From the Football Pitch to the Business Arena – In conversation with Azeem Amir | Dare to Connect - Leadership Hive Mentoring Programme

  • Tuesday, April 4, 2023
  • Posted By GM Leadership Hive

Life is always full of challenges, and navigating through troubled water alone might not be easy. That is why it is always good to have a mentor, a role model from whom you can learn from his experience, be inspired by his action and benefit from his wisdom. Azeem Amir, the professional footballer representing England in the international arena of blind football, is a hero of our country, and he shared with us on his experience in the Leadership Hive Mentoring programme – a gateway for him to branch out from being a professional sportsman to an entrepreneur.

Azeem Amir Gm

Born with visual impairment, Azeem Amir never gave up his dream to be a professional footballer. Keen to join in, Amir played football alongside other pupils but struggled with the visual aspects of the game. When he turned 15, blind football was showcased to him in a disability sports event, which was the first time Amir had come into contact with the sport. Initially a hobby for him, it slowly developed into his career.

Amir debuted in Japan in 2018, representing England at the highest level in the international arena. Disappointed by missing out on the opportunity to join his teammates in the 2020 Paralympic Games because of injury, Amir is now preparing for the 2023 IBSA World Games in August in Birmingham, the golden chance for him and the England team to qualify for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.

Besides the road to Paris 2024, the footballer is also on a mission to raise awareness surrounding disability by focusing on the lived experience of disabled persons. Amir started his business Learn with ESS (Education, Sport, Speaking) in 2020 while still studying sports management at the University of Salford, providing disability awareness training for companies, schools and colleges in the UK.

Starting a business is never an easy task, especially during the pandemic lockdown period. Luckily, Amir joined the GM Leadership Hive mentorship programme, gaining valuable insight and sharing from Gavin Astley, his mentor in the programme, who works hand in hand with Amir on his mission. Their relationship transcended from mentor and mentee to partnership in the pursuit of a greater good.

We have the chance to interview Azeem Amir, a professional footballer and entrepreneur, from his road to Paris in 2024 to his mission of raising awareness about disability.

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The biggest thing is the programme helped me to open my mind even more to different areas that I would never have thought of.

Azeem Amir, Owner of Learn With ESS

The road to Paris 2024

How did you get into blind football playing for England and start competing at a professional level?

When I was around 15, I joined a disability sports event where blind football was showcased to me for the first time and that one day definitely changed my life . What has touched me most in Blind football is it has provided a level playing field for everyone to participate in. I started playing football as a hobby, and my passion for the sport grew as I kept playing it. I have played for a club in Merseyside and developed my skill there.

In 2018, I joined the training of the England national team and made my debut in Japan as one of the players. Afterwards, I have been fortunate to have the chance to play in countries worldwide, from Argentina to Japan and most parts of Europe. Recently, the team has gone to Brazil to prepare for the World Cup in the UK (2023 IBSA World Game). If we do well with that, we will qualify for the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris.

How is the experience of playing as a professional football player shaped your view on disability?

I think the biggest thing for me is I use the pitch as my platform to make an impact and, with the England team outfit, helped to change people’s views on those with a disability. Most of the time, when people see someone with a disability, they immediately feel sorry for them and think that the person’s quality of life must be affected by his disability. When they have a chance to watch a game of blind football, they will change their view on those with disability completely when they witness those players compete in such an elite level of a technical sport and do it so well. I hope that blind football will help to change society’s view on disability.

Becoming a self-motivated entrepreneur

Did the experience motivate you to set up Learn with ESS? What is the goal Learn with ESS wants to Achieve?

Through playing blind football at the professional level, people regularly approached me to ask about my story. It is not only my story they are interested in, but they also want to feel what it’s like to play a sport with a disability. They want the experience. This got me thinking about how I can do that and come up with an idea to deliver “disability” in a practical way.

We started in a classroom with a programme to explain the disability and its relation to the sport (Education), then let the participant actually experience the sports with “disability”, using blindfolds or wheelchairs (Sport). Afterwards, there is a sharing session with the local role models (Speaking). Through this interactive experience, I hope it will help to change the participant’s view on disability.

I know Learn with ESS started operating during the pandemic, which is a tough time for all businesses because of the lockdown. How did it impact your business?

Learn with ESS launch in February 2020, right before the pandemic. One month later, we were all in lockdown, making me worry and question whether it was a good idea and would work. Luckily, we structured our course in a modular fashion. We deliver the first part of the course online, then follow up with the second part in person when the situation allows. That period is really difficult for us as physical contact is limited. But every single client who has participated in online has been follow-up in person, which is quite amazing.

This has boosted my confidence in the business, I just got to keep my faith in it and wait for the right timing, and now, we deliver our course in every part of the country, bringing in new ambassadors, new athletics, new role models on broad. We have also developed new programmes, so everything is on the right track and growing.

On his mentorship Experience

How did you know about the mentoring programme provided by the GM Leadership Hive, and what motivated you to become a mentee in the programme?

I came across it in an email. To be honest, I never had a mentor before. There are so many good people in my life, and they have provided various kinds of support to me throughout the different stages. Out of curiosity, I gave it a go and filled up the application form. After a few days, I got an email that the programme had assigned me a mentor. I was unsure and asked myself, is this the right person for me? And I almost reply to the email with a “No”. Luckily, I met with Gavin Astley, the mentor assigned to me, and it ended up like an unbelievable conversation. Gavin is such a nice guy, and he is so genuine. It actually turns out, a couple of months later, we worked together in a partnership fashion, not just mentor and mentee.

How was your experience on the programme? What have you learned from the mentor, and how has it helped your business’s daily operation? 

One thing I learned is about people skills. Seeing Gavin in his working environment and how he handles his colleagues and counterparts in his office have taught me a lot about interpersonal skills. In addition, Gavin always told me whether it is a major issue or a minor incident, I do not need to schedule a meeting. I just need to pick up a phone and call him. He will be there for me, whether day or night, offering help. That means a lot to me. 

Any case or incident in which you have applied the learning from the programme, which helped you overcome a challenge in your business?

The biggest thing is the programme helped me to open my mind even more to different areas that I would never have thought of. For example, it has given me the belief of always having a conversation before deciding on an issue, just like the case of the mentorship programme. Previously, I might quickly turn to my email and say, “No, thank you.” Now I am more open to conservation and looking forward to its outcome. It taught me the importance of conversation.

Passing on the torch

Finally, I know you would like to become one of the mentors on the programme. What motivated you to be a mentor? Anything you would like to share with your future mentee?

If one day I can help as someone helped me, that would be a real privilege. Again, you never know what will come out of a conversation, so if I can do that for someone else and pass the knowledge and experience to others, that will be a happy day of mine.

On the mentorship programme with Azeem Amir, Gavin Astley, the mentor, said:

“Working in the capacity of a mentor is always a fulfilling role, by its very nature you are often working with someone who wants to learn, grow, develop and push themselves.  This has never been truer than in Amir case.  We are a great pairing, having similar energy levels, enthusiasm, and hunger for development; thanks to the mentoring program facilitated by the GC Business Growth Hub for bringing us together.  As a mentor it is superb to pass on some of my experiences in the world of business growth, and to work with someone like Azeem who takes everything on board and drives forward to achieve, is the best feeling in the world.”

If this is something your company - for you and your senior leaders would like to apply for, or you would like to be a volunteer mentor, please register your details on the iMentor platform here.

Business leaders play a crucial role in leading the business to grow and succeed. How can you act as a captain to steer in this ever-changing business environment and embrace the 'Dare to' Mindset? Find out more now.

Delivered by GC Business Growth Hub in partnership with Greater Manchester’s university business schools, the Greater Manchester Leadership Hive brings together the best leadership and management training the region can offer, all in one place.  

From executive and workforce development to mentoring programmes and support with sustainability and inclusivity, the Hive gives small business leaders everything they need to run their businesses as effectively as possible.  

For more advice and to view all programmes available to you.