As Jamaica gears up to celebrate 50 years of independence and the country’s Olympic team prepares to arrive in Birmingham to train for London 2012, Enda Mullen looks at some of the challenges and opportunities facing the black business sector in and around Birmingham
Access to funding continues to be a major hurdle facing aspiring entrepreneurs from the Midland Afro-Caribbean community, according to a city councillor.
Councillor Paulette Hamilton (Lab, Handsworth Wood) who sits on the Birmingham economy and jobs overview & scrutiny committee, also believes the demise of the start-up support agency Business Link and the Regional Development Agency Advantage West Midlands have made it tougher for people from marginalised communities to flex their entrepreneurial muscle.
“The biggest problem is access to funding,” said Coun Hamilton. “But it is not just about money also the advice and support that is needed to get started.”
And Coun Hamilton also feels that even organisations like Finance Birmingham, set up to assist SMEs who have struggled to get lending from established lenders, is failing to target small start-ups.
She added: “Finance Birmingham lends sums of between £100,000 to £1 million but for a small business not turning over that much sometimes £10-15,000 would be a good starting point.”
The Labour councillor said she frequently came into contact with aspiring entrepreneurs and sympathised with the difficulties they faced to get started.
“As an Afro Caribbean councillor I get lots of people coming to me, not just Afro-Caribbeans but Bangladeshis and others, people who have got an idea but don’t know how to access support mechanisms or lenders – it’s like another world,” she said. “You will find most of them have put their houses on the line or go without to get things off the ground.
“They have got the idea but struggle. One of the main things I see is when people come in with lovely ideas but we don’t know where to send them. There’s no clear structure out there. When you are starting it is just a minefield.”
Acknowledging that the Midlands Afro-Caribbean community continued to punch below its weight in the business world Coun Hamilton said there was an as yet untapped entrepreneurial spirit.
“Afro-Caribbeans are one of the most entrepreneurial groups of people out there but they struggle to get the support they need to get started. They have got the ideas but don’t know how to focus them to get to another level.”
In the absence of organisations like Business Link she also called for more initiatives to offer support and advice, particularly for start-ups.
“There has got to be somewhere people can go as a business to air their ideas – somewhere safe and transparent where their ideas won’t be stolen.
“Most businesses are started during a recession but it’s the hardest time to get the advice and support you need. Places like Business Link and Advantage West Midlands have gone and there is nothing in their place. How are people going to get that initial support?
“I would also like to ask how organisations like Marketing Birmingham, Finance Birmingham and the local enterprise partnerships are working together to help some of the communities.”
Carol Cooper has been working to support the black business sector for several years and echoed Coun Hamilton’s sentiments.
“Nothing has been put in place to tackle the challenges the black business community faces,” said Ms Cooper, who also is an advisor to the Jamaican Foreign Ministry.
“The Government has adopted an integrated approach to everything meaning it is very difficult to monitor communities that are traditionally disenfranchised.
“People are focusing on core business and not looking at the diverse needs of communities as a priority.”
Ms Cooper added that organisations like the local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) may have a role to play but are focused on high level strategies for growth as opposed to the grass roots but believes stronger links between the Caribbean diaspora – particularly in the year that Jamaica celebrates its 50th birthday – and countries in the West Indies could strengthen trade links and create business opportunities.
Agreeing strongly with Coun Hamilton Ms Cooper also stressed the problem of accessing funding.
“Access to funding is a major issue and has been for decades but no one has ever really addressed it,” she said. “Another challenge black businesses face is getting through early stage growth. They tend to be low level and don’t get through that stage of growth to reach sustainability.”
Ms Cooper said organisations like Aston Reinvestment Trust, another lending source that operates outside the main lending infrastructure, had also witnessed a drop in applications from the black community.
As to what might be the way forward Ms Cooper said she remained convinced a recognition of the potential power of the diaspora could help, as could raising awareness of potential funding sources that are out there and exploring community funded development.
Despite that she feels a healthy black business sector in the region can develop given the right kind of help and nurturing.
“Some reports say we are not entrepreneurial but we are in the Caribbean and in countries like Canada but for some reason we haven’t hit the same level in the UK.
“I am trying very hard to buck that trend. We have 60 per cent male unemployment and 40 per cent female unemployment and recognition of that serious state of affairs is a start.
“Enterprise is a way forward for people who have fallen out of employment or people who’ve never been employed.
“We are now in the same spirit as the Big Society, setting the agenda to bring growth to our sector, and we would like statutory organisations to partner with us in our strategy to address these very challenging situations. It requires dedicated support and investment and an overarching strategy that binds the community and the statutory sector together.
“I am concerned about young people in particular. That is the thrust to try to get young people from our community involved in enterprise, a means of making a living that can give you back your pride and dignity. That is what we want to see, particularly for our young people.”