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East London’s enterprise catalyst

Just off the River Lea Navigation at the former sweet factory site Clarnico Quay, stands the new Hackney Bridge; a cluster of businesses, restaurants, start-ups, and a new Sunday market (see p.4). Amongst all these commercial traders is the Good Growth Hub, a space to connect businesses with local talent and provide a range of employment, skills and enterprise activities. The name comes from urban geography theories around creating communities and improving these connections.

New Direction was named as the Hub’s operator earlier this year. The organisation grew from an Arts Council supported programme to deliver creative education in schools back in 2002 into a charity that began to focus on the full progression of local young people from education into employment. Oliver Benjamin, their Director of Employment and Skills tells us what the impact of being in a physical space will have on the organization. “Being the operator of the Good Growth Hub is an opportunity for us to crystallise the past decade of our experience of working in this space,” he says. “It will allow us to test ideas and think about what preemployability looks like. It’s also the opportunity to build a legacy.”

From their early roots in a room at the back of the Discover Children’s Story Centre on Stratford High Street, the charity witnessed creative and cultural heritage organisations moving into the area, but saw a disconnect with the people working in those institutions and the local demographic. To help bridge the gap and allow more locals to progress into the creative and cultural heritage sector, they developed employability programmes that provide training placements for individuals at organisations like the BBC, Sadler’s Wells and UCL Culture.

“A big part of what we’re trying to do is about creating an inclusive workforce,” says Oliver, “helping businesses be better at having fair practices, providing good work and paying London Living Wage.”

The Good Growth Hub website will launch soon and their external offer is expected to be available in early Summer. “We’re going to do a callout for local mentors,” says Oliver, “as we regularly work on briefs for businesses that might ask a group of young people to develop a podcast, for instance. Then we ask locals who have experiences in radio or audio editing to help teach on a course.”

“I was placed at Stratford Circus Arts Centre for six months, doing a full time creative learning and marketing internship there,” she tells us. A second placement was scheduled at another performing arts institution, but the pandemic meant the company could no longer host her. An alternative was arranged at the LLDC, which led to a full-time role as a Community Project Coordinator. “My CV is a lot stronger since the STEP programme and I feel more confident about my future opportunities in the arts. I really thought that I might have to look for another career instead, but after STEP, I feel confident I can remain in this [theatre] industry. “ When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, young workers were the hardest hit by job scarcity and unemployment, 80% of jobs lost in the past year were to those under the age of 35. “I do think this is the perfect time, as now more than ever the Good Growth Hub is needed,” says Tasnim. In her role with LLDC she has been able to witness the build-up to the Hub and directly work with other young people, (including myself ) to co-design a wellbeing focused programme. Much of the work planned for the Good Growth Hub will involve a co-design process, with stakeholders including young people, businesses and employers being consulted during the design process of new activities.

Another business who took part in the project was Zhero App, also based at Hackney Bridge. Joe Sharpe and Ollie King kicked off their startup 10 months ago with the ethos of building a logistics company that does not rely on outdated forms of employment and ethics. They use vehicles that are 100% electric and high-capacity e-cargo bicycles to ensure they can fulfil their client needs. They mostly work with independent businesses in the arts and cultural sector and are driven by the idea of local connectivity.

Joe explains that they raised capital for the business by applying for loans at the British Business Bank, “neither of us had written a business plan before, he says, “and neither of us had run a business before. So, we got some mentorship through their startup loans programme. It was useful in the early stages for knowing what our options were. Since then there have been a few East London based networks that have really helped us, too.”

Having recently employed their first young employee, they are now looking at another programme, the government’s Kickstarter scheme, to help more underemployed young people into employment.

“The dynamic for us as such a tiny company is making sure that when we take on more junior, less experienced staff, we are doing the right thing by them as well.”

Bringing together businesses like Zhero App and local talent like Tasnim is what is needed to make the Good Growth Hub a success. With the Hub due to open its doors this Summer, its potential to create a lasting impact is enormous. It has the capacity to create connections, improve employability and reveal accessible pathways that might otherwise seem hidden. A New Direction has a history of successfully generating opportunities for local young people and it’s clear the work they have planned for the Good Growth Hub points towards an even more exciting future as we emerge from the pandemic.

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