Growing up on arough council estate in Wandsworth, south London, Ali Niaz never really expected to go to university at all, let alone one of the best institutions in the world. Finishing a postgraduate course at Cambridge, as he will this month, must have seemed an even more distant prospect when he was sent to prison at the age of 20. And yet the path to academic robes might never have happened without a spell in a prison uniform.
Now 23, Niaz was convicted of possession with intent to supply a class-A drug in June 2008. His career had begun much earlier when he was a teenager and began selling cannabis after school, while some friends from the Winstanley Estate near Clapham Junction station, south London, had started up a gang. "It just was the company that I was keeping that had led me to be around that environment, and there was a sense that they were my family," he says. "We were out doing foolish stuff."
"Foolish stuff" included Niaz taking a bullet to the head, when he and some friends had got hold of their first gun and it went off accidentally. He says he survived because the weapon in question was an underpowered converted replica. Removing the bullet would damage nerve tissue in the head, so the spent round remains in place as a permanent reminder of a misspent youth.
"But these things were so easily accessible it wasn't an issue for us to go and get it; it's right there on our doorstep," he says. "If we want drugs, it's there; we can go and work for one of the older guys, and then if we want firearms to protect ourselves they can provide us with it."
He graduated to harder drugs later on, when an older supplier from outside the area had spotted his talent as a dealer. At the time, the career had seemed the only realistic option.
"I had loads of dreams," he says. "I wanted to be a footballer; I wanted to be a rapper. Once I reached a certain age, 11 or 12, I realised that that's all dreams, that's not going to happen; where I'm from, these things don't happen. And I needed money, 'cause I had no financial stability in my household, so I went straight to what was the closest and the easiest thing for me to do, and what I saw around my area: selling drugs."
At the time, the area had such a reputation for drugs that people would flock to Britain's busiest railway station from all over South-east England.
"So that's what I did, and I totally forgot about the music and all that," Niaz says. I did do music for a few years after, but I never tried to make music and pursue it; it was never that." But not long after, Niaz found himself performing for an international audience.
After his arrest but before his trial, Niaz had approached the charity Regenerate, which operates mainly in south-west London, for a character reference. It also works in Kenya, having started up a mechanics garage and later working on building houses. Niaz went on one of these trips along with a group of businessmen, and ended up helping out with building work as well as performing music at a peace conference following tribal clashes in the region.
"It had quite a big effect on him," says the charity's co-founder Andy Smith. "The young people were able to rub shoulders with people who've made money in a legitimate way. It's connecting the two worlds, really."
The experience had stuck with Niaz after he was sent to prison. "I sat down in my cell and thought about everything I'd witnessed in Kenya and how I'd taken things for granted – like education, and various other things," he says. It was this that had given him a determination to change his life around, along with wanting to be a proper father to a son who was 11 months old when Niaz began a prison sentence of four years, of which he eventually served two. Previously, he says, he'd looked on fatherhood as a chore, but now he wanted to be more involved. "When I was in prison I was craving to be with my son and just hold him and be a dad," he says.
This was exacerbated by initially being a long distance from his family, at HMP Channings Wood near Newton Abbot in Devon. Taking up the education courses on offer, such as A-levels in business and enterprise, and having been a model prisoner – acting as a representative for safer custody as well as a wing rep – he orchestrated a transfer to an open prison. It also required a degree of distance from old friends who were also in prison with him. "I kind of broke away from them, and I thought, at the end of the day, it's about me, and my family, and where I'm heading," he says. "It's not about my friends, because my friends ain't putting food on the table for my family. So with that in mind I thought, 'Let me work the system to my best.'"
The first prison transfer was to Hollesley Bay in Suffolk in August 2009 and then Latchmere House in the borough of Richmond upon Thames. It was after the transfer to open prison that Niaz had got back in touch with someone he had met before his conviction, entrepreneur Steve Mills.
Mills had begun to work for himself at the age of 12 and now has a portfolio of companies under the umbrella of A1 Project Management Services. "I was taught how to be a businessman by businessmen," he says, telling of people taking him under their wing and mentoring him, and him now doing the same for others. He compares it to a football coach who spots talent in a player and makes sure he's trained properly. "I think it's something every adult should be doing for young people."
Mills had stumbled across Regenerate and been put in touch with some potential mentees through Andy Smith. Niaz was wary at first. "I was thinking, 'Why does this man want to help me?'," he says. "The world I'm from, you always do something because you want something in return."
He nevertheless went to work for Mills on a day-release programme in Walton, spending time with him and other businessmen including the former British saloon car champion Sir John Whitmore, now a management consultant. He quickly impressed them all. "Everybody could see that Ali was different," Mills says.
It's not something Niaz necessarily agrees with. "I think I'm lucky," he says. "Now that I've been around different kinds of people, and been to work and whatnot, I've had different opportunities. But a lot of these young people, they don't have the ability to be around these kinds of people.
"Out of all my friends I'm the only one who's going to get to go to university. None of my friends are going to be able to do that, and I know a lot of them are more than capable, but they don't have the opportunities and they don't have the support. And I've never done any schooling or anything like that – the only thing I'd done is the courses I'd done in prison."
Niaz is perhaps lucky too that the chance of education was only delayed and not lost. It was never that he couldn't do the work when he was in secondary school, though he still believed he was no good at maths until Mills ran through some sums with him and showed him that he was capable. It was more that he found the teaching at John Paul II school and then, after an expulsion, Chestnut Grove, too "dictatorial". He'd had a strong interest in history, for example, which continued in prison when he read about the Mongol Empire, but didn't get along with his history teacher.
After being released in June 2010, Niaz went to work for Mills, and then took up a metadesign workshop at Goldsmiths University. There, his new mentors and the teaching staff agreed that he should be back in the education system, and supported his application to the postgraduate certificate in sustainable leadership in business at Cambridge University, for which he also secured a full scholarship. Applicants to postgraduate courses who don't have an undergraduate degree can be admitted on account of their life experience. Niaz was running a successful business for a long time – it just wasn't a legal one.
The course teaches social, economic and environmental sustainable development, and how to make businesses more sustainable and the impact that they have on society. "Being on the course has allowed me to understand why you need to have a sustainable community," he says. "Because if you don't have a sustainable community, you have the gang members and the people going into prison and the drugs and all of that. And ultimately, that affects society as a whole."
Alongside academic studies, Niaz has trained to be a professional life coach, is setting up a social enterprise, Aspire to Be Great, visiting schools to warn about the dangers of gang culture, and developing a programme for children in pupil-referral units. "They relate to us," he says. "Because I'm young, I can talk to them, and build a programme around that to aspire to be great."
He sets quite an example of what they can achieve if they seize opportunities that come their way – no matter what their background is.