When I first met Silvana Gambini, who is in her fifties and worked as a careers adviser for 12 years, she had never considered using the internet to earn an income. Like many unemployed women, she used the web to look for work and stay in contact with friends and family through email and Facebook. I remember her telling me on the first day of my Digital Academy that she thought social media was for self-involved narcissists! Although Silvana had a Facebook account, she hid her real self behind a cartoon avatar and a fake male name!
Silvana suffers from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, which can cause pain and numbness and makes it difficult for her to keep a nine to five office job. As a result of the illness, Silvana lost her confidence and her family struggled financially as their only income came from her husband's pension. A short 10 weeks later, as a graduate of the Academy, she was the proud owner of not only a real Facebook identity, but LinkedIn and Twitter profiles, as well as a personal website showcasing her new services as a freelance digital assistant. Today Silvana is part of a co-operative of four graduates of the Academy, FourBerry Digital, providing social media and web design services to small businesses and charities in London and Manchester.
The Digital Academy is an online education platform training unemployed women in high-demand digital skills, giving them practical experience and networks to get into work or help to start their own microbusiness in the digital industry.
Many of the women I've worked with in the past, have health problems which make it difficult for them to keep a steady job or remain in a stressful work environment. Others struggled with financial issues. The Academy gives them the opportunity to learn how they can be more flexible and independent and gain a better income.
The idea for the venture came when I was at the School for Social Entrepreneurs in 2011, which aims to address inequalities and social exclusion by supporting social entrepreneurs from all backgrounds. To me, the mark of a great social enterprise is one that combines passion - something you want to change about the world, a set of skills and, importantly, a way to make a sustainable income. I had the passion - I have been a feminist for as long as I can remember and have a strong belief that women need to work and retain their economic independence. I had the skills - being a digital coach and e-learning designer I had a hunch I could teach digital skills to anyone. But was there a market for these women to sell their new skills?
I put the idea to the test, funded by UnLtd and social investor Nominet Trust, and it proved challenging at first. However, once the women had started seeing the world through digital eyes, they were able to identify the myriad of opportunities available.
The digital and media industries are growing. Come any day to co-working spaces such as Google Campus or Microsoft's Modern Jago, both in London's Silicon Roundabout area, and you will feel an entrepreneurial vibe in the air, as young men and women build the new businesses of the future.
A recent report found that the Silicon Roundabout/Tech City area of London is predicted to contribute to 31% employment rise by 2031 compared to 9% in inner West London. But the local communities surrounding this East London hub have some of the worst poverty and unemployment in the UK. Traditional jobs for low income women in these communities are the low paid and inflexible - those jobs in retail, catering or caring. So there is a disconnect between the opportunities created by this new breed of entrepreneurs and the lack of opportunity in the surrounding communities.
The Digital Academy intends to bridge this gap. We have big plans this year to launch the Academy as a scalable training platform, so that unemployed young women in East London can get the skills and support they need in order to succeed in the digital industry. In partnership with East London based CREATE Jobs, we will fast-track young people to a new digital career through training, mentoring and paid work placements.
The future is digital. If you would like to get involved, you can find more information here: http://www.digitalassistantacademy.org/.
Sinead Mac Manus, Founder of 8fold and the Digital Academy