I always knew — or at least hoped — that one day I would be in a position to use my professional good fortune to help others. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly when I made that decision, but I will always remember what formed its genesis.
In 1996, after graduating from Oxford and starting a career in Los Angeles, I received a letter from my stepfather. Its message was to congratulate me on the launch of my professional life, but within it were some words of advice that resonated with me at the time; they still resonate with me today but now for different reasons. In essence, my stepfather reflected on his own life’s experiences and counseled me to strive for professional success before devoting my life to philanthropic endeavors…something that, to his regret, was the inverse to what he had done. At the time, I was indeed driven by my desire to be financially successful, and that’s why his words meant something to me. He was validating my ambition.
I kept that letter at my desk in every office I occupied over the years to remind me to strive for success. I re-read it with new vigor every so often. However, it wasn’t until 2011 that his words had new meaning. After achieving success in my professional life, my career had brought me back to London; I was returning home after nearly twenty years. As my stepfather had envisaged back in 1996, the time felt right for me to start helping others.
But where to start? I struggled with this question for a long time – ricocheting from idea to idea, charity to charity – to find a cause that meant something to me. I knew I didn’t want to give money away just for the sake of satisfying certain societal expectations. In speaking with friends and family members, I became involved with a number of different groups, and each experience with these organisations reinforced my belief that whichever personal endeavor I chose should focus on the next generation. This core value would ultimately shape Ignota Foundation:
From the beginning, I knew I wanted to ensure a level of anonymity between the Ignota scholars and myself. This was in part because of my own personal desire to remain anonymous, but more importantly because — and this became the cornerstone of Ignota’s vision — I strongly believe that bestowing financial aid should empower the recipient rather than the donor.
Ignota was built around the principle of giving and receiving, a process I believe requires no sense of debt or accreditation. The word ignota is Latin for unknown; thus each scholarship is awarded anonymously, with recipients made aware of the source of their funding only at a much later stage. I believe this empowers students to accept our support without the burden of feeling indebted. Likewise, Ignota’s partners and donors join our community not seeking recognition for their generous contributions, but rather to be part of a movement that aims to improve the lives of young people throughout the UK.
In England, there’s an increasing amount of apathy and a dire lack of aspiration among young people leaving secondary school. This is largely due to the extreme disconnect between what a child wants and what society and institutions can deliver. Sadly, the notion of continuing education has become a distant fantasy coupled with an unmanageable financial burden.
We must break this cycle of apathy, built on empty dreams and lack of resources. I believe the only way to do that is to empower young students; empower them to make changes in their own lives and thus other people’s lives. To heal a wound, it’s not enough to simply cover it up. You have to go to the root of the problem and fix it from the inside out. I have discovered, in speaking with our partner schools, that often these kids simply do not believe in themselves. They do not feel they deserve or can earn a university experience. Ignota is about providing students not just with the means to an education but also with the potentially life-changing experiences that go with it. If, at the end of the day, they feel they have achieved and earned these experiences, they will hopefully believe they can continue to earn and to achieve in whatever field they may choose.
Ignota's charitable efforts do not take the form of a simple hand-out. Our recipients are not necessarily the highest achievers among their peers, but each and every one of them is hardworking and deserving. Many are the first in their family to pursue higher education, which in many cases is more life-changing than any First they could earn at university; it impacts not only them, but also future generations of their family. Tuition funding is dependent on recipients meeting their own academic goals that they have personally set, as well as being held responsible for a portion of the fees themselves. After receiving first year funds from Ignota, recipients must pay for year two of university and receive third year funds from Ignota only after successfully completing this second year. This pushes recipients to take ownership of their academic achievements alongside the support they have received from us.
In my eyes, Ignota is a win-win scenario. The first win would be that eventually one child from every state-run school in England earns and is awarded the opportunity to further his or her education. The second win – less obvious, but perhaps more important in the long term – is that eventually some or all members of this Ignota community will own their ultimate success, develop it, and perhaps in twenty years decide to give back in their own way. It is my hope that Ignota scholars, and the entire Ignota community, while recognizing the importance behind the gesture of giving, realise over time that, in fact, the grace of the gesture is far more valuable and strive, in turn, to pay their experiences forward. By building students’ self-esteem, we will inspire them to become Ignota’s ambassadors, positively delivering our philosophy throughout the country.
Upon graduation from university, scholars will receive their own personal letter from Ignota. This letter, similar to the letter I received back in 1996, will congratulate them on the success they have achieved and encourage them to continue to achieve great things in the future. However, I hope they recognize a second message within the letter — similar to the message my stepfather delivered to me — and that one day, perhaps in twenty years, they will pick it up and re-read it in a different light, just as I did in 2011.
— Founder, Ignota Foundation, 2016