Bennie Gray , entrepreneur champion and founder of SPACE (Society for the Promotion of Artistic and Creative Enterprise), which runs the Custard Factory in Birmingham, outlines his manifesto for saving the city's economy .
In exactly the same way that first-time buyers are the foundation of the housing market, start-up businesses are the foundation and – these days – the possible salvation of the economy.
Especially of Birmingham’s local economy.
It’s easy to forget that most great enterprises have been sparked by the vision and the energy of one person. But for Henry there would be no Ford. But for Larry there would be no Google. But for Bill there would be no Microsoft. But for Richard there would be no Virgin.
The list of entrepreneurs who have started a small business and proceeded to change the way we live is a long one.
So as we face the onslaught of the worst economic storm of modern times, the extraordinary and transformatory potential of the entrepreneur is something that we in Birmingham dare not ignore.
If we are to insure against the nightmare scenario of massive unemployment and – even worse – of “Detroitification” we must urgently unleash our most important and least recognised economic resource – the entrepreneurial energy and talent of our young people.
Birmingham is one of the youngest cities in Europe and after 15 years running the Custard Factory I know for sure that our wonderfully diverse population abounds with aspiring young Henrys, Larrys, Bills and Richards. Of course much of what the future holds depends upon global events outside our control.
But that doesn’t mean we should sit back, blame the bankers, accept our plight and resign ourselves to economic misery.
We may not be able to solve the problems of the world but if we do it right we can certainly make things a whole lot better for ourselves and our neighbours than would otherwise be the case.
In the past Birmingham was known as “The City of a Thousand Trades”.
Now, as we face the threat of economic meltdown, Birmingham must become the city of a thousand new opportunities – and that means unleashing our aspiring young entrepreneurs.
At the best of times starting a small business can be a challenging task, but the way things are now it’s nothing less than scary.
Our would-be entrepreneurs need all the help they can get. They need seed money. They need a place to do business. They need shrewd advice. They need a sense of ownership and a sense of community. But above all they need the inspiration which will give them the confidence to get going.
Over the last 15 years – spurred by the slogan “if you can’t get a job get a customer” – the Custard Factory in Digbeth has made a small contribution to this process.
All too slowly – with progress strictly limited by hard-to-get funding – we have helped to build a dynamic, commercially fertile, working community of more than a thousand people in hundreds of small creative enterprises.
But that is just 1,000 people in a population of more than a million.
What Birmingham needs right now is dozens of informal Custard Factory-type organisations helping to unleash the multitude of small enterprises which, given the right backing, are ready to spring forth from the garages, spare bedrooms, colleges and sheds where they have been honing their nascent skills and ideas and waiting for the right opportunity for too long.
Only Birmingham’s politicians – in Whitehall and in City Hall – can provoke that backing and those opportunities in the manner and on the scale that is needed.
It won’t be easy. In practice it will demand a whole layer of fresh and unfamiliar thinking within a bureaucratic culture that is risk averse by definition. Last week Gordon Brown said “extraordinary times call for bold solutions ...”.
Will Birmingham rise to the challenge?