’s Hill and my step-mum lived next door. I had three step-sisters, two sisters and three brothers” he said.

“Life changed quite dramatically from being an affluent family with a number of thriving business interests to one day, sadly, my father going off to Saudi Arabia to teach and took my stepmum and all my sisters, leaving my mother with nothing. We had absolutely nothing, we lived in poverty; the highlight of our week was being able to have Jammy Dodgers on a weekend and at Christmas we bought the Radio Times to see what was on TV. My mum worked 18-hour days to try and provide for us all. I was just young, probably 7 or 8, but I remember it so clearly. My mum was a huge inspiration, an amazing person, I was very inspired by her and how hard she worked and even through our hardship we had a very loving upbringing.”

“I remember even at that time thinking that I wanted to work, I didn’t want to be poor. I got my first Saturday job aged 11 in a shop on the West Road. I didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career, but whatever it was I wanted to be the best at it and make money. People often think it is a controversial thing to admit to want to make money or encourage others to do so. “It isn’t all about the money” people say, but it is usually those with money that say this. We need to help all of our future generations to recognise and appreciate that money isn’t a bad thing and making money provides options, addresses poverty and deprivation, and reduces social challenges.”

“My mum worked so hard and went on to build a property portfolio, which she earned the money to buy as she didn’t believe in mortgages, I am so proud of what she did. But I think that when you have lived in poverty at some stage of your life, that never really leaves you. Even when she was retired and should have been living very comfortably, she was so frugal and would use her free bus pass to go from one side of Newcastle to the other as she had found a shop where the bread was 4p cheaper.”

After a brief stint working in London for the Civil Service, Ammar began a career with United Artists – which went on to become communications giant Telewest – and worked his way up to become responsible for IT service delivery nationally. However, such a demanding job had to be balanced against another role – that of being a single parent to his daughter Yasmin.

“It was difficult; being a single working parent is very challenging. For me, something that was very important for my daughter was getting a good education, I firmly believe good education is at the root of everything. I worked so hard to be able to educate her privately. Was it the best thing for her, I’m not sure. But as a parent, you will always do what you think is best for your children.”

That belief in education has inspired much of Ammar’s community work over the years, which has seen him dedicate huge amounts of time voluntarily to helping communities, charities, businesses and young people, and saw him acknowledged with a CBE in 2014 followed by numerous accolades and awards from prestigious organisations and institutes including the IOD, House of Lords, Maserati top 100 and Northern Powerhouse to name but a few. Among his many achievements within the North East community are working with local authorities to secure funding for the City Deal, representing the private sector on Local Strategic Partnerships, spending 9 years at Your Homes Newcastle leading commercial activities so that more money could be re-invested in social housing to improve local lives, and setting up Asian Business Connexions to support and promote the region’s thriving community. He is also a trustee on a number of charities, a visiting Professor at Newcastle University and a passionate supporter of helping businesses start up and grow through his voluntary role as a board member at the North East LEP.

Leading by example, Ammar has dedicated a significant amount of time on personal and professional development, undertaking a Post Graduate Diploma in Leadership and Management to go on and become a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. Thereafter, even going back to study full-time in 2014, whilst managing several businesses to gain an MBA with a distinction, followed my numerous distant learn and practitioner courses. Ammar’s unquenchable thirst for learning never being satisfied, helping inform the various programmes and initiatives that Ammar has gone on to develop and deliver.

Ammar’s business successes has taken him across the globe working with the likes of Microsoft, Barclays, McDonalds alongside helping launch several hundred new businesses, supporting existing businesses to grow, and turning around a number of failing organisations. A qualified programme and project manager, and a leading business management consultant, Ammar has worked across the public, private and third sectors and is now concentrating his efforts on developing bi-lateral trade links with India, opening up opportunities for North East businesses looking to explore international markets.

Recognising the importance that industry plays on influencing education, in his role as Chair of Governors at Tyneview Primary School in Walker, Newcastle, Ammar saw an opportunity to positively engage both children and parents in promoting aspiration and attainment, and spearheaded the creation of the Big PIE Challenge. Now rolled out to scores of schools across the whole North East region, it has seen thousands of children being engaged in a business and enterprise challenge which sees them rewarded with a vocational qualification at the end of it.

“The Big PIE Challenge has been so successful and businesses have really got on board with it. It was important to me that we didn’t go after backing from the likes of Richard Branson or Alan Sugar, we wanted local North East businesses, names that kids and their parents had seen and would recognise. And the North East business community has been brilliant, we have so many backers, a wonderful trust board, and we are continuing to grow. We have now just gone into secondary schools, which gives the opportunity to build on prior achievements. So if a child gets an entry level qualification in primary school, they can then aim for Level One in secondary school,” he said.

“And with PIE, it is very much about engaging with the parents too, helping them to understand the benefit of education and developing life skills and business skills from a very early age. We had a big awards ceremony where the kids were presented certificates by Sir John Hall, and through achieving their qualification aged 9, 10 or 11, many of those kids had become better qualified than their parents. To open their eyes to achievement and reward at such an early age is very valuable.”

Equally, the Cadet Apprenticeship Pathway is another means of engaging young people at crucial stages of their development, by showcasing the benefits of being a cadet and in securing an apprenticeship.

“Our armed forces are amazing and provide so many opportunities to young people, extra curricular activities in particular. Only around 5-10 percent of cadets actually go on to join the armed forces, so the project isn’t really about a career in the forces, it’s about the life skills it can teach you, in going on to do whatever you want to do,” said Ammar. “And from the point of view of a business, which we put these young people in front of as part of the Cadet Apprenticeship Pathway, they are seeing a work-ready young person who might well be right for their organisation. The Apprentice Levy introduced by the government has made apprenticeships something that many businesses are now getting involved with, so there are benefits all round to this project.”

With the continued growth of Primary to Prosperity that incorporates peer tutoring, using culture and arts including the Newcastle Film Festival to engage with young people, mentoring for individuals looking to grow their businesses and underpinned by the particular success of the PIE Project, Ammar is committed to championing aspiration in the North East.

“We need to encourage people to be the best they can be and provide them with, or show them where, to find the help and support to be able to do that. We are providing support at all stages of life, particularly at the very early stages, in a holistic fashion – I want to show it is never too late and that nothing is a barrier,” he said.

“Whilst I am now very happily married with an amazingly supportive wife and a five year old son, I have come from a very challenging background encountering various trials and tribulations. Probably because of these experiences, I now try to be generous with my time and my money. I spend a lot of my time, two or three days every week, helping and supporting good causes or trying to benefit the North East, which I absolutely love. My projects are financed by funding that I secure or else I pay for myself, so there is no cost to the people who use them. I am absolutely committed to this and to helping the North East and the people who live here to realise their talents and potential and to help them succeed.”

“At a time when the world is becoming more divisive, it is critical that we all work together to collectively, collaboratively and cohesively support everyone within our community, whether it is volunteering, offering opportunities to those less fortunate, or simply supporting existing activities, we have a moral and ethical responsibility to champion our North East and all that is great within it.”

Ammar Mirza CBE is the founder and chairman of Asian Business Connexions, Board member of North East LEP and holds various other positions across the private, public and third sectors.