An interview with Lily Lapenna Huda, the founder of MyBnk, the charity making its mark on young people across the UK...

Why oh why don't they teach you how to fill in a self-assessment tax return at school? Yes, it's that time of year again; I’m walking down a leafy North London Street, mourning the loss of the last three days spent sorting receipts, trying to remember how much I earnt last year and generally falling pray to an unwelcome Tsunami of tax related paperwork. What I don't realise is how fitting the thoughts are, because I’m on my way to meet Lily Lapenna Huda; who has nothing if not a timely interest in my grumblings. Yes, Lily is the founder of a quite exceptional charity for underprivileged youths; MyBnk. Why the spelling? Because it's text speak of course - attributed to the organisation by the myriad of youngsters who have benefitted from her particular brand of altruism.

So what does this charity offer the young people it targets? Business acumen of course - and lots of it. As the MyBnk website explains; '46,000 young people, learning about money and business - doing it for real.' Yes, that's the manifesto and in the five short years since its launch Lily and her team have been hard at work making sure the organisation lives up to its promises.

So where did such a vocational (and decidedly humanitarian) mission start? 'After my degree, I went to Bangladesh to work on microfinance.' Lily explains. 'I learned about the power of small loans; helping people (women in that case) come out of poverty and into independence.' A light bulb moment followed swiftly by the uphill struggle to secure funding; 'When I first started, the idea was considered quite radical. We were, and still are doing really exciting things, like getting young people to run their own banks and lending young people interest-free loans to set up their first businesses.'

Indeed (bar the Princes Trust) there were few organisations, even attempting to provide the missing link between young people and the resources that could radically affect their chances of a better life. Lily saw a charitable sized gap in the market and decided to capitalise; 'We started winning a few awards; the idea was starting to be backed by a lot of grants and foundations. That’s how I got in the first little bits of money. Then, over time, we diversified our income streams, and now we get money from government contracts, from private donors and from corporations and foundations.'

The world started to sit up and take notice; though the benefits to youngsters speaks for themselves; 'We see them through budgeting and making better decisions about their money, or prioritising their debt. We see their quality of life starting to improve. There’s something so wonderful about seeing that, because often those young people are the most financially excluded.'

A sense of community then; a peer group to rely on, an appreciation of teamwork; all added benefits of the MyBnk ethos. She must have seen it all, but what's the best idea Lily’s 'wards' (for want of a better phrase), have thought of? 'There were some crazy ones,' she laughs. 'I remember one group wanted to develop a backpack that they could wear to school, which had an incorporated massager inside it. Another one was taking a salt shaker and dosing it, so that every time you shake it, it only gives you the certain amount you need for your daily requirement.'

Nothing could trump Lily's biggest success story however; 'One young entrepreneur came up to me after he’d already taken two loans with us - he said: “I want to write a book and tell young people all about my entrepreneurial journey.” So we supported him in writing it and then he sent off this book to publishers all across the country, none of which accepted it. He self-published it (which is what we recommended him to do). He’s now sold 80,000 copies, has written various books, made board games and become an iconic teenage entrepreneur.'

It's a moving story indeed, I wonder if Lily really realises the impact she's made, or whether it's become a day-to-day reality; 'For each of them, it’s been about planting a seed,’ she says shifting the focus away from herself. ‘We hope that they will make better decisions when they interact with money, but we also hope they will learn skills that will help them to face this very competitive world of work – this world with such high levels of unemployment for youths.'

It's nothing of not a worthy cause, and yet still the challenge of funding rears its ugly head; 'We’re forever looking for support to be able to reach more young people. You think you’ve reached a lot, having reached 45,000, but it’s really just skimming the surface.'

Despite the challenges, looking at the glass as half full is clearly one of Lily's attributes; 'I tried and I stuck at it; I love working... I have a lot of respect for the people I work with; we don’t stop at anything to make it happen.'

Spirited talk indeed, but from this social entrepreneur I'd expect nothing less, (she's half Italian after all...). So what effect does she see in the lives of the young people My Bnk have mentored? I'm assuming they're monitored? 'We use a system where young people evaluate what they’ve learned in terms of the progression they see and in terms of their levels in skills, knowledge and confidence,' she says. 'Always we see there’s a drastic increase in terms of their confidence having improved; whether it’s because they’ve set up a business, or because we’ve helped them open their first bank account. We’re now moving toward longer-term impact measurements; we call it our 'Theory of Change'. How does our work affect young people over a much longer period of time? What does a MyBnk adult look like?'

Having sat with Lily for the last hour, having witnessed the spate of recent press articles hailing her virtues, it would hard to imagine a MyBnk adult not being significantly more 'privileged' that the child that went before. In no small part down to Lily's faith in her concept; 'This is something I always say,' she smiles, 'and it’s true: the first week I decided to set up My Bnk, I went to a fraternity’s meal with friends. I got a Chinese fortune cookie - inside it, it said: “I don’t know the solution but I admire the problem.” And I said “This is how I’m going to look at MyBnk.”

'I don’t know the solution to many things,' she continues. 'I don't know the solution to how we’re going to reach 190,000 young people in the next few years...' What she certainly does know how to do is get her charges, well and truly fired up; 'We start sessions by saying: “When Richard Branson was at school, he was probably dreaming of taking people into space, and how do you think people would have responded to that? They would have told him he was crazy. Well, look, today, after many years of saner ideas, he’s actually doing the big, crazy one.”

Interview by Alice Kahrmann

October 2012.