In the latest blog in our Voices from the Micro Business blog series, Katherine Jones, our PrOPEL Hub Knowledge Exchange Fellow and Richard Thickpenny from Ashley Community Housing, an award-winning social enterprise providing a range of support for refugees, BAME & migrant individuals, discuss the need to establish networking groups for business support provision for BAME communities.

How does any business keep up to date with the ever-changing landscape of business support provision?

We are all now aware of the generally unheard term ‘furlough’. This has been mentioned and discussed in ongoing news stories on all media platforms. When a business requires support, it is often the case that they are stuck by 3 common barriers:

1. They do not know what support they require

2. They don’t think any support packages would be relevant to their unknown needs

3. They do not hear from their own networks that they can access support or where to find it.

Traditional support networks have been affected with movement restrictions and the pace of change and packages of support that are being made available. Equally important though in this mystifying pool of information, is the requirement for service and support providers to be able to:

1. Know who the potential recipients are;

2. How to locate them; and finally

3. How to communicate availability of support available to them.

Therefore, how can a micro business be kept up to date with support provision and the confidence to access any relevant skills support and potentially business saving finance?

Ashley Community Housing who are one of CREME’s practitioner partners, like many businesses, have been forced to look at alternative ways of delivery and providing support to their beneficiaries. Richard Thickpenny, Chief Innovation Officer, ACH, provides some insight into the main reasons for recent developments in their service provision.

The pandemic has exposed major issues with the way advice is provided to communities. Bricks and mortar-based provision suddenly became high risk and quickly closed down. Support service employees were quickly protected by furlough, Microsoft Teams and Zoom. And the community was left bereft of those they had relied on for advice and guidance.

Without the opportunity to migrate to the safe haven of the spare room, many business owners were left isolated and unsure where to turn to. Trust became a major issue as instead of relying on ‘professional’ business advisers, they were left to rely on those ‘in the know’ in their own community. At the same time their income was being eroded and personal stresses were increasing. Even those who had accessed business support and completed training programs were equipped with business plans but had no business resilience.

Yet it shouldn’t have been the case. Government was providing grants and easy to access loans. The opportunity was there to access new finance and reorientate their business. Across the UK the shift online for small business was rapid and the canny business was able to create new markets and grow. Those areas of cities which were traditionally vacated during the day by office workers suddenly represented opportunity for existing and new entrants alike. Unfortunately trust in the local authority and government meant so many of our BAME businesses just could not stomach the perceived risks associated with accessing this money and had never been encouraged to establish relevant networks to support their business growth.

At ACH we rapidly deployed into the community creating 6 Community Trust Volunteers. They were specifically trained on a professional level of triage advice to link businesses with our in-house business support. Within 3 months we had secured for businesses over £1m of grants and loan funding and in doing so increased the knowledge available within the community. This was possible because we went from servicing 30 businesses using the appointments/ bricks & mortar approach to 500 accessing whatsapp videos and messaging. Over 70 accessed a major workshop delivered in Arabic primarily developed from customer feedback.

From this work ACH have pushed an agenda to democratise business knowledge and have a major £1m digitally enhanced business support provision in delivery. At its core is 24/7/365 business knowledge providing relevant answers, in first language where possible, supported by community Trust Volunteers where needed and designed to support Covid recovery.

Covid drained the water and the BAME business ran aground. Trust, confidence and risks were main factors, financial skills, digital literacy were other.