Opening doors is key to success: an expert’s view

Author: | 19 Jun 2020

You may have a first-class degree and a brilliant business idea, but doors can remain firmly shut if you are not “the right sort” 

In an increasingly competitive jobs market, the Longford Trust is offering additional employment support and training to Longford scholars to turn their university degrees into successful careers.

Mark Neild is a Longford Trust Mentor and lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation at Bristol University who has been advising our scholars. Here he writes for Longford Blog: 

It is curious that something we cannot see, touch or smell has such a huge impact on our life chances.

Social Capital refers to the resources available to people due to the connections and relationships they have.  It was popularised by the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu who described 3 types of capital: economic, cultural and social.

Raising capital: hard with a poor credit rating

Economic capital we can all understand – in simple terms it determines our ability to buy resources.  It can be really important for those starting a business for, as the old truism goes, it is easy to raise money for a venture if you don’t need it.  For Longford Scholars, and others trying to start businesses without wealthy friends and family, they do need capital. And raising capital is doubly hard if you have black marks on your credit history.

Of course, it’s your fault if a repayment fails because the previous day a Proceeds of Crime order emptied your bank account, or if you failed to redirect your mail when you were sentenced, and are therefore denied any recourse in the County Court.  Even various charities that purport to include ex-offenders among the people they fund seem to find excuses not to support entirely plausible plans for sustainable businesses from them.

But there is good news….. 

If you look around there is support for talented business-minded people to avoid the degrading and discriminatory rituals often associated with gaining regular employment. Phoenix is a programme that works with ex-offenders to make the most of their skills to sell directly to customers. The “secret weapon” behind the programme is innovation.  We may not be able to magic up money, but we can show you how to avoid needing it.

How does that work? Well, here’s how. Much like crowd-funding, you dangle a particularly enticing proposition and show prospective partners how, with a bit of faith and investment in kind, that proposition can be realised. It is amazing how doors can open.

One Scholar’s success story

Take the first Scholar we worked with on our programme. Faced with his second institutional funding rejection, we helped him to develop a business idea that needed less capital.  By partnering with an existing landlord, he showed how the property could make more money by setting up as a halfway house for ex-offenders. And, hey presto, the landlord funded conversion works while our Scholar brought in the business. Now they both earn nicely.

But Social Capital is a different beast.  You may have a first-class degree and a brilliant business idea, but institutional doors still remain firmly shut if you are not “the right sort”.  This can be particularly problematic if your business sells to big organisations because, no matter how great your product, if you can’t pitch it nobody will ever know how great it is.  It is not that big institutions are particularly discriminatory (although, of course, some are), it is more that they are fundamentally risk averse and so struggle with ideas that originate outside their collective world view, or outside the social and cultural bubble that invisibly shapes the way they think – a point made very well by Ross Baird in his recent book, Innovation Blind Spot.

The sad truth is that procurement practice favours big companies with the resources to answer lengthy, complicated questionnaires asking about risk-management processes that, frankly, have no bearing on the quality of services delivered.  Even I, who have negotiated £billion contracts for government departments, found working through the labyrinth of the government’s new “simplified” buying process. It is a daunting and time-consuming process.  And, truth be told, unless you have the social capital to show the commissioners “what good really looks like”, they will never know and continue procuring the “same old, lame old” things.

But, hell, one of the biggest reasons for becoming an entrepreneur is to flout convention.  If a product really is better, we WILL find a way of bringing it to market.  And I am delighted to say that the Longford Trust is playing its part.  Among the current cohort of our Phoenix programme participants, we can count for four Longford Scholars, thanks in large part to Jacob, who runs the trust’s e-community app for its past and present award-holders.

Rehabilitation: ‘walking the walk’

What is particularly innovative is that each Scholar has a business idea that will improve the experience of ex-offenders in transitioning back into society.  They have been through it, so have first-hand knowledge of what needs to change, as well as the credibility with “service users” to bring about real and lasting change.

Being able to articulate persuasively the benefits of their approach is an essential part of the package. And that’s what we at Phoenix have been helping the Scholars with. It goes without saying that they need to show they don’t just have the ‘talk’, but can ‘walk the walk’. In other words, they can put in place the right systems and processes to make their vision happen.  None of this means anything, though, unless they can open the doors to the relevant commissioners.

This is where the wider Longford Trust community comes in.

Every year at the Longford Lecture hundreds of rehabilitation champions come together to celebrate talent, penal reform and second chances. Hundreds of people, many with extraordinary connections and experience in industry, business and entrepreneurialism, are united in a warm glow of good will, and ask, what can we do to help? So many Scholars have the ideas, the educational qualifications and the first-hand experience to build successful rehabilitation services. Here’s my suggestion: if you are able to open one door for one of them, please do. They might make a better job of rehabilitation than the politicians have recently!

Who knows whether it will work but, as we say to successive cohorts, the only failure is failure to try.