More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. Starling was born out of Anne’s determination to give customers control over their money, and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.
In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.
Featured in this month’s portrait series is Starling Customer CJ Webley, founder of The Black Pounds Project. The Black Pounds Project is a mentoring and support group focused around helping black businesses, initially established in 2020 in direct response to the impact COVID-19 had on black communities and individuals. Since then the Black Pounds Project has gone on to grow substantially and has received nationwide news coverage.
Running, starting or scaling a business is never easy, there are many hurdles to be experienced along one’s entrepreneurial journey, though for some, those hurdles are higher than others.
Despite a hefty £25 billion contributed annually to the British economy, 53% of black business owners said they had experienced negative societal discrimination, according to a study by Lloyds Banking Group.
Many have taken up the fight against inequality and despite some positive results, there’s still a long way to go before things are truly equal. Amongst the frontlines of the fight against discrimination is 28-year-old CJ Webley, who despite his young age has made astonishing progress with not just his own career, but the careers of others.
Taking the stage
By the age of fifteen, CJ had already discovered two of his passions; a flair for the theatre, and a desire for representation and equality, both of which were ignited by his frequent participation from a young age. In one particular adaptation of Peter Pan, CJ found himself reflecting, realising that “I was the only person of colour within a company of over fifty performers.”
Confused by the lack of representation amongst his theatre group, CJ had questioned why this might be, but a long series of repeated non-representation had taken its toll, with CJ saying he remains “frustrated by the lack of representation for people of colour in senior leadership roles across the arts and business sectors to this day.”
Growing up, CJ had acquired a set of entrepreneurial skills and tendencies, partly attributing these to the effects of his childhood, growing up in a deprived area in Birmingham. Admitting he had plenty of opportunities to fall into a life of crime, CJ decided to walk the path less travelled for many in his situation, by rejecting these opportunities, knowing deep down he was “destined for something bigger.”
After completing a degree in Theatre and Performance studies, CJ worked multiple jobs to fund the furthering of his own education, eventually going on to study a masters in Creative Writing in London, where he also premiered his first ever full-length play; “Shadows”, which was met with a raving response from viewers and reviewers alike.
Returning to the Midlands, CJ continued his fantastic theatrics, bringing many plays to the stage and being selected for many awards.
By 2020, CJ had gained a broad perspective on the many different factors affecting black creators and business makers in a variety of industries. What he calls a “direct response” to yet another disheartening blow to the already disadvantaged population of black businessmen and businesswomen, CJ created the Black Pounds Project.
Since its founding, The Black Pounds Project has offered a priceless level of support for many of its customers and business owners in the black community. CJ highlights The Black Pounds Project goes as far to identify and support “pre-startups” who have a desire to create a strong and sustainable business enterprise, alongside already established businesses that are aiming to grow.
Tailoring its needs to each individual customer, you’d be forgiven for mistaking The Black Pounds Project for a family, rather than a business, even more so when you take into account the large number of already registered black owned businesses that have formed a wide support network and collaboration of resources, purely in the interest of helping black owned businesses.
With funding from a variety of sources already procured, The Black Pounds Project has seen an astonishing amount of growth since 2020. Already having supported multiple black businesses through its courses, including a digital start-up course and a mentorship programme, which CJ says is projected to contribute to “the creation of new businesses, increased business survival rates, increased collaboration, increased integration” and many more, things are looking promising for the project and any entrepreneurs who seek their support.
With a solid business model alongside a noble cause, The Black Pounds Project is nothing short of promising, a business borne by the pandemic that supports those suffering through it, CJ Webley has created an invaluable set of experiences for entrepreneurs and a business that addresses an ever-present issue in our society.
“We project total donations to run at £10,000 annually for 2022 and beyond,” says CJ, who we caught up with to discuss how the pandemic impacted The Black Pounds Project and what else we can expect for the future:
How have you and the business faired since the start of the pandemic?
“We launched our first ‘Level-up’ mentorship programme in 2021 to solve problems around access to business support and finance. Recognising the issues highlighted in numerous reports, such as, ‘Alone Together’ by British Business Bank and Lloyds Bank ‘Race Action Plan’, we conducted our own research and devised a practical program that would help entrepreneurs from minority backgrounds achieve greater access to finance and business support. We achieved this by thoroughly focusing on each business owners needs and service offerings.
We initially welcomed a cohort of 15 businesses who are now much better equipped to grow their businesses through other scale-up initiatives, and understand the required steps to access finance. Without our guidance during these uncertain times, many business owners, by their own admission, would have found themselves feeling even more isolated had they not been mentored by BPP volunteers with experience in their respective field. We were all left feeling shell-shocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, yet it has also helped many of us see beyond our own individual needs to consider what is best for everyone.”
What has been the biggest factor in your success?
“Coming from a performing arts and theatre background has proved to be a great attributor to the success of Black Pounds Project. It has allowed me to connect and engage with people from all walks of life, as I look to do within the theatre sector.
Since our inception back in 2020, our primary focus has been about meeting the needs of those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. We know that ethnic minority owned businesses are typically represented in sectors with lower start-up costs but this also reflects lower profit margins being generated, meaning a limitation on opportunities to access lucrative markets and procurement contracts. We are creating opportunities for our members to become more economically competitive.
They are able to access the support they need in order to provide professional goods and services in a sustainable manner. Many business owners expressed their concerns in a lack of specific guidance about how to mitigate the elevated risks that they face. They also expressed concerns about the additional risk factors including the employment of family members or living in multigenerational households.
We have embedded the following principles within our operational delivery:
Commitment: The Black Pounds will inspire positive working relationships, develop strong interpersonal skills, and instil a sense of hope in the future through creating opportunities, building networks and setting clear plans of action.
Responsibility: The focus of The Black Pounds Project is to empower business owners in establishing goals and following through on commitments.
Opportunity: The Black Pounds Project will expand opportunities for black owned businesses to raise awareness and access of the wealth of knowledge and resources freely available to them.
Sustainability: Each One – Teach One. The Black Pounds Project will surround black business owners with experienced professionals who have a vested interest in helping them succeed for the greater good of economic growth.”
What are your immediate and long-term plans for the business?
“The BPP team are currently in the process of planning for the next quarter. We are thrilled to be in a position to continue to recruit new volunteer business mentors and grow our membership. Our Mentorship scheme will be condensed moving forward so that we can engage more businesses throughout the year.
We have many great collaborations in progress with other organisations and are continuing to increase our visibility within the community.
We aim to launch a mentorship programme for young people aged 16-26 so that we can inspire and influence the next generation of entrepreneurs. Our hope is that the BPP model mentorship scheme model will be adopted in at least 2 other regions so that we can continue to expand. We will continue to make noise via our social media channels and look forward to welcoming more ambitious entrepreneurs to the BPP family.”