CA Magazine June 2023 - Stepping Up (Mentoring)

To mark Volunteers’ Week, 1-7 June, Anna Melville-James hears from two FDs about their experience as mentors for students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds and the vital social impact of the ICAS Foundation

sean grubb ca

SEAN GRUBB CA was himself a beneficiary of ICAS Foundation support. After qualifying, he was keen to start giving back.

I was part of the first ICAS Foundation intake in 2012 and while the bursary helped a lot, the biggest impact for me was from the mentoring side. I didn’t know anyone who was a chartered accountant at the time, and having access to guidance from someone who had been through the exams, and then created a successful career, was huge. I believe that being a foundation student accelerated things for me and was part of what enabled me to become a finance director by the age of 25.

As soon as I qualified as a CA, I started volunteering as an ICAS Foundation mentor. I’m not as experienced as some of its other mentors, but being fairly fresh out of university I have an understanding of the guidance young people might want and need at this stage of their career, from what to look out for in training contracts to how to network – the small wins that, when you put them all together, can give you a great start in your career.

Mentoring is a rewarding way to give back. Just by giving a small amount of time (or making a financial donation), you can make a massive difference to someone’s life. We need to get rid of the stigma attached to jobs like accountancy – the idea that people don't get these positions unless they come from wealthy families. That’s not the case and programmes such as the ICAS Foundation mean there's no reason why talented people from deprived or low-income backgrounds shouldn't get the same opportunities.

My first mentee is just about to finish university. Our meetings have been largely virtual due to the pandemic, and I’m looking forward to more in-person mentoring for my next one. I'm open to anything that my mentees want to discuss. But often people don't know what they don't know, so I will make recommendations too – point them in helpful directions or give support, from when and where to look for applications online for internships to how to refine their interview technique or write a standout CV. We sometimes just assume that people should know certain things – and it’s been startling to realise that without someone to talk to, that is often not the case.

alex smith ca

With nine years of mentoring experience through the ICAS Foundation, Finance Director ALEX SMITH CA has seen first-hand the impact it brings to young talent entering the profession

I grew up in a small council house and I was the first in my family to go to university – although when I was studying, the ICAS Foundation didn’t exist. I've been a CA now for 20 years, and I became aware of the foundation nine years ago at an ICAS networking event. Having been supported throughout my career by mentors, it resonated with me, and I began my own mentoring soon after. Since then, I have had four mentees; my first was being raised by a single parent, just as I was raised by my dad. She was at the University of Stirling and the ICAS Foundation was looking for a local mentor. I was working for Forth Ports then, and one of their ports was close by, so I stepped in. Sometimes as a mentor you are helping with professional advice, from work experience to how to apply for jobs. And sometimes it can be personal matters. My second mentee’s father passed away prior to his exams and I helped him make sure his university was aware of the extenuating circumstances. He went on to have a CA traineeship with one of the Big Four. I kept in touch with him after the formal relationship finished and it was lovely to see him qualify.

Trust is fundamental, as is openness and the ability to put yourself in that person’s shoes. You have to be an active listener and not drive the agenda because what mentees want, or need, is different each time – they might not even have a clue what that is themselves. Monthly meetings can be informal, almost like a catch-up with a friend. I keep notes of what we’ve discussed, set objectives and make sure that they take responsibility for action points, whether that’s researching companies for internships or to apply to for work.

Some people are concerned they don’t have the skillset to mentor, but everyone I’ve worked with as a CA has been trained in how to ask questions, absorb information and coach. Mentoring also develops mentors as much as mentees – working with young people coming up through my organisation has helped me to understand that today’s generation sees the world and approaches things very differently.


The ICAS Foundation was set up in 2012, since when it has supported 300 young people from low-income backgrounds studying an
accountancy or finance-related degree by facilitating mentoring and making awards of £2.2m, with maximum bursaries of £10,000
over four years. More than 40% of ICAS Foundation students come from the most deprived areas in the UK (as measured through deprivation indexes) and 68% have progressed into CA trainee roles.

The ICAS Foundation is a registered Scottish charity No SC034836.

You can support the work of the ICAS Foundation by donating, volunteering to mentor a student or providing an internship or work placement. You can also contact us to discuss a specific area where you would like to help.

This article was originally published in the ICAS CA Magazine, June 2023.