Mentor says helping young students has proven to be a two-way exchange.

After two decades at Telecom, Rich Easton was eyeing his next career move. But instead of another step on the corporate ladder, Easton was keen to give someone at the start of their career a help-up, so four years ago he began mentoring Joel Gibson, a star pupil at West Auckland's Kelston Boys' High School, who was set to begin his engineering studies at the University of Auckland.

Easton also took architecture student John Belford-Leleaulu under his wing when he came to Telecom for work experience during semester breaks. The matchmaker was First Foundation, an organisation launched in 1998 to ensure talented students from low-decile schools get the work experience, financial support and guidance to help them complete tertiary study.

Many are the first in their family to go to university or polytechnic and don't have the networks to help navigate the final years of school and the switch to university study.

First Foundation was the brainchild of Steven Carden, now Landcorp chief executive, when he was in his early 20s.


With the backing of a supportive and financially secure family, Carden saw he had a head start in achieving his goals in life.

He recognised that similar success wasn't so easy to achieve for people from less privileged backgrounds, and sought to redress the inequality.

For the 49-year-old Easton there was an added attraction.

His daughter was also in her final year of school and about to head away to university.

"Timing-wise it was quite good because I had older-aged kids," Easton says.

"Rather than trying to coach adults the appeal for me was I might actually learn some things about myself that help better to inter-relate with my own family."

It has also benefited his work as head of Telecom's assure, broadband and voice provisioning team.

Easton says getting a perspective from a different generation has been invaluable.

"What I've found over the past few years is their insight into how business works gets you to re-question: 'Why do we do it like that?'

"Maybe we shouldn't stick to some of our norms because the world has moved on."

Crossing that generation gap is not without its challenges.

"If I take the mentoring I did with Joel, I was very nervous at the beginning because it was like trying to form a relationship with somebody that is significantly younger than you and teenage boys in particular aren't always known for being communicative."

The pair began by talking while walking around Gibson's Henderson home turf, but moved to monthly, late-afternoon coffee catch-ups when he began his university studies.

Easton says in the beginning he was unsure whether he was adding any value, with the first six months or so focused on breaking the ice, creating trust and building his own confidence.

"Gradually it's grown from the 'What are you thinking about, what are your goals in this semester?' through to a more open conversation about how he was feeling about things, through to a point now where it has turned into a friendship as opposed to just an early forming relationship."

The mentoring relationship isn't purely about the student learning at the feet of the wise master.

"I've learned that actually it's a lot easier to make friends with different age groups than perhaps you ever would have thought.

"Sometimes you socialise with people around your own age because you've grown up with them or worked with them.

"Second, it has taught me that you actually learn as much from that fresh pair of eyes."

The students in the class of 2009 graduated from the four-year programme just a month or so ago and it was a time to reflect on their achievements.

Easton says it was a highlight to hear the stories of each of the First Foundation students and consider the part he had played.

Belford-Leleaulu is continuing his studies with a master's degree, having scooped the First Foundation scholar of the year award.

Gibson still has a year to run on his four-year engineering degree and although he has officially finished his First Foundation scholarship, he and Easton will continue to catch up regularly, more out of friendship than anything, says Easton.

In its first year in 1998 the First Foundation awarded three scholarships in Auckland, but hopes to have 100 students a year with more support from businesses.

Easton says anyone who has a passion for helping young people grow into future leaders, has some great life skills plus a little bit of time to commit to being a mentor, should consider the programme.