She was just 28, when the letter came. Justice Williams, a judge at the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards, had spoken in the House of Commons, and when she saw the envelope and realised it was from the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, she assumed it was related to that. It wasn’t, she discovered that she going to receive an MBE.
So, in 2009, Justice became the youngest woman of Afro-Carribean heritage to receive an MBE, from the Queen.
“I used entrepreneurship as a tool to get young people out of poverty and also to get young people out of gangs and gang culture,” and it was for her work in this area, that she won the accolade.
Justice is, by her own admission, “quite outspoken,” maybe we could delete the word quite from that description.
“It is absolutely disgusting!” she says. “Living in the city of Birmingham, where one in three children live beneath the poverty line, we are supposed to be the advanced world.”
So, what can we do about it?
“Entrepreneurship is a viable way of getting people out of poverty,” she says.
A few years ago: “The done thing was to go to college, go to university, get a job, get married, have a holiday, 2.4 kids, buy a house, pay off your credit card and live happily ever after!”
“But now kids want more, they want to live, contribute more and they want to enjoy life and they are encouraged to experience more at a younger age … Lots of young people are more socially conscious of what is going on in the wider world, especially with younger females. Statistics show that young women are waiting a lot longer to settle down, get married and have children, 20 years ago that was not the case.”
“The UK has the highest rate of childcare costs in western Europe, discriminating against women,” but they say necessity is the mother of invention, and today something different is happening.
Justice explains: “Take a corporate lady, who has been in the corporate sector for ten years, she has a child while in her early thirties and then decides that the demands of the work and inflexibility of the working place will not allow her to raise her child, while having a career. It is very hard for women to go back to work after taking time off, they lose their confidence, they have low self-esteem.
“They then decide to stay at home and start their own business. They then have the flexibility to be present in their child’s life, earn an income, utilising the skills that they have gained, and deal with the childcare issues.“
But then there are other factors at play. The UK is more entrepreneurial than it used to be, I suggest, and Justice agrees with that. But why?
“I saw the introduction of channel 5, mobile phones, the internet” she says, “but the millennial generation grew up with technology at their fingertips, it is normal for them, and as result we are so much more interconnected.”
Then there is the rise of portfolio careers, where people “do a little bit of this and a little bit of that, we, as a generation are encouraged to try new stuff, at the same time young people are travelling, but less are going to university because it is too expensive.”
And then Justice turns to a subject that clearly matters to her. “A lot of people from disadvantaged backgrounds can’t afford to go to university.” And “It is the same with unpaid internships. That may be viable if you have two, middle class, predominantly white, parents who can pay for you, but those from a working-class background don’t have those opportunities afforded to them.” But as result “they look at alternatives.”
But she thinks the government can do so much more. “We are not focusing on that. The only thing that we have is start-up loans, all the grants have disappeared, there is no more business link, no free advice. Where do people go?”
When Justice was 21, she had a short spell in prison for 15 days. “I had a good up-bringing” she says, “but she fell in with the wrong crowd.”
But I get the impression that this experience changed her. Certainty, to be awarded the MBE just seven years later was an extraordinary achievement.
And I think the real message I am getting from Justice is that entrepreneurism can transform lives, give hope where there was despair, create opportunity where there was once no hope.
And for that reason, the imperative for the government to step in where appropriate and support and encourage this new spirit of entrepreneurism, both in disadvantaged areas, and also support female entrepreneurs, is without question.
“The government should be providing mandatory enterprise education as part of the curriculum, we need to learn from other countries in northern Europe like Finland,” says Justice. “Careers advisers should tell children about enterprise and we need to have enterprise programmes running in schools.”
Justice does not lack passion, but then it is passion like that which can change Britain for the better.
Justice Williams is Diversity in Tech Ambassador, Founder of Behind Her Dreams, a network and online membership platform to support entrepreneurial women in the UK and the Managing Director of The New Narrative Enterprises Ltd.
The UK is emerging an entrepreneurial success story – but more needs to be done, and one way to achieve this is to shine the media spotlight on entrepreneurs, their challenges, their failures and of course their successes.
The NatWestGreat British Entrepreneur Awards are currently open for applications, and entrants can apply here.