Access to Enterprise should be a Human Right. Keynote speech CBBA conference

Summarised version of keynote presentation to the ACBBA/ SFEDI European Community Based Business Adviser Conference, London 13 Sept 2010.

Nobel peace prize winner, Muhammad Yunus says:  “All human beings are born entrepreneurs. Some get a chance to unleash that capacity. Some never get the chance, never know that he or she has that capacity.”   I completely agree.  But where I part company from Yunus is his famous statement that “access to credit should be a human right”.  I don’t think it goes far enough.  Now more than ever – with a jobless recovery, diminishing pensions and safety nets and an uncertain environment – not having the skills and freedom to work for yourself is a critical handicap. I’d extend Yunus’s call and say that ‘access to enterprise should be a human right”.

In much of the world, credit is the key that opens the door to enterprise opportunities.  But in Europe, for the majority of the entrepreneurial poor and excluded, our more complex environment means that we don’t need just one key – we need a prison warder’s big jangling bunch of keys.

The premise of this conference is one of those keys.  Skilled business support is needed to help steer many new businesses through the complexities and risks of starting a business. But it needs to be focused on the businesses needs – not, as so often in the past few years, primarily focused on meeting the provider’s funding targets.  Community based business advice reaches those who, as Yunus puts it “would never know that they had that capacity”.  People who would never in a million years start their enterprise journey by ringing Business Link.

Up-skilling is important because traditional business advice isn’t enough.  Disadvantaged communities and groups lack confidence and capital- financial, social and human capital. So they need business advisers who can help them develop personal as well as business skills – soft skills as well as hard.  Information-based, short-sharp interventions won’t do; long-term, relational, community-based business support will.

Another key is the welfare benefits trap.  For many, the risk of losing benefit is – or can appear to be – greater than the reward, especially when there are dependants, unstable health or a precarious residency status. Good business support can help reduce some of those risks.   But not all.    The earning disregard for example.  We  need better government policies and programmes. .  We can also learn a lot from European partners in this area.  Spain – where benefits can be front-loaded to capitalise new businesses- and France where cooperative legal structures can be used to provide a protected test trading period.

Access is a key and there are a whole range of practical and cultural issues – too many to go into today.

And yes we need the key of access to credit too.

This is a time of huge economic and political change all over Europe.  Some of the changes will free-up entrepreneurial potential and let it come bubbling up.  Already in the UK, Enterprise Minister Mark Prisk, has committed to removing the regulations which stop social housing tenants running businesses from their homes.  Progressive ‘earnings disregards’ are back on the agenda and we’re waiting to see if the Government’s proposed ‘Working for Yourself’ scheme will be anything like the brilliant 1980s Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which enabled people on benefits to trade, still claim their benefits and get support for caring costs [update the New Enterprise Allowance has been announced by Iain Duncan Smith, but so far it’s a much poorer version of the 1980s model].

In the meantime there’s a vacuum and a pull-back.  Great community based business programmes are closing, resource banks vanishing from the internet.  And in the midst of this jobless recovery, precious little support for the newly jobless who want or need to start businesses. As is the fate of all keys eventually – the bunch of keys has definitely been lost!

In the meantime – what can those of us committed to ‘enterprise for all’ do?

The mass axing of business support for disadvantaged groups – at a time when it is more necessary than ever –  reminds me of Dr Seuss’s Lorax.  The Lorax is a gentle but persistent soul who ‘speaks for the trees’ as the greedy Once-ler, devastates the forest to build his business empire.   The Lorax finds other homes for the animals who live in the forest and leaves when he can do no more.  In the end, long after he has chopped down the last tree and is left alone and miserable in the wasteland, the Once-ler considers the last remaining seed and remembers the Lorax’s last word, written on a pile of stones:  “unless”.

And at this time, the Lorax is a pretty good role model.

We can ‘speak for the trees’: speak truth to power and make sure that the voice of the entrepreneurial poor is heard by those in power.   Respond to consultations, get involved in the development of our local LEP, write letters (to Ministers, the press, councillors), invite them to visit,  get case studies out there, blog and tweet – in the digital age there is no end to how you can get your message out.

We can find safe places for resources and frameworks, ideas, training programmes, research and toolkits.  Communities of practice, like COPIEWikipreneurship and the linkedin Enterprise for All Network, provide repositories and informal incubators for information and networks.

And we can plant positive seeds and strong resonant messages. If we look at the UK context again – which no doubt is reflected in many of the partner countries here today –   we have a positive and highly relevant story to tell, which fits lots of agendas, including anti red-tape, localism and big society.

Red-tape:  This government is anti red-tape and inappropriate benefits red-tape is one of the biggest barriers to potential and enterprise opportunity for the socially excluded.   DWP seems to get the need for welfare tapers.

Localism: Community based business support is an exemplar of the best of economic localism – local organisations and people working together to help themselves and their community.

Big society: it’s a complex debate, but at its best it’s about empowerment of individuals and communities.  Local enterprise, enterprising people and social enterprise have to be critical drivers of a Big Society, whatever shape it emerges as.

So there’s a lot to build on.  Enterprise skills have never been more critical.  Community based business advice never more important.

But will those obvious facts be taken into account, by those in power.  Well probably not.  Unless…

Unless –  people like us do something.   There is a moment to seize.  What will you do?


About Erika Watson

Erika delivers digital communications and entrepreneurship training and consultancy. Specialist in women in business, creative industries and social enterprise - and editor of Prowess the leading online centre for women in business. Drop me an email: erika [at]

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