Working with over 15 partners, including Virgin Start-Up, Camden Town Brewery, Lloyds Bank, Swoop Funding, SMC Europe and the Makeshift Foundation and more, the masterclasses were recorded over six months as a part of the launch of the Mentor Black Business initiative.
Covering topics such as: ‘Building a Sustainable Business’, ‘Getting your Product into Supermarkets’, ‘Navigating COVID in the Food and Hospitality Sector’ and ‘Alternative Funding Options for Start-Ups’, all the content is now on Instagram via IGTV, YouTube and Vero, (@mcsaatchischool and @mentorblackbusiness).
Mentor Black Business began in June 2020, as a response to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Developed as a resource for Black business to thrive, it works to help people unlock their value and realise their potential, through mentorship, masterclasses and through providing access to growing industries.
With over 500 Black businesses signed up to the platform the goal is to support over 5,000 Black businesses in 2021.
M&C Saatchi Saturday School was started to teach Black women, women of colour and young people within communities the basics of business. Teaching over 3500 people in the last two years, it has empowered thousands who have never previously received industry support.
As this huge resource becomes available with the aim to give communities access to the industry know-how required to really make their business thrive - without the paywall, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with the director of both initiatives, Akil Benjamin.
LBB> Rewinding to 2019, when you first set up Saturday School, what drove you and what were your goals for it?
Akil> By 2019, I had been running my design studio COMUZI, which I founded with friends Alexander Fefegha and Richard Fagbolagun, for seven years.
I dropped out of university to start COMUZI and so, seven years later when a few friends from university and college saw that we were still in business, they started asking how they could bring their ideas to life, too. My friends looked like me; they looked like my partner - and their friends too - and I realised there was a growing demand for business support in minority communities.
Soon, this became overwhelming. The time I was meant to be spending with our clients, I was instead spending with friends, helping them start their businesses. I wanted to continue; I just knew that the format in which I did this needed to change.
Understanding that working with people one-on-one was expensive [time-wise], I asked myself three questions: ‘Could I teach group sessions?’, ‘Could we get paid to teach, to make the classes more sustainable?’ and lastly, ‘Would people come out on Saturday?’
In May 2019, to find out the answers to all these questions, we:
1. Made an Eventbrite page
2. Asked people from the business community to sponsor tickets so that Black women, women of colour and young people, aged 16-25 could attend for free, and
3. Taught our first 10 attendees how to make a business plan in three hours on a Saturday.
Since then, over 1,500 people have taken the business planning class and in partnership with M&C Saatchi, we taught over 3,500 people in 2020.
When we started, our goal was to teach over 10,000 people in four years and we are well on our way to achieving that goal.
LBB> How did those first stages play out as the school took form? How did M&C Saatchi Group get involved?
Akil> Our very first class was in the upstairs of a coffee shop in Elephant and Castle. The coffee machines were whirring around so loudly I had to shout, even though the attendees were three feet in front of me.
Though we may have had our first success, I knew that in order to grow we needed a better environment, so a few mentors of mine over at M&C Saatchi invited me to host the classes in their building at the weekend, instead.
I have gratitude for Kate Bosomworth who was CMO there at the time. And also Renee Davis at Out the Box, who partnered with me during this time to help me improve the reach of the school, so we could really start impacting communities.
I am a researcher by trade and so capturing insights and feedback from the session was an obvious way to improve the school with my skill set. We collected video clips, feedback forms and screenshots of Instagram posts and tweets of people praising the sessions. The work was soon shared around the agency as we improved and scaled quickly: teaching over 200 people in four months.
During this time, many directors within M&C Saatchi sponsored tickets for people from Black and minority communities to attend the schools, including Moray MacLennan. As I was regularly sharing feedback with the Group, I was invited to speak at M&C’s pitch for AdForum 2019, and part of the agreement was to announce our partnership to teach 1000 people in 2020. It was this partnership that launched M&C Saatchi Saturday School, teaching communities the basics of business.
LBB> Then in 2020 with the seismic surge of the Black Lives Matter movement brought about by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, how did that change the way M&C Saatchi Saturday School worked?
Akil> Halfway through 2020, we smashed our target. Working with Somerset House we did a live session to over 1.5k people as a part of their ‘Upgrade Yourself’ online series. So I was in the mindset of reimagining how we could provide even more value to minority communities.
I was actually rattled a couple of months before George Floyd happened, I had a real personal issue with the death of Ahmaud Arbery. We were the same age at the time and the guy was running in his local neighbourhood the day he was murdered. It’s more disgusting in the way it was filmed by the perpetrators.
But I digress. It brought focus: it challenged me to be brave, it challenged us to think about goals that need a team to be achieved; it challenged us to think more about impact at scale whilst serving as a reminder not to forget the details.
M&C Saatchi Saturday School was started to meaningfully address social issues and inequalities, through business and entrepreneurship. As an organisation I believe it is our duty to continue to respond in a timely manner. The Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 showed us what we were capable of as we were agile enough to dream up programmes to meet community needs, in record time. I am proud of that and now it will forever be a part of our DNA.
LBB> And why did that also lead to Mentor Black Business beginning?
Akil> How do we respond to the needs of the community at that time? By June 2020 we are already three months into the pandemic, many businesses have to completely reimagine their work and we cannot protest to stand up for our rights.
I thought ‘How might we add value here?’. I identified that mentoring gave me a level of industry access that was unparalleled to many of the relationships I had in the industry and so the new question was ‘Can I offer a similar experience to others?’. Mentoring gave me access to boardrooms, new leads and new business and was an essential component of my personal growth.
Mentoring was a concept people knew, something people could participate in at any stage in their career. It could build bridges between communities and provide value to everyone involved.
At first, we wanted to help five Black businesses. Then that number then became 10, then grew to 25, 100 and then 500.
When we launched our crowdfunding campaign we said we’d raise £10k and work with 100 Black businesses. We hit our target in 24 hours, we saw the demand growing at a crazy rate and we were challenged to run the programme beyond its initial six months. When this happened we were no longer; ‘Mentor 100 Black Businesses’, ‘Mentor 300 Black Businesses’ or ‘Mentor 500 Black Businesses’. We kept it simple, we knew we wanted to impact thousands, so we called it Mentor Black Business.
LBB> The way the Mentor Black Business mission lays out that Black people’s professional work is their activism is powerful. Can you expand on why that’s of such value?
Akil> You have it wrong. That doesn’t only apply to Black people. ‘Your professional work can be your activism’ is almost the perfect invitation. Everyone's professional work can be their activism, that's more powerful. That’s the reason why we believe anyone can be a mentor, no matter their race, denomination or creed.
The idea has come from the fact that I know many people who share the benefit of their industry skills to help others. Working at COMUZI we design new products, services and experiences, so teaching others how to start their own business at Saturday School wasn’t hard. I didn’t wait until I had seven figures in my bank account to give back, and I don’t think you have to either. I don’t think anyone has to. I believe in giving what you can, when you can and standing behind something you believe in.
People spend 70% of their time working, using the skills they cultivate in the workplace literally makes millions for others in the market, and so it speaks to the value they can bring through mentoring. Sometimes that time or that know-how which a mentor may share is worth more than the cash itself. When you think of it like that, you don’t need much more to take the next step and get involved.
LBB> Both initiatives have got dozens of masterclasses accumulated now - a rich resource! - what was the process of getting those together?
Akil> When we kicked off the programme we had a lot of brands coming to us offering support and so we hosted a lot of events.
LBB> Obviously Covid-19 also shifted the way you had to go about things. What were some of the important changes brought about by the pandemic?
Akil> A big goal of mine pre-pandemic was to teach in person. The efficacy of teaching in person and in small groups is so much higher than when you teach lecture/auditorium-style, but when life gives you lemons… make a gin and tonic.
We were scheduled to have our April class in Golden Square and we immediately transitioned it to online. We taught 120 people that day across four online classes and it was a testament to our teachers, who were also successful local entrepreneurs. All of them received a five-star rating overall for that session and 80% of people felt empowered to take their next steps.
During the time that the pandemic was starting to make an impact in the UK, we were meant to partner with Sky to deliver classes in Leeds - with thanks to Renee Hunt. I don’t believe we were ready to let that relationship go just because of the pandemic and so we worked through the spring with the technology teams at Sky to develop Saturday School online
, making our classes available on demand.
Lastly we accepted that as an organisation we needed to adapt our offer to keep making a difference. The pandemic came as a huge shock to many and so we started delivering masterclasses with leaders in the industry so that communities could start learning from the best on how they might adapt their work and stay in business.
We held masterclasses with Moray MacLennan, who had recent and unique experiences successfully navigating crisis, Jane Boardman to share their thoughts on reinvigorating a creative business as well as Karen Thorpe Reid from Premier Change Consulting and Ibrahim Kamara from Guap as a counterpoint to share their small business experience as they dominate the independent market.
This has inspired our digital-first approach and our new proposition for 2021.
LBB> I’d love to hear about some of the success stories from both initiatives. What moments have been particularly rewarding?
Akil> As we’ve started operating at such scale, I am not as close to the stories as I once was. We have a team going out in March to collect feedback from the first cohort at MBB and overall, from the last two years.
We’ve seen many new businesses launch which is excellent, such as Olivia Ema at Studio Live
We’ve seen businesses run successful crowdfunding campaigns like Mama Dolce
We’ve had many who have grown in confidence get new jobs, change sectors and begin to pursue their vision.
I’ve also shared some of their profiles so you can follow for yourself.
LBB> It’s clearly been a huge undertaking. What have been the toughest challenges? Did it ever get demoralising?
Akil> I had built things quickly before. I had burned out before. I had cried during the night before with simple overwhelm and when we were working to launch MBB in July, my partner asked me if ‘Working every late night in the week is healthy?’. The answer is no!
The toughest challenge for this work was the scale we were trying to work at. There were so many people, so many questions; simply so much going on. Every email, every phone call, every meeting just felt like another thing I had to do and I was struggling to keep my head above water.
I resolved with myself to prioritise, to be realistic that some things simply weren't going to be done and I learned that when the going gets tough, many hands make light work. I appreciate my team for standing by me. I appreciate people reaching out offering help and I praise God I was wise enough to accept the help, but I also went to therapy. That was a big thing to ground me and ensure I didn't go insane in the process.
Once I got my head right and resolved to ask for help in any challenge I needed, the problems melted away. M&C Saatchi have been really instrumental in keeping the right people around me, especially Antonia Bazeley, Camilla Kemp and Tom Firth. Being in a network with such a diverse group of businesses, I am never far from support and that has given me confidence to do this work to the end.
THERAPY THOUGH! It was almost an insurance policy for my sanity. I think it almost essential when building anything so quickly; I think I would have failed without it.
LBB> With all the Masterclass sessions being released online, what are your priorities and goals right now?
Akil> With this content release across so many masterclass videos we want to reach 100,000 people.
If people missed our launch last summer, this will be a great way for them to become familiar with our work and participate in it. For Black businesses, we want to become a central resource for them to thrive and unlock their potential. For mentors who want to make change, here’s an opportunity to participate in something meaningful while developing your own professional skills: helping yourself and others. For brands and organisations looking at how they might execute on anti-racism pledges, I want them to see they can work with us and make a difference at a micro and macro level.
We wanted to start our year with a bang and make some real difference, this is it and we look forward to following up with other initiatives and activities later on in the year. Initiatives such as our Industry Access programme and our Live CPD accredited teaching sessions, where people can receive industry-recognised certifications for working on their own businesses.
LBB> What is the most important thing for people in the industry to understand about these projects?
Akil> The work we are doing is bigger than all of us. It can only be done in partnership with others. With that, we’re looking for more brand partners to continue the work, providing more Black businesses the support they need to unlock their value and realise their potential, while helping them address their anti-racism pledges.
An example of this is our flagship Industry Access programme: Exchange + Black Business, with Somerset House, where we use our unique position to support Black business. In this case, we’re working with talented Black creatives and supporting them to develop sustainable creative careers.
I believe there are going to be real opportunities in industry collaboration to make a direct difference at scale to Black business. I invite readers of this interview with the power to do so, to reach out to us
so we may make change together.