MP Chuka Umunna acknowledges the plight of people on benefits who want to start a business by Lydia Gardner

Today was a great opportunity for us to shine a light on the plight of black people in Lambeth who not only face the challenge of starting up a business as a person of colour, but who also face the punitive restrictions of a welfare state that takes away benefits as soon as they declare themselves as self-employed.

We asked Chuka what was being done to attract more corporate activity in Lambeth and, in turn, more investment that our enterprising start-up community can benefit from.

Chuka was speaking at the Brixton Impact Hub on the subject of ‘Tackling the diversity deficit in the UK’s business leadership’, a key address as part of Black History Month. The esteemed panel included Kanya King MBE (CEO of MOBO), Phil Walker (CEO of Summerswood Ltd and Trustee of Powerlist Foundation) and Nadine Tapping (Founder of Thirty Eight London).

At Tree Shepherd we work with a lot of people from the BAME community who want to start a business. In our first year, over half of our beneficiaries are black or of mixed black ethnicity and 95% of all beneficiaries were on some form of benefit when they first approached us for help. They have all faced significant barriers to economic success and see self-employment as a way to turn this around.

Whilst there has been a large take up in our BIS-backed enterprise mentoring offer, there is a definite gap in terms of the number of corporates getting involved. This is despite the mentoring scheme being supported by a host of key partners borough-wide: Lambeth, Brixton BID, Vauxhall One, Waterloo Quarter, Makerhood, LFP and Lambeth Council.

By asking Chuka about what is being done to attract corporate interest, the issue over attracting more executive level mentors to support our startups was also addressed.

Chuka asserted that he recognises the plight of people on benefits who have to grapple with the DWP and are not given any leniency during the fledgling enterprise period as they get themselves established. This is an issue he is keen to address if appointed as BIS Minister for a future Labour government. He also stated that whereas there is some corporate investment, there still isn’t enough and he will continue to work on bringing more into Lambeth.

Cllr Jack Hopkins added that whereas there certainly is corporate involvement in Lambeth, it is often largely reserved for the privileged. People on his home estate in Oval for example simply do not have access to the nepotistic networks that can support with mentoring, apprenticeships and other opportunities – whereas people who are better off do. One thing Jack has seen however in Lambeth is the supportive reciprocity between established businesses, which is extremely encouraging.

Business executive Phil Walker picked up on our question. He knows the corporate world inside out and stated clear facts that ”businesses respect money” and that businesses like Goldman Sachs and Ernst & Young know how respect for (ethnic) diversity can have a “powerful impact on the bottom line”. These two corporate companies for example are extremely keen to reach the communities that we are talking about, it’s just a question of ‘how’.

We believe that it is this type of business mind that will be of huge benefit to members of our Forest Enterprise Network. Mentoring from top-flight executives will no doubt help bring about much better chances for ultimate success.

Lydia Gardner, Manager of Communications and Partnerships for Tree Shepherd

10th October 2014


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