Ketan Dattani, Alumnus, BSc Environmental Technology

Ketan

"If LSBU changed my life, it can change other lives too"

Alumni volunteer Ketan Dattani (BSc Environmental Technology, 1996) built a successful career in environmental recruitment before starting his own business, Buckingham Futures, in 2013. He tells us how education changed the course of his life, and inspired him to give back to the university.

My life could so easily have gone down a different path. I grew up on a council estate in southeast London, where I was the only Asian kid. I desperately wanted to fit in, and I ended up running with the wrong crowd – some of the people I was hanging around with ended up in prison. School didn’t really figure in my life.

It was a tutor at my college that changed my life for the first time. I’d got into Hendon College to try to get some qualifications. Lucky for me, I had the most amazing science teacher, Dr Theodore Cronje. He got me through my GCSEs in a year and on to the science diploma course, then suggested that I apply to university. He could see something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. We’re still really close today, he’s like my uncle.

I never thought university was for people like me. There were others in my family that had degrees, but they’d studied in India and lived in different places – it wasn’t part of my life. At first, I just didn’t feel like I fitted in at all. When the lectures ended, I’d just head straight back to my neighbourhood. I was way out of my comfort zone.

LSBU changed my life for the second time. When I passed my first semester, I guess I thought – I’m here, I’d better make something of this. I realised too that I was dismissing people for not knowing anything about real-life without knowing anything about them either. I came back with a new, open mindset and that changed everything. I also used to have gold teeth at the front and I got them capped with porcelain. It might sound trivial but I guess it was a tangible way of showing that I’d changed, that I wanted to find a place for myself in this new world.

I’ve always been passionately interested in the environment. Even back in the days when I wasn't going to school, I'd be in the library, reading about animals and nature. I discovered a rare newt on a patch of land I was clearing as part of a stint of community service – that was just amazing. After leaving uni and getting my first job I decided to go back and do a masters in environmental planning and management, to take me even further along that path.

Setting up my own business meant taking several steps backwards, to begin with. I’d built up a good career in environmental health recruitment. But I wanted the flexibility to spend more quality time with my growing family, so I gave up my corporate role and started Buckingham Futures. I sold my car, and we cut out the luxuries so I could save enough to cover the mortgage. My wife thought I was crazy, sacrificing the good life we had, but I knew I had to speculate to accumulate.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but there’s nothing I wouldn’t do the same way again. In those early days, I fell often, but I kept getting back up. Everything I got wrong was a lesson. The only thing I would say has changed is that I fail quicker these days. If it doesn’t feel right, I’m out. You learn to trust your instinct.

For me, having a mentor is about accountability. I’ve had four different mentors since I started Buckingham Futures. I’ve learned that what works best for me is something quite structured, with clear actions and expectations. I’ve also come to realise that you can learn from anyone, whatever their experience and the sector they’re in. If you work with the right mentor, it’s a game-changer.

The business is changing all the time. I love it. I wake up every morning with a spring in my step. We’ve recently started recruiting in Saudi Arabia, and we want to expand into other countries. In addition to providing short-term placement solutions, we're also working exclusively with a number of clients for longer-term and permanent roles. That means partnering not just with the client but with the individuals you're placing, helping them to plan and develop their careers. That's really exciting.

Giving back has always been important to me. When LSBU asked me to appear in a promotional video, I said yes straight away. The response was brilliant – lots of people reached out to me to tell me they’d chosen South Bank because of me, including one who left her village in India to come and study here. I’ve been in to speak to prospective students and sat on an employers’ panel too. I’d love to do more in the future.

I wasn’t a typical student, and LSBU made it easy for me to move on and progress. I’d like to think if there are other people in the same kind of situation, wondering whether university is for them, they’ll look at me and see someone that really walks the walk as well as talking the talk. If LSBU changed my life, it can change other lives too. I’d like to be the bridge that can help make that happen.

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