Eugenie and Gianni by Big Ben

Entrepreneurship and Social (ugh) Mobility

Eugenie and Gianni by Big BenYesterday I had the privilege of joining in a roundtable discussion on entrepreneurship and social mobility, hosted by Chuka Umunna MP. As a long-time Labour supporter—and daughter of a former Labour councillor—it was a thrill to go the House of Commons for the first time, and I really appreciated getting a glimpse of how the political process works. I went to the meeting with Hannah Smith, one of Spark+Mettle’s core team members, currently studying an MA in Social Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, and Gianni Bolemole (pictured with me above), a young entrepreneur from South London who is a Spark+Mettle co-creator.

The presentation and subsequent discussion raised a number of thoughts. I took the opportunity to speak, and the following is a succinct and better-worded version of what I actually garbled at the time.

“I see that there is a strong link between developing enterprising skills in young people and ‘social mobility’ (or, preferably, social egalitarianism): entrepreneurship is a key route to acquiring the nine soft skills needed to flourish. But I believe that ‘social mobility’ is in fact a crippling goal for Labour’s core values as it perpetuates social stratification and inequalities rather than looking for a more radical solution. There has been much talk today around the teaching of “soft skills” (or “work skills”, “real life skills”, “non-cognitive skills”). Ed Milliband is now countering David Cameron’s happiness agenda with his own resilience agenda, so it seems as though soft skills such as resilience have a place in policy now too. So why limit the measures of success within the prism of social classification? Why not take the impact soft skills to its natural goal—that of human flourishing?”


On the train home, I had time to reflect on many of the great ideas and comments put forward during the discussion. Building on what was said by others, I came up with some more practical policy suggestions that I subsequently put forward to Chuka Umunna in an email. This is what I suggested, and I would welcome comments.

  • Ringfence funding for schools to bring in self-employed/entrepreneurs to be paid to share their learning with young people (a bit like the brilliant Future First model, but paid, and extending beyond school alumni). This could be an adaptation of the flexi-teaching model that exists in some FE colleges and universities— I understand that teacher-practitioners have a real positive impact on students and their aspirations. With the axing of Connexions, this could be a government initiative that can support your progressive vision on a national scale while reinforcing local and community cohesion and (self-)employment. In fact this would have multiple benefits:
    • encourage schools to be porous,  giving less-privileged students access to a wider network of professional adults
    • provide useful additional income for the self-employed/entrepreneurs/freelancers
    • enhance intergenerational and socio-cultural cohesion and understanding within a community, perhaps leading to a greater array of work placement opportunities with students and the freelancers/self-employed/entrepreneurs
    • allow teachers to focus on their subject rather than struggle over providing careers support that is not their area of expertise (when I was teaching, I would have LOVED more professionals coming in)
    • spot and support the enterprising young at an early stage by having outsiders interact with young people without the traditional teaching lens (academic ability/potential exam grade) — self-employed/entrepreneurs would make great talent spotters
  • Encourage young entrepreneurs to crowdfund to raise seed capital for their enterprise, provide coaching at the same time and offer matched funding for those who achieve their crowdfunding target.
    • crowdfunding encourages the development of soft skills such as confidence, communication, creativity and commitment that are so commonly cited as key in entrepreneurial success.
    • crowdfunding also develops a sense of agency: it’s not being given a handout, it’s being given a platform and clearly defined process through which you have to raise funds yourself.
    • crowdfunding is an early indicator of the committed entrepreneurs: it has a 50% fail rate.
    • putting matched funding in place then incentivises young people.
    • providing a coach during this process would be a great way of motivating and supporting young people.

NB there is now an explosion of crowdfunding platforms (often unregulated). I freelance for a social enterprise called Buzzbnk ( that is a crowdfunding platform exclusively for social entrepreneurs and charities and has some of the tightest requirements of any, and redistributes its profits among the social enterprise sector, but not all are like this!

I also had four quick philosophical/ideological/pedagogical points:

  • You CAN teach creativity and other soft skills. To ‘educate’ means to ‘bring out’ (NOT to inculcate) and it is always possible to ‘bring out’ creativity and creative thinking in young people. As Ken Robinson points out in his now-famous talk, creativity is there in children from the get-go, schools are the ones that are killing it. It is possible to bring out other soft skills such as self-esteem, agency and resilience in young people too. Leon Feinstein of Institute of Education found that a sense of personal agency at the age of 10 is more important to life chances than reading skills (as quoted in the ‘Grit’ report from the Young Foundation). Then there’s the Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t, you are probably right.”
  • Don’t limit research and policy just to the ‘entrepreneurs’: there’s less of a ring to it, but with the rise of part-time and flexi-workers as well as self-employment, it could be an exciting opportunity to openly support all self-employed and freelance and flexi-workers, whether they are the ‘entrepreneur’ or an entrepreneur-enabler (for want of a better phrase). You may have more solid data on ‘self-employed’ than on ‘entrepreneurs’ too, which seemed to have been wrongly conflated. I, for example, have worked freelance for three years, but have only considered myself as an entrepreneur (and reluctantly at that) for one. Many people find stimulating, non-traditional employment and career pathways, the portfolio-careerists et al. Something to be encouraged!
  • Any suggestion of ‘mentoring’ programmes should, in my mind, be approached with caution. If Labour can encourage a less hierarchical, more two-way process to intergenerational relationships then I would suggest this is a progressive way forward. ‘Coaching’ is a better route. On Spark+Mettle we refer to the volunteer professionals as ‘agents‘ and encourage them and the young people to acknowledge the skills and knowledge they have, and how they can share/swap them with each other.
  • There is a positive correlation between social equality and homogeneity that is the less-discussed cousin to the social mobility-equality pairing. To encourage greater social equality, we need to confront the socio-cultural barriers that exist in diverse communities. Creating opportunities for people to interact with those they would not normally encounter on a daily basis is a key route to overcoming these, and out of all we have done in Spark+Mettle so far, one of the most positive experiences for professionals and young people alike.

I hope wholeheartedly that politicians will find ways of supporting the marginalised but enterprising young to find or make jobs that engage them fully and lead to fulfilling, productive, profitable lives—that surely is the optimal end goal (not social mobility…?!).

Postscript on Inequality and Alikeness

I’ve just been reading Maurice Glasman’s outline for his political vision for the Labour party. Blue Labour. I get why it’s called Blue, but I wish it wasn’t. It’s a powerful thesis, but I think for it to hold sway with non-poli-sci people (me included) it needs to find a way of characterising itself that doesn’t use “blue” and “conservative”: it makes sense, but it doesn’t help its cause. Within it, however, I found one example of a way of answering the question of inequality and alikeness, or the problem of immigration. He used to work at London Citizens. They describe themselves as “the biggest community alliance in Britain”. In his article in The Observer Glasman talks about his work there, and I’m going to quote it at length (my emphases):

I learned many things in those years and one of them was that, unless there were effective organisations, immigration led to a double exploitation, of the immigrants and of the locals. We ran a campaign called Strangers into Citizens so that illegal immigrants could build alliances and a common life with their new neighbours and colleagues. We ran the Living Wage Campaign to assert a common human status for all who worked in an enterprise or institution.

It was driven primarily by faith communities who asserted the dignity of labour and the importance of association. It was a resistance to the commodification of labour. The Catholics, Methodists, Pentecostals and Muslims I worked with did not talk to me about changing divorce laws or prohibiting civil partnerships, about abortion or the hijab. We spoke about a living wage, about establishing an interest rate ceiling of 20%, about affordable family housing and community land trusts and about achieving a common status as a citizen of the country. We spoke about matters of common concern where we had common interests. A common life between the old and the new required the establishment of relationships between what was divided. It required new work agreements so that all was not relentlessly up for grabs in an exclusively contractual churn.

The very simple idea of people’s relationships with others is what is at stake here. The centrality of one-to-one conversations, of relationship building, of establishing trust between what were seen as incompatible communities and interests transformed my understanding of what a politics of the common good could be, and of what Labour should be about.

I’m sure there is a lot more work like this going on in the UK and elsewhere. It’s felt great to read about it after getting so het up about Cameron’s immigration policy. Although there’s a double irony with the Living Wage Campaign that on their page’s masthead is a verbal thumbs-up from Cameron himself.

This introductory video gives more insight into what Citizens UK does. And I’ll stop here—this lost its postscript status the second sentence in…