It doesn't matter where you come from. All that matters is where you're going.
Ed (not his real name) is a typical 19 year old, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, his way of looking at you askance betraying his lack of self-confidence. He clearly finds it hard to talk about his past, and shares the details sketchily.
"I completed high school but got kicked out of college because I started getting into trouble and had some personal problems going on in my life I didn't know how to deal with. I even ended up in jail at some point."
Ed is one of six participants in a programme being run in Luton by PRACTivate, working with young adults who have had experience of gang membership, drug dealing or social exclusion.
"I had to really reassess and think about what I want in life," he says.
Like Ed, many young people in Britain fall in with gangs to fit in within a society that otherwise writes them off. There, hard work and thinking on their feet gains them respect, power and money, even if it means working in criminal businesses like dealing drugs. Gang members know these situations are dangerous and socially unacceptable, but the alternative seems worse.
"Some of these kids have been 'company men' since they were eight years old," says Leslie Alfin, an energetic American who founded PRACTivate. "They know about sales and marketing, finance and customer relationships - it's just that they don't call it that."
Leslie was determined to find an alternative to 'gang enterprise' on the one hand or low wage, low skill employment on the other. After all, how many of these kids are likely to choose legitimate work if all that is on offer are options that leave them feeling unrecognised, disrespected and without future prospects?
"I founded PRACTivate to provide real opportunity to these young adults - the best, the smartest, and the most resilient of them, who are ready to transform their lives.
"We acknowledge the valuable business experience they've gained in their previous 'careers' on the street, helping them with the cultural change required in order for them to work in legitimate enterprises, enable them to contribute to their community and society through social enterprise."
PRACTivate's programme has two stages. First, participants go through a 12 week 360 degree management bootcamp, mentoring them to transfer their skills to live projects, becoming familiar with the language and practices of legitimate businesses and learning new skills and technology. The bootcamp includes customer service, operations and strategy and planning for the business.
"I love to witness the transformation first hand. The candidates go from initial doubts to light bulb moments, from first discoveries of how much they already know to the sense of achievement in getting things done. We watch them as confidence grows and the vision of their futures change dramatically," Leslie enthuses.
"Together with self-change, the 360 degree Management and Entrepreneurship Bootcamp has helped me channel my energy and knowledge towards something productive and also gave me the key to not only have but successfully running a business."
But PRACTivate's programme is not just another training course that raises confidence and then leaves participants to fend for themselves. The second stage is for the candidates to start up and manage a real business.
"We've been running the 360 degree in Luton for eight weeks," Leslie tells me, "and in one month the candidates will be launching Mocksies - Soft Drinks for Tough Customers. This is a social enterprise franchise, selling non-alcoholic mocktails and fizzy milkshakes. We use natural, organic and locally sourced ingredients wherever possible.
"The challenge to launch Mocksies Luton has been enthusiastically embraced by these young people," says Leslie. "At the end of the day, they just want to be heard - like all young adults. All they are asking for is a chance for some hope and to show the world how they can gain financial self-sufficiency and contribute as productive community members."
Sarita, 22, has been homeless and got involved with the 'wrong crowd', but has found a passion for business management as a result of the Bootcamp.
"I am finding new strengths I didn't know I had thanks to this project," she enthuses. "I will take everything I have learnt and experienced and carry them with me on my way to success!"
Ultimately, replacing 'employment' in gang enterprise with employment in social enterprise reaches beyond those who directly participate in the programme. This is about transforming the opportunities available to young people in the local economy, so gangs no longer offer the most attractive option, turning a vicious circle into a virtuous one.
Running Mocksies, then, is just the first step. But without this first step there can be no others, so the launch team has identified three festivals that will help to establish Mocksies' local presence and kickstart a social economy in Luton.
PRACTivate has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund the £2500 needed to fund equipment, advertising and stock to launch Mocksies in Luton. Click here for details.
"By pledging," says Leslie, "you can support these eager young community business leaders find the futures they deserve."
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