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New mayor backs black business scheme

GOOD TO TALK: New West Midlands mayor Andy Street, second left, listens to Joan Blaney, right, during a round-table discussion on black businesses; inset left, members of BLUK at their hub in Handsworth

THE WEST Midlands’ new mayor Andy Street has pledged to help put the black business community on a stronger footing within the region after meeting key players who are trying to boost entrepreneurship within the African and Caribbean communities.

The former John Lewis boss, who became the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands in May, has revealed his ‘renewal plan’ to restore pride and prosperity in the region – and is taking steps to make sure that the black business community is part of this success.

He is supporting Birmingham-based BLUK, a new enterprise which aims to provide a regional, national and international trading platform for black businesses, which in turn will promote a vibrant African and Caribbean community.

Street recently toured BLUK’s new business hub at the heart of the community in Villa Road, Handsworth – the building was once the home of Villa Road Post Office which has now relocated nearby. Extensive renovation work has been going on, funded privately, to convert the building into a thriving base which will include ‘incubator’ units for small businesses, plus a top-floor training and seminar room which will also serve as an IT training centre, offering BLUK’s bespoke training and development programmes.

Courses will be run by Loxley Abraham Williams, who has more than two decades of experience as an IT consultant. The hub also houses a newly renovated community bakery, offering a unique facility to a number of home-based bakers who are looking to expand and develop their businesses.

The local Sudanese community is particularly interested, and it is hoped that the bakery will answer a need for locally made bread. Those heading up the BLUK hub also plan to make it an accredited apprenticeship training provider to help to address the great shortage of apprenticeship opportunities within the black business world.

There are also plans for the old post office counter area to be taken over by Western Union. Dressmaker and seamstress Patsy Arthur, who runs her own company called Calipo Design, will be “front of house”, as she is planning to showcase her business in one of the main hubs in the building’s foyer.

She told The Voice:

“Working from home can be very isolating, but here with these incubator units, everyone will receive quarterly business sup- port and an evaluation review to help them progress with their plans. I’m really looking forward to working from here and meeting other entrepreneurs. The place has a great feel and a buzz about it.”

After having a tour, Street said:

“I am very impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit being shown here.

“And I know from my previous job running John Lewis that word of mouth is so important with ventures like these, so it’s important that everyone spreads the word about the work going on here.”

BLUK was launched online nearly a year ago by Nicholas Richards, a former personal banker, with backing from his uncle Jaston Richards, an entrepreneur of many years’ experience, who is BLUK’s research and development director.

They have set up a free online marketing and publicity platform for small businesses in a variety of categories, but both agree that much more needs to be done to support those who are ‘digitally isolated’ by not being hooked up to the internet.

During a round-table talk with Street, Chester Morrison, one of BLUK’s team, said:

“Signposting without empathy is not useful.”

He explained that many budding entrepreneurs, particularly young people, needed a lot of hands-on support getting into work for the first time.

Joan Blaney highlighted concerns about young black people lacking any confidence in finding work, having felt let down by the system. She stressed it was vital that black entrepreneurs didn’t just focus on food outlets, but looked into expanding into construction and IT and other more highly paid occupations.

She felt that this was particularly important for women, too.Street said he was making good progress with his ‘Mayor’s Mentors’ project, where he has pledged to find 1,000 business mentors across the region in his first 100 days of office, who will support those looking to find work or change career direction.

He flagged up the new career opportunities on the horizon at the National College for High Speed Rail in Birmingham, where the college aims to make the UK a world leader in rail infrastructure. He added that it was important the black community took advantage and were not beaten to these jobs by what he called ‘better connected’ communities.

“These are going to be really interesting courses in a new industry where so much is happening,” he said.

“But something does puzzle me, and that is how we make young people aware of the opportunities that are out there. This is something I am constantly bewildered by.

“At the moment, there are tens of thousands of vacancies available, but we equally have tens of thousands of people who have no prospect of working. What mechanism is not working here and what can be done about it?”

Nicholas Richards said it was vital that jobs were marketed at grassroots level, such as in barber shops and in churches, in order to hook in the generation that is missing out.

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