Saj Sharif, CEO and Founder of Zen Consultants Ltd is the winner of the Scottish Apprenticeship Awards 2020, SME Equality and Diversity category and is a member of Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board’s Employer Equalities group.

My first few steps in finance consultancy started with tax returns, helping small businesses. My book-keeping client-base continued to grow and by the time I graduated university with a degree in accountancy 2013, I had over 60 different SME clients.

As my business grew, so did my workforce requirements. We had struggled to find suitable staff through traditional recruitment methods such as advertising and agencies. The people didn’t always fit culturally, and I wanted employees who already had a natural interest in the subject matter with a sense of investment in what we are trying to achieve.

As an active member of the Scottish Apprenticeship Advisory Board’s (SAAB) Employer Equalities Group, I was already passionate about supporting people, businesses and tackling inequalities. Through the Board I had access to knowledge, best practice and practical information around apprenticeships, the benefits they bring to companies, the importance of shaping talent as your business develops and the concept of investing in our young people and giving them ‘a chance’.

As an employer, it’s important I ‘walk the walk’ – and as an advocate of work-based learning, equalities and supporting SMEs, I need to put those values into practice. This inspired me to consider an apprentice straight from school. My view was, it would be like having a clean slate where we could grow our own talent and nurture someone at an early stage. I was set on training up, young, keen people who were hungry to learn in a way which aligned with our business structure and culture and I interviewed and employed my first Modern Apprentice.

Now that I have successfully employed my first few apprentices, I don’t see any other route for me. I currently have two apprentices, with two additional trainees about to start. Since taking them on, my business has grown by 56% in clients overall.

It’s so important to me that Zen works by the principles of diversity and inclusion. It’s something that I’ve always been passionate about but my work as part of the Employer Equalities Group within the Advisory Board helps to translate this into actionable change.

SAAB represents the ‘voice of industry’ in Scottish apprenticeships. Its membership spans across employers, of all sectors and sizes and the Employer Equalities Group forms part of this. We are a group of employers with the aim of providing insight into good practice and the latest strategies that are working well to help improve access and participation in apprenticeships.

​Some of the work we’ve done can involve shaping and devising advice to employers to help them achieve better diversity. A key thing for us is that any sense of bias – whether that be in relation to ethnicity, gender, LGBT+ and more – is removed from the recruitment process We’ve worked with Skills Development Scotland to examine successful case studies on things like ‘anonymous recruitment’ to see how we can share these lessons learned with businesses in a way that they can easily adopt.

As a member of the Employer Equalities Group, I’m an advocate for diversity and I try to lead by example within my own organisation, sector and my professional networks. It is important that apprenticeships are open to all, to ensure a broad and diverse talent pool.

One of our Modern Apprentices who is currently being upskilled is active within her Romanian community and it means that we now attract business from Romanian speakers since we can facilitate clients who aren’t fully fluent in English yet. I speak Spanish, Punjabi and Urdu and my business has become well known in the Asian community – I have never needed to advertise – and we can service client’s needs who don’t have English as a first language. We are a very diverse and mixed-race team and our whole culture is about embracing this, using it as a unique selling point and making us, our multi-cultural, multilingual service stand out from the crowd.

I would say to other smaller business out there, take a chance and give our young people an opportunity to flourish through an apprenticeship. I know – from working with many sole traders, micro businesses and SMEs – that they quite often dismiss the idea of taking on an apprentice as administratively sluggish, cumbersome and not providing a quick enough return on investment. My response, to them is simple – that’s nonsense. The training provider does so much handholding through the process, especially with smaller firms, that they take care of the majority of admin. And part of the funding for Modern Apprenticeships is covered off already. Graduate Apprenticeships don’t even cost the employer a penny as this is paid for directly by the college or university.

Running an SME can have its own very particular difficulties, and I’ve experienced pitfalls and challenges along the way, trying to juggle work with being a full-time accountant, director, mother-of-three and returning to education late as a mature student. Embedding apprenticeships as part of your business is only as difficult as your assumptions will make it. In the long run, giving that chance to a young person (or person of any age to reskill or upskill) will pay dividends to your business and its culture. You just have to open your eyes and broaden your talent pool to see it. Here at Zen we are a business backing talent – I truly hope others follow in our footsteps.