HELP Enterprise: A Social Investment Action Zone Success Story

Last night I attended the launch of HELP Enterprise and Vital Invest CIC, a business incubator and investor for people in temporary accommodation. The project is an extension of charity Vital Regeneration’s original HELP Enterprise scheme to make micro-finance accessible to entrepreneurs, enabling them to expand their businesses.

The HELP Enterprise project, born out of a partnership between BNP Paribas, the City of Westminster, and independent affordable housing provider and developer Dolphin Square Foundation, is predicated on the idea that stable housing and employment are inextricably linked.

Participants in the scheme are provided with holistic support to realise their commercial proposition from business advice, grants, training, to support around health or family issues if necessary. They are matched with a mentor who will work with them on a long-term basis and they are provided with office space. Most significantly, they are given access to affordable housing to provide a stable base from which to pursue a new start as a self-employed businessperson.

Since the inception of the project in January 2014, 90 aspiring entrepreneurs have engaged with HELP Enterprise and outcomes are positive so far. Businesses set up by the aspiring entrepreneurs include mobile massage and beauty therapy, translation services, a Sudanese street food takeaway, street wear clothing design, and personal training.

The initiative is an excellent example of the approach advocated by ACEVO and Sobus (the community development agency for Hammersmith & Fulham) in the Commission on Social Investment: ‘The Local Opportunity’ report, published in October 2014. The report calls for local private resources, local foundation resources, and the local knowledge of frontline and second-tier organisations to come together to achieve long-term social benefit within ‘social investment action zones’.

The Commission on Social Investment sought to make the Tri-borough area of Westminster, Hammersmith & Fulham, and Kensington & Chelsea a trailblazer for this localised variety of social investment, as an area where affluent businesses like BNP Paribas sit alongside people who face significant disadvantage, such as those living in temporary accommodation.

The great success of the HELP Enterprise scheme is that provides help to some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. HELP entrepreneurs include people with mental health issues and disabled people. The majority of entrepreneurs are women, who are more likely to find themselves in temporary accommodation than men, for a variety of reasons including domestic violence and challenges gaining employment due to childcare responsibilities.

Despite this success story, there is still work to be done in making social investment more accessible to charities and to micro-enterprises. Models like HELP Enterprise, which draws upon the resources of private business, local government, and the third sector, will not work everywhere because, as one delegate commented at the event last night, “Not every local authority has an investment bank in the middle of it”. Where appropriate, social investment action zones could provide a real opportunity for communities to unite around a common purpose and bridge socioeconomic divides. Other ways of galvanising community leaders are needed for the areas where private, public, and third sector interests and ethos are not currently in alignment.

It would also be of benefit to all of us in the third sector to resist a public discourse in which ‘hand-outs’ – whether they be grants to charities or social welfare payments to individuals – are shameful, whilst ‘investment’ of whatever kind is an unalloyed good. At the launch yesterday evening, Cllr Daniel Astaire, Cabinet Member for Housing, Regeneration, Business and Economic Development at Westminster City Council, praised HELP Enterprise for helping its entrepreneurs move out of a benefits system which ‘stifles people with benevolence’. No individual or organisation was ever ‘stifled with benevolence’. The key is to provide targeted and tailored support at the right time to enable communities to survive and thrive.

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