We need young voices at the top table

Young Voices are Key


  • Thought Leadership
November 16, 2021 Ziena Jalil

Across the globe, from COP26 in Glasgow, to the virtual Apec CEO Summit New Zealand is hosting this week, young leaders are shining a bright light on climate change, on Covid recovery, on inequality and social justice.

From Greta Thunberg to our own climate activists India Logan-Riley telling leaders at COP26 to “get in line or get out of the way,” and Brianna Fruean reminding them of the power of words, young leaders are exemplifying the change they want to see.

This week four Kiwi young leaders will join over a hundred others from around the world as part of the 2021 Apec Voices of the Future programme, and present their vision for the Apec region to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her role as Apec 2021 chair.

These young people’s passion, their openness to collaborative and innovative solutions, and courage to call out leaders’ inaction is inspiring.

When I was 16, together with a delegate from Tonga, I represented South Pacific youth at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development + 5 (ICPD+5) in The Hague. With youth delegates from around the world, we advocated for access to better health services for young people and achieved some successes with world leaders. But more than 20 years later, some of the challenges we discussed then remain issues today, particularly in terms of health inequities for women and marginalised communities.

So how do we ensure progress isn’t glacial, when our planet is deteriorating at speed, and Covid-19 has exacerbated social challenges? How do we ensure that youthful activism can translate into impactful action longer term, and not be lost, as it was in my case, amongst those other things in life – education, family, work, bills?

While young leaders have energy and enthusiasm, they don’t always have access to resources which can help accelerate change.

While young leaders have energy and enthusiasm, they don’t always have access to resources which can help accelerate change. Businesses can play a useful role by helping to scale up initiatives for maximum impact. We can better compensate young people for their perspectives, in the same way we would any other consultant or expert. Young people have bills too!

There is also value in intergenerational sharing of knowledge and reciprocal mentoring relationships, rather than solely thinking of mentoring as an arrangement where an older, wiser soul imparts their knowledge and experience to a younger person.

An experienced board director told me recently she’d be happy to mentor me, if I was willing to do the same for her. She already has a similar relationship with a younger mentee and has found it a useful learning experience for both parties.

Many young people are incredibly socially aware, environmentally focused, digitally savvy, globally connected and entrepreneurial. All useful strengths in a world where commitment to purpose, people and planet is fast defining how well businesses are perceived and supported by staff, customers, suppliers, investors and other stakeholders.

Some businesses are now recognising the value of a “shadow board” – a group of non-executive young employees that work with senior executives on strategic initiatives. These boards help to deal with millennial workers’ disengagement and the executive team’s inability to keep up with changing market conditions. Luxury goods brand Gucci’s shadow board has helped grow sales by more than one hundred per cent!

I have been involved in some initiatives championing Kiwi young leaders – such as the Asia New Zealand Foundation’s 25 to Watch, the YWCA’s Y25, and facilitating “young leaders” panels at business events. Such programmes are a useful way of recognising young leaders, amplifying their voices and supporting their further development.

We need more young voices not just advocating from the side lines, not just on a panel, but at the main table where decisions are made. After all, they are the ones most impacted by the decisions and actions, or lack of, today.


This article was originally published in Stuff and is shared with permission from our guest author and Y25 Judge, Ziena Jalil, who is also an independent director, strategic advisor, and diversity, equity and inclusion advocate.

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