Stephen Ferdinando meets the owner of Tree Shepherd, a Brixton based organisation seeking to inspire local businesses…
As I waited to meet Colin Crookes outside the Ritzy cinema, a member of its staff was enthusiastically handing out flyers. They were proposing strike action against their employers who, they claimed, pay them below the London living wage of £8.80 an hour. Even the Ritzy, one of Brixton’s most popular establishments and part of the Picturehouse chain, appears to be cutting corners in 21st Century South London.
The context then, for my meeting with Colin, seemed almost too apt. As a chained brand is struggling to keep its employees happy, Colin is trying to encourage Lambeth residents to start their own businesses – his company Tree Shepherd, is how he’s doing it.
Tree Shepherd’s goal, Colin tells me over a tall pint, is to “create several thousand jobs for those who are most challenged.” It sounds like a big task, but in its short life Tree Shepherd has already helped hundreds of people. Its model is simple. Give people the tools and support they need to start a business and that business will grow and create jobs in the community. Tree Shepherd works with the community, instead of just for it. With a mixture of lectures, networking events and one-on-one mentoring, they can help almost any Lambeth resident create a foundation to build a business on.
Colin is Lambeth’s Social Entrepreneur in Residence, meaning his role is to help build jobs in the area, and he believes local business is the way to do it.
“If you want to create jobs in a community you can’t just drop a huge factory down,” he tells me, “certainly not in inner-city Lambeth. There’s no room, and besides those jobs will go to people from all around London.”
Instead, and this is where Tree Shepherd comes in, Colin thinks that if people are encouraged to start up their own local businesses (in any form – market stalls, cleaning services, local repairs, anywhere the skills lie) then as those businesses expand they’ll create jobs for other local people.
“In my experience, people recruit in their image. So in the same way a graduate is likely to employ other graduates, a single mum is likely to employ other single mums.”
Whilst any Lambeth resident can work with Tree Shepherd, it’s society’s marginalised people that Colin’s really interested in. Having spent years setting up businesses and working in industry, Colin discovered that those who are marginalised (whether by unemployment, drug use or criminal history) are just as talented and willing to work as anyone else.
“It’s a matter of confidence. These people often feel they can’t just do things like start a business, and one of our goals to show them they can.”
And they really are showing people.
“We do everything! Well, almost,” Colin jokes.
But outside of actually coming up with your idea, Tree Shepherd really are on your side. The lectures, the advice, are worth it alone.
“If I could have had some more support in the early businesses I was running they would have been ten times better. I had no idea about things like balance sheets or marketing. If I’d had support I could have saved myself a lot of time.”
But it’s also the networking events they host. Colin says, “We’re literally bringing the community together. Say someone wants to set up a fruit stall, we say ‘well here’s Jack, he grows local veg.’ And that gives business a big boost.”
But it’s the mentoring aspect of Tree Shepherd that’s one of the most important factors. Successful entrepreneurs and business managers volunteer to be mentors who, according to what they do/have done, are paired with Tree Shepherd clients who are hoping to achieve something similar.
By attending events and monthly face-to-face meetings, these mentors help the new businesses as they grow. Advice from people already in the industry is, of course, invariably beneficial to any start-up, but it’s great for the mentors themselves too. Not only do they get the opportunity to spread their experience and connect with people, but it gives back to the community in a big way – something that always looks good.
The only issue is numbers. “We’ve got so many people wanting to come and be a part of Tree Shepherd, and nowhere near enough people to mentor them! The mentoring side of things really is crucial to what we do and it’s hard to expand without more volunteers.
Colin is keen to pint out that the mentoring scheme isn’t just for entrepreneurs. “People who are managers are perfect too – they know all the tricks, all the jargon, and that’s gold dust to our people.”
So, if you’re interested in getting involved, it’s easy. Just head to the Tree Shepherd website. They usually run mentoring events every other month. What’s more, on Wednesday 30th April 6pm – 9pm, they’re holding a Marketing & Social Media event (again, details are on their website).
So Tree Shepherd’s passion for Lambeth and its residents is evident through its dedication and ambition. As I said goodbye to Colin and he headed back towards Tree Shepherd’s office (which is based in Lambeth Town Hall right in the centre of Brixton) the Ritzy employee was still handing out flyers, slightly more dejected than before. I couldn’t help but feel that maybe it was time for him to move on and start something new.
Tree Shepherd is a free service to anyone on benefits and has a small charge to those who are working. See the Tree Shepherd website for more details.