A startup CEO who grew up caring for his siblings and disabled mother reveals his tough journey breaking into tech
- Dean Forbes, 41, grew up in south London, where he looked after his two younger brothers and disabled mother.
- After missing out on a promising career in soccer, Forbes “cried for weeks and weeks” – but worked hard to turn his life around.
- Today, he is CEO of human resources tech firm CoreHR and works to get kids like him into the workplace.
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What was life like when you were young?
I’m a proud south Londoner. I was born in Lewisham Hospital and spent most of my younger days moving between there and Peckham. I grew up where the taxi drivers didn’t like to travel.
It was a single-parent household, with mum raising me and my two younger brothers. She suffered from chronic muscular dystrophy, which meant I was effectively her carer from the age of 11.
I would dress my brothers, take them to school, bring them home, cook dinner some nights. Thinking back on it, I couldn’t imagine placing that much responsibility on my kids today. It was just “normal” for us, I suppose.
Did you go to university?
At that time, I wasn’t looking into furthering my education.
Although I think I would have been capable, at that time I had aspirations to be a professional football player. I signed a contract with Crystal Palace and thought I was set for life.
I got injured just before my contract came up for renewal and it all fell apart. If I’m honest, I don’t think I would have made it anyway. But at the time I was devastated.
I was very careless with money, as you might expect a young footballer to be, and found myself in a lot of debt.
My agent got me a job in a call center, working for Motorola, while we looked for other clubs for me to play for. I cried and cried for weeks.
That’s a lot to deal with. But it looks like you made the best of a bad situation?
It took time but I slowly got my head around the situation.
The office culture could be a bit demanding at times but I was already used to football managers losing their rag at me, so I could deal with it.
I just kept my head down and worked really hard, quickly climbing the ladder. At the first opportunity, I left to join a telecoms startup, and I’ve been headhunted for almost every job I’ve had since.
It sounds like you learned pretty much everything on the job?
Absolutely. Those first few jobs were incredibly important for me – just being able to see how everything works from the inside and how you build a business up.
I had a very strong work ethic and I just knew that I had to pull every lever and turn every dial to make it happen for me.
Have you ever felt alienated as a result of your background?
I’ve had a handful of moments. There have been occasions where I would go for meetings, and I would be with an older, usually white, colleague. And the person we’re meeting might assume I’m the junior person in the room, despite that not being the case.
In some ways, that has helped me. I haven’t had many experiences of people actually being uncomfortable with my experience, but I have more often been paranoid that would be the case.
But because of that, I always make sure I am the best-briefed person in the room. I play out every scenario before I go into a meeting, because I need to make sure people know I’m not messing around.
Do you think more can be done to help kids with a background like yours get into tech?
One hundred percent.
My wife and I have put a lot of time and money into this. We run Project 10, an organization that takes people from backgrounds like ours, and helps them develop in-work skills: office etiquette, punctuality, dress code and so on. From there, we help them get work experience opportunities.
I think more needs to happen to bridge the gap between the poor and the privileged. Too often, the assumption is these kids don’t want to get off their estates – but I know that’s not true.