It's hot in Haifa. So hot that it's hard to concentrate in the small basement room we're working in. I'm surrounded by artists, designers and other cool creative types from Haifa's Palestinian community. They're here for a workshop on how to make their creative passions into viable businesses. We're in the middle of a session on business modelling when the phone rings. The crowd turns towards the cause of the interruption, while the owner of the phone tries in vain to stifle the sound. Too late. The jeers have started. She tries to look for a means of escape but there's no chance - the crowd are now slow hand clapping, chanting her name. Reluctantly she stands, shuffles forward coyly and... all of a sudden she's turned the floor into a stage, turning and swirling as she dances a burst of flamenco. Thirty seconds later, she takes a bow, lapping up the cheers and applause from the adoring crowd.
It's fair to say that this is far from your average business skills training.
This slightly unorthodox business training is part of the UK innovation agency Nesta's hugely successful Creative Enterprise Toolkit methodology, which the British Council have been sharing internationally since 2011. The workshop is a weeklong immersion into what it takes to turn creative practice into a real business that will provide a steady income and potentially employment for others. It's straightforward, practical and designed to speak to people who are more at home with sketchbooks and moodboards than excel spreadsheets. No text books, no PowerPoints here.
The thirty second dance routine is the forfeit our British trainer, Megan, insists upon if anyone forgets to put their phone on silent. And the twinkle in her eye tells me she loves dishing out the punishment. Just like the creative cohort she's working with, Megan doesn't fit the dry suited stereotype of a business trainer. She's got a cheeky grin, a serious addiction to quirky heels and an encyclopedic knowledge of bra engineering, gleaned from one of the many businesses she has had experience running.
The training has been organised on the ground by our partners the Arab Culture Association, who have brought together an eclectic cohort of Haifa's Palestinian creative community to take part in the workshop. The group includes a comedian, a photographer, dance teachers, t-shirt designers and would-be cultural managers.
There's a reason why the flamenco performer wasn't fazed. She's a dance teacher who's been dreaming about launching her own dance school for the past year. She tells me this week hasn't just solidified her ambition, it's encouraged her to think even bigger. Working with others on the idea development session, she's seen even more potential for her business - an online shop, a series of party packages - ideas that mean the business can be earning money without the need for her to always be teaching. It's been a revelation to her. She tells me she's been going home at the end of the (long, hot, intense) days and continuing to work, building on everything she's learnt through the day. The confidence and motivation the workshop has unleashed in her doesn't end when the workshop closes.
It's a story I've heard repeated throughout the week. People came to the workshop expecting to learn practical tools to help them turn their dreams into reality. What they didn't expect was the permission the workshop would give them to explore and test their ideas with others, refine the top line concepts they've developed alone, and use the power of the group to make them more resilient to the ups and down that will inevitably come their way. The teaching style is interactive, coaching, encouraging. There are plenty of invitations to get creative with sticky notes and coloured pens. Mostly it's about empowering the group to ask questions of themselves and each other.
This group are often philosophical - sometimes too philosophical. Megan firmly curtails nascent debates about the role of commerce and art by firmly instructing everyone to think about the practical: who is the audience, what's the core of the idea, why should anyone care? How the need to make art has to co-exist with the need to make money, to set a value on work that reflects the skill and craft involved. The light bulb moments come. In some cases, people find that their ideas don't stand up to their new found powers of self scrutiny, so they tear them up and start again. In other cases, participants get so excited by each other's ideas that they plan ways to collaborate. A strong, supportive network of creatives is being formed before our eyes and the generosity of spirit energises us all.
On day one, people focused on the obstacles they faced- and of course there are plenty for this group of Palestinians, despite the fact that they are all talented, motivated and highly educated. But by day five the group are focusing on finding solutions together, and the dynamic has shifted. It's remarkable to watch. Even Sameeh, our Arabic translator for the week, has been carried away by the shift in energy, admitting to me that he wasn't sure about the programme on the first day but he now thinks it's one of the most effective he's witnessed. He's taken to joining some of the breakout groups and is excitedly contributing and encouraging. He's now part of the network too.
I leave Haifa with the knowledge that this week has changed people's lives and shifted their approach to creative enterprise. I truly hope that some of the exciting ideas I've been privy to - the dance school, the travelling open air cinema, the arts centre - will be a reality soon. Having met the people behind them, I have no doubt they will. But the practical tools Megan has shared are only a small part of the story. The real legacy is that this is no longer a group of individuals but a strong, supportive creative network. Eyad, Director of the Arab Culture Association, grins as he shows me the plans for the creative hub space he's opening next summer. "When exactly will the hub be up and running?" I ask him. "It's happening already," he smiles, gesturing around him to the 20 people who've taken the workshop this week. "It's right here".
So where to next? Visit www.britishcouncil.org/creativeconomy to find out.
And the hub that we witnessed emerging here in Haifa, can grow anywhere, if you're interested in setting up your own hub we have just launched the Creative Hubkit - a free guide for creating, structuring and maintaining a hub, available to download here: