Dragons, you’re fired

26 February 2018 13:58
You're fired

Why has starting a business become associated so strongly with ambitious high-fliers? The Eliemental project has shown how enterprise can transform the lives of the excluded, vulnerable and disadvantaged - just as long as the ‘entrepreneur’ label and all its associated baggage is left behind. Carolyn Downs explains how.

Jobs markets are competitive, rule-bound and exclusive - and not just at the top. Significant numbers of people from different excluded groups can’t see how they can ever break into the system of demonstrating specific qualifications, skills and experience - being the right ‘type’ - leaving them in poverty, isolated, and unable to participate in communities. That includes those with physical disabilities, issues with mental health as well as migrants, young offenders and people who’ve just slipped into a NEET (not in education, employment or training) way of life.

Starting your own business can help anyone skip over some of the rigid barriers. Just an idea and energy is all that’s needed to at least get started. The history of business is one of how excluded religious and ethnic groups have been forced into starting their enterprises, using their exclusion as a powerful motivation. So why, in our times, aren’t more disadvantaged people using this route?

In our experience, the biggest barrier to more people starting businesses is the image of the ‘entrepreneur’, built up as the wealth-generating hero since the 1980s, and turned into a cultural phenomenon by popular media representations in programmes like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den. The entrepreneur has become caricatured as the go-getter who always gives 110%, who’s always sharp-suited and well-groomed. They have to prove themselves under pressure and can never stumble or will be ridiculed by the hard-talking entrepreneurs who have already proved themselves in the crucible of business. It’s an image that is believed to be behind the relatively low numbers of women who start businesses - just 30% in UK - as well as to immigrants unused to a new country’s culture, along with the disadvantaged in general.

Eliemental forces

Eliemental has been an EU-funded project led by LUMS, running in the UK, Greece, Poland and Romania, aimed at finding out what stops people from being enterprising and how to help ordinary people start businesses. The Lancaster team worked alongside co-researchers from local communities. Lodz (Poland), Targoviste (Romania), Thessaloniki (Greece) and in three UK settings - Lancaster, Manchester and the East of England. The key to Eliemental has been getting to work with hard-to-reach groups of people, and making sure it wasn’t a project where a university sat at a distance to reflect, but was fully involved. We worked locally with university partners but also with probation services, chambers of commerce, charity initiatives and housing associations.

We looked hard to find the real community access points, familiar places where people felt comfortable. There’s no point in inviting socially excluded groups to colleges, government buildings or even hotels and libraries. They’re too official or associated with the trappings of the wealthy and places where they will be judged and assessed. So access points were set up in launderettes, betting shops, street markets and cafés and well-established community centres. We also learnt to use other language than that typically used around ‘entrepreneurs’. The people who became part of Eliemental programmes never used the word, or wanted to, preferring to see themselves as ‘self-employed’, an ‘owner’ or ‘manager’, or in one case just as a ‘busy mum and housewife. This particular lady was employing a staff of nine at the time.

A key issue among the excluded groups is not knowing how to write a business plan, but wanting to start a business in the first place, being able to identify themselves with the opportunity, that it was a possibility. We began with identifying the top 10 skills needed: the importance of confidence in particular, but also around communication skills, problem-solving and creating networks of people. Business planning comes at the end. A toolkit was created around these underpinnings to help people get started, delivered by local groups. Materials have been made available online, but the focus was on making sure there was engagement through face-to-face work. While online learning can sometimes be seen as a panacea, we found that access to the internet was more often through mobile phones, and not seen as being a tool for learning.

From seed to flower

Around 35% of the participants in Eliemental so far have gone on to start their own business in the UK, Greece and Romania. The figure is lower in Poland, because of the nature of the bureaucratic barriers to establishing a new enterprise in the country, but is still over 25%. For groups often facing severe and complex personal issues and disadvantages, the success rate is high and has demonstrated the importance of the approach.

The stages from initial engagement to going full-time in business can be a slow burn. Eliemental provides the all-important initial impetus and germ of an idea, and many participants then moved on to be involved with other business support programmes to convert their enthusiasm. Resulting enterprises have been thoughtful and creative, linking into personal interests. An agoraphobic has set up craft workshops. Members of Romany communities in Romania have started floristry, recycling and cleaning businesses.

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