Looking up after a life on the edge

Looking up after a life on the edge

Social impact guru Joel Blake is positively brimming on how businesses can succeed by helping the communities they serve. But he wasn’t always as confident, as Steve Dyson finds out

We all experience dark, lonely moments, but not many of us reach where Joel Blake found himself as an earnest 15-year-old: seriously considering suicide.

He recalls: “We lived in an eight-storey block of flats in Lee Bank, Birmingham, and on a dark, cold winter’s night, when my mum was out working, I climbed onto the balcony and balanced on the edge of life for half an hour, trying to decipher all the reasons why I wanted or didn’t want to be here. “I’d been doing a bit of soul-searching and felt judged for being young and from an ‘ethnic minority’ background. I was passionate but didn’t know how to release it. I knew I was worth more.”

As a young Joel sat looking down, legs dangling, he spotted a young mum carrying her heavy bags of shopping, her little daughter tagging along behind, and he heard music.

“I knew the woman, and she had no more than us. But she was singing, and her daughter was singing along with her, and I realised: ‘They’re happy.’ I thought: ‘What the hell am I worrying about? I’ve a roof over my head, there’s food in the fridge, and my family cares for me’.

“I climbed off the balcony and decided: ‘I’m going to be successful.’ And since then, I’ve always wanted to help people in similar situations. Life’s about being happy in the environment you find yourself in. Do you wallow in self-pity? No. What choices are you going to take to make things better?”

This underlines everything Joel, now 34, has been telling me for the last 90 minutes about his passion for aspiring entrepreneurs, and what he terms the ‘social impact’ needed from more established companies.

But let’s start at the beginning, and explore Joel’s background. His parents met after arriving in Birmingham from Jamaica with their families in the 1960s, and he was born at the old Dudley Road Hospital in Winson Green, in April 1980. His earliest memory was watching rats startled by a flashlight as they scampered around a bedsit in Aston, where he and his parents shared a bathroom with four families.

Joel proudly recalls that his dad was heavily involved in community activity and ran a renowned Birmingham nightclub, but his parents split – which is when he and his mum moved to the flat in an inner city suburb.

After rejecting suicidal thoughts, Joel left school aged 16 and started work peeling stickers off M&S clothes hangers. He continued this part-time while studying for an advanced GNVQ in business at Halesowen College, then dabbled in various jobs before volunteering for Connexions, the education and advice service for teenagers, in 2001.

He was soon full-time leader of Connexions’ local mentoring team, training 250 people in his first year. “That was my first taste of social impact,” says Joel, by then living with his girlfriend, now his wife, a stepson and the couple’s own little boy. He stayed with Connexions for four years, but in 2004: “I opened a gas bill we couldn’t afford, and I said: ‘I want to start my own business.’”

170D4137Trading as JJB Mentoring, he worked with young people at risk of exclusion, based almost exclusively at John Wilmott School, Sutton Coldfield. “I made £35,000 in year one, paying for a holiday and a sports car,” remembers Joel. “But I made the classic mistake of focusing on one customer, and when the funding process changed the business died overnight.
“It meant Christmas 2005 was the worst ever – our family was still very young, and we had
a mortgage and bills to pay.”

Ever optimistic, Joel launched his second business, Cultiv8 Recruitment, in March 2006, recruiting ethnic minority talent from universities and matching them with vacancies in the professional services sector.

“My service was in demand and I turned over £50,000 in the first nine months from my spare bedroom. But established recruitment firms soon started operating in that area and I was pushed out of the market, becoming insolvent. It was my second lesson: I didn’t
understand my market.” However, he quickly bounced back with Cultiv8 Solutions in 2007, looking at two different areas: diversity management and corporate social responsibility (CSR), focussing on “creating positive solutions” and “bridging the gap between business and social ideas”.

At this stage my eyes have started to glaze, and Joel bristles in a friendly way as he shifts in his chair and attempts to bring me into his world of “social impact”.

“An example of diversity management was helping Aston Villa FC to develop its social impact strategy in 2007. This six-month programme involved everything from diversity training, legal matters, personal development, the executive culture, and even writing the chief executive’s speeches for major events.

“Then there’s CSR – which businesses too often see as simply charitable giving, or allowing staff days off to help charities. What I’m doing with Cultiv8 is helping customers to create better social impact with their CSR, and making sure they have the right teams to deliver the best impact.”

Joel outlines what’s known as a ‘social earnings ratio’ (SER), created by the Centre for Citizenship, Enterprise and Governance at the University of Northampton. This ratio – which puts a figure on what a company’s CSR contribution adds to their bottom line – is calculated by analysing three metrics. One, a company’s brand equity awareness – what people are saying about it online, via channels like Twitter and Facebook, good and bad. Two, a company’s CSR reporting – what it promotes about its CSR activities; and three, a company’s annual accounts – everything from turnover, profits and dividends to actual CSR figures.

Don’t ask me how it all works, but this analysis creates the SER – a ratio you then multiply by what a company says it spends on CSR. In trying to grasp this, I sketch a quick example: if the fictional Smith & Sons Pressings gives £20,000 a year to charity, and its SER is calculated at 5.0, the effect is 5.0 x £20,000, which equals £100,000 in social impact.

“Exactly,” beams Joel, who adds that the highest SER he’s seen is 18.5, and the lowest 1.5. “And it’s all academically verified,” he stresses, pointing out that Aston, Birmingham and Birmingham City Universities support this ‘social value’ work.

"Everything that’s measured gets managed, but if a company doesn’t measure, how do they know its value and how can they manage it? This benchmarking tool says: ‘This is where you are, but to get to stage two, this is how we can change things’. It allows companies to make strategic decisions at a board level that then have a social and commercial impact.

“I’m trying to get businesses to understand what the city can do as a collective to get communities to prosper and grow, to show we care about our own. And how that can open the door to more investment.”

Joel, who founded the annual Birmingham CSR summit in 2011, and sits on various boards in the creative and education sector, is working with 16 MBA students from Aston Business School on analysing local companies’ social impact values. This will result in social impact league tables listing the ‘top ten’ firms in legal, banking and finance, recruitment, property, construction, and IT services.

Cultiv8 may get research funding and potential fees from companies who want individual reports. Meanwhile, although annual revenues fluctuate, Joel says they’ve reached heights of around £85,000 from other projects that include working on entrepreneurship with Birmingham University.

Although Joel earns “enough to run a home”, profit isn’t his only target. He says: “It’s about me as an individual being able to help businesses based on my personal experience and knowledge. The profit, for me, is seeing the light switch on in a boardroom when they see social impact and commercial growth as a combined strategy.”

Joel’s work won him the coveted title of Birmingham’s Young Person of the Year in the recruitment and training category in 2010.

He says: “I’m as comfortable sitting in a café in Handsworth wearing a hooded top and Timberland boots as I am wearing a shirt, tie and suit in a city boardroom. I want to be that counduit bringing people together, bringing differences together, and saying differences are an advantage, not a disadvantage.”

It’s dazzling stuff but – I tentatively suggest – doesn’t this, for some people, almost make Joel a revolutionary? He laughs, and replies: “Ha! If being revolutionary means helping people from both the commercial and social sides, then a revolutionary is what I am!”

Aside from Cultiv8 Solutions, Joel’s a founding director of Bizbritain Finance Ltd, a delivery partner for the government’s Start Up Loans initiative. In the last 20 months, Bizbritain has helped 340 businesses access loans, turning over more that £250,000 in management fees, and increasing its own staff from three to nine.

Work aside, Joel’s also a regional ambassador for Start Up Britain, and he’s developing a community interest company called The Hot 500, billed as the West Midlands’ largest entrepreneur network for 16-to-35 years olds.

This, he says, is where his passion lies: “The Hot 500 is about harnessing young people and talent – and maximising someone’s potential.

“There’s no such thing as failure. Failing is just learning how not to do something.” And reflecting on why he balanced on that balcony as a 15 year old, Joel advises: “Watch your negative language. Things you say to yourself will have an impact on your future. Thoughts create feelings, and feelings create actions. So be positive, not negative.”