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Thinking big about business

DOWN TO BUSINESS: Boris Johnson with (from left) Tim Campbell, Damon Buffini, Natasha Faith, Sonia Brown, Ric Lewis and Ade Sawyerr

BLACK HISTORY Month is by definition a moment to reflect on the past. But at an event hosted by London Mayor Boris Johnson last week, the emphasis was on setting the foundation to ensure a prosperous future for black businesses.

The event explored issues pertinent to the sustainability and development of black businesses such as: is there enough entrepreneurship within the African and African Caribbean community? And where it exists, is the vision big enough? What support is available to ensure growth?

There is a strong case for starting a business, particularly in light of depressing employment statistics for black people in Britain. Most recent statistics show that as of September 11, there has been 20.2 per cent increase in those out of work when compared with the same period in 2012.

Of course, entrepreneurship brings many challenges. Of the limited statistics that exist, evidence shows that while many want to get into business, it is less likely to become a reality. According to Government statistics, 35 per cent of individuals of Black African origin expressed an interest in starting a business, but only six per cent actually follow through.

Why? Access to start-up funding, problems with cash flow and a tendency to focus on selling a product or service within the community rather than beyond it have traditionally limited the possibilities for growth. Another key challenge is the confidence to take the first steps.

But there are many in the community who run successful businesses and have a role to play in sustaining London’s economy.

Johnson said: “Over 1.2 million Londoners are of [African] descent, almost 16 per cent of our city's population, so it is obvious that black businesses and entrepreneurs have a vital role to play in our future prosperity, bringing innovation and dynamism, as well as links to overseas markets.

SUPPORT

“I want more dynamic and creative individuals from the black community to develop thriving businesses in the capital and would urge them to seek out the wide range of support available to them in London and at a national level to get their ideas off the ground and help drive our economy.”

The Mayor's Office has allocated £700,000 to support up to 200 BME SMEs (small to medium enterprises) and micro-enterprises.


BRIGHT LIKE A DIAMOND: Jewellery entrepreneur Natasha Faith

They can also use CompeteFor, a free service that enables them to bid for contract opportunities within the supply chains of major public and private sector buying organisations and major capital infrastructure projects. Over 49,000 London businesses are already registered, of which over 8,700 are BME owned - 17.6 per cent of the total. Of the awards made to CompeteFor suppliers, 13.4 per cent have gone to businesses that declared themselves to be BME-owned or led.

Chairing the discussion was Tim Campbell, best known for being the first winner of BBC reality TV show The Apprentice. He has since gone on to set up the Bright Ideas Trust, which invests in businesses started by London-based 16 - 30 year olds who are not in education, employment or training (Neets). He is also a mayoral ambassador for training and enterprise.

Alongside him was a distinguished panel of experts including; businessman Damon Buffini – one of only two black entries in the Sunday Times’ annual rich list – who made his fortune in private equity; management consultant Ade Sawyerr, founder of Equinox Consulting; and Sonia Brown MBE, founder of the National Black Women's Network.


CHANGING TIMES: Sonia Brown MBE

Campbell said: “My mum was an entrepreneur. She didn’t know the word ‘entrepreneur’…not because she wasn’t great at languages, or her vernacular wasn’t great, but because she called it ‘making ends meet’. She provided for her children to make sure we had a platform and that’s why I’m here speaking to you today.”

He added: “We need to change the conversation around what we do with our talent and skills and how we benefit the community we are a part of.”

The Windrush Generation have set up many businesses - from hairdressers, record shops to patty shops and restaurants.

“Many of these businesses developed out of necessity,” said Brown. “They couldn’t find the food they wanted so they set up their own shops. Things are different now. The nature of business has changed. But what they did do was open doors. We still face challenges like access to finance, but you can now set up a business from a laptop. The ‘screen baby’ generation can create the financial freedom and fulfilment they seek that many of their parents did not have.”

PANEL

Also on the panel was businesswoman Natasha Faith, chief executive of luxury jewellery company LA DiOSA with business partner Semhal Zemikael, whose designs have been worn by Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge.

The pair founded their firm four and a half years ago after meeting at university, and their first collection, stocked exclusively in Harvey Nicholls, sold out in two weeks.

She said: “I saved £10.5k in a year while working in retail in order to go traveling. I was also doing a business course part-time. I learned to make jewellery in Mexico where I lived for six months. I was told that I should sell my jewellery in markets, but I saw my collection for what it was. It was fantastic and definitely high-end and that’s why I went for Harvey Nicholls.

“What keeps us going as a black-owned female-owned business is nothing different to other businesses – just pure passion and dogged determination. Don’t be afraid of failure.”

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