Professor Monder Ram of the University of Birmingham and project partners, writing for the Birmingham Business School Blog, describe an initiative to support entrepreneurs in disadvantaged areas.

For the last six months Mosese Dakunivosa has been pounding the streets of Lozells, Sparkhill, and Small Heath in Birmingham meeting business owners, community groups and local luminaries. Mosese is a man on a mission: seconded to the position by CUK Bham, he is unearthing entrepreneurial talent in communities and places often bypassed by the City’s wider business support system.

Sharing his mission is a unique group of partners representing business (Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership Growth Hub [GBSLEP]), education (the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship [CREME]), civil society (Citizens UK Birmingham [CUK Bham]) and the banking sector (NatWest Bank). These institutions have joined forces on a pioneering GBSLEP Growth Hub-funded project to support businesses in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the City.

Bringing Birmingham Together Through Business

Businesses are undoubtedly benefiting: we have engaged more than 50 entrepreneurs and supported them with practical advice on issues such as cybercrime, finance, and company strategy. But the ultimate aim is to develop a vibrant and inclusive culture of enterprise which engages the talents of all our communities. Old and new migrant communities in the three target areas are facing challenges, but also making great progress, often without support.

Our combined efforts are showing how we can all play our part in bringing our city together though the medium of business. Citizens UK’s experience shows entrepreneurs play a significant role in strengthening civil society, and they are helping project partners to develop relationships of trust with businesses in the three areas. NatWest Bank, through the effort and expertise of Andy Lee, is providing much needed practical advice to participating firms. And CREME is drawing out the key lessons of the project, which is at the midpoint of its 18 month duration.

Lessons Learnt

It’s too early to draw firm conclusions, but some points are worth stressing even at this early stage. First, it takes time to develop relationships of trust with businesses and communities, particularly when they’ve been neglected for so long. Mosese spent many months on walkabouts familiarising himself with businesses and the local customs. Conventional business support projects rarely allow for such time-consuming activities. Yet they are vital to building confidence and getting insights into the major challenges of running a business in areas of extreme disadvantage.

Second, entrepreneurs want to engage and be a part of wider business support networks. They value the support that Andy is able to provide and are keen to learn from experts from other ‘mainstream’ institutions too. The project is therefore promoting integration by supporting businesses rooted in the community. We’re in active discussion with Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce to take this process further by linking our project with their services.

Third, we all need to move out of our comfort zones if we want to promote genuine inclusion. Andy Lee, who’s delivered most of the business support, mentions how the experience of working on the project has prompted him to rethink his approach. Andy Lee comments:

It has taken the project team some time to build trust with the Entrepreneurs with their lived experience of business support on the whole being negative, but the business support programme has been flexible throughout the project enabling us to learn the best methods of delivery to boost business growth and we have been able to build fantastic relationships in the communities the businesses are based in.

There is a range of businesses on the program with all Entrepreneurs engaging fully with growth mind-sets, taking themselves out of their comfort zones to work on their business. Working with Citizens UK has highlighted the importance of being a civic leader, and sits firmly with the moral purpose we all have to ensure Diversity and Inclusion is front and centre of business support.

There’s still a long way to go, and we’re considering ways to deepen the impact of the project. Can we develop local traders’ groups to harness the enthusiasm of business owners? Should we concentrate on local businesses with growth potential or cast our net more widely? How do we link the project with wider economic and social agendas relating to integration? There’s much more to come, and many more steps to be taken.