Entrepreneurship in the Margins

A European entrepreneurship program targets unemployed and disadvantaged populations.

Entrepreneurship in the Margins - main

A SIGNIFICANT NUMBER of unemployed people live in poverty, feel isolated, and despair of ever finding a way back to work. This group includes migrants, ex-offenders, those with physical and mental disabilities, and women with caring responsibilities who have been out of the workforce for some time. Many of them fall into a way of life known as NEET, or “not in education, employment, or training.” They don’t know how to break into a work world that demands special qualifications, skills, and experience

One way these individuals can re-enter the workforce is to start their own businesses. Historically, members of many religious and ethnic groups have been forced to launch their own enterprises because they were excluded from society. They didn’t need a narrow set of skills to found their own businesses; they just needed energy, enthusiasm, and ideas.

So why don’t more unemployed people follow this same path? Research suggests that these individuals find their greatest barrier to be society’s conception of what an entrepreneur should look like. They think entrepreneurs are slick, well-coiffed go-getters who function well under pressure and are ready to talk themselves up at any opportunity. This image is reinforced by reality TV shows such as “The Apprentice” in the U.S. and “Dragons’ Den” in the U.K. With this stereotype in mind, few disadvantaged people feel able to launch enterprises of their own. For instance, in the U.K., only 30 percent of women start businesses.

But there are ways to motivate and train people who face barriers to enterprise. At Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) in the U.K, we are participating in a training program called Eliemental, which is designed to get disadvantaged people back to work. It steers clear of traditional educational environments and instead is delivered in community hubs where participants feel comfortable. And it’s working.


Eliemental grew from the findings of a previous effort called Employability: Learning through International Entrepreneurship (ELIE). That project, funded by the European Union, focused on the social and cultural barriers experienced by 200 immigrant entrepreneurs across Europe as they set up and maintained businesses in their new countries.

Eliemental was developed as a next step to consider a wider portion of the nonworking population. By looking at previous research, and by conducting interviews with members of our target groups, we identified the ten common skills and resources that successful entrepreneurs need—and that disadvantaged groups frequently lack. These include confidence, strong networks, a perception that enterprise is an attainable option, adaptability, creativity, resilience, interpersonal skills, communication skills, emotional intelligence, and a sense of accountability.

The Eliemental project, which was funded by the European Commission, was rolled out between 2012 and 2015 in Poland, Romania, Greece, and the United Kingdom. I led the U.K. arm of the project with the assistance of another team member, Allie Clifton. We worked with partner academics at Valahia University of Târgovitste in Romania; the University of Lodz in Poland; the University of Sheffield’s South-East European Research Centre in Thessaloniki, Greece; and Tameside College and the University of Lancaster in the U.K. We also worked with organizations in Greece and the U.K. devoted to working with women and marginalized populations. Additionally, we collaborated with probation services, chambers of commerce, charity initiatives, and housing associations.

We knew that, if we wanted to reach socially excluded groups, there was no point in inviting them to colleges, government buildings, or even hotels and libraries. Because such official places are associated with the trappings of power, our potential participants would consider them places where they would be judged. Therefore, in each of the areas where we wanted to establish Eliemental, we first looked for the community access points for our target populations.

Entrepreneurs in the Margins Workshop

Aspiring entrepreneurs meet with trainers at a recent workshop
held in Morecambe, Lancashire, in the U.K. The setting is a community
pub that uses art to enhance community well-being.

We found out, for instance, that young mothers in Blackpool, Lancashire, in the U.K., regularly congregated in a local laundrette, identifying it as a place where they could meet friends and socialize. In the nearby town of Morecambe, people found community halls to be welcoming environments. In other locations, access points turned out to be street markets, cafés, and bus stations.

Not only did we look for access points, we created training programs that used words other than “entrepreneur” to describe our participants. Research underpinning the Eliemental program revealed that individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds prefer to say they are self-employed or to call themselves owners or managers. One woman—who was employing a staff of nine at the time—just called herself “a busy mum and housewife.” We wanted to turn them into entrepreneurs by using language and settings that appealed to them.


We launched the Eliemental program through pilot sessions with potential entrepreneurs. In the U.K., I have led the training at various points with my colleagues Allie Clifton, Sarah Thorn, and Fahad Hassan; additional training has been conducted in London and in the town of Salford by The Business Group, a business support organization, and the Black Training and Enterprise Group. Both of those organizations were among the original project partners.

In the pilot sessions, we learned that lack of confidence is the biggest barrier these individuals face. Most of them don’t believe that starting their own businesses is an opportunity open to them in the first place. Therefore, Eliemental training first helps them develop soft skills before turning to business-related topics.

We follow a simple toolkit that was developed in the U.K., Romania, Greece, and Poland by members of the original project team, with significant input from user groups. First, participants are encouraged to think about what traits make a successful entrepreneur, how to develop a positive mindset, what skills they already possess, and how those skills might be used to launch a small business. The toolkit also reviews the elements of creativity and leads trainees through brainstorming sessions to identify possible business ideas.

Only after participants have built their confidence and reflected on their own strengths do they go through a training exercise where they practice business skills such as project planning, problem solving, and working in teams. Not until the training is almost over do participants learn to write business plans and conduct SWOT analyses.

While the toolkit and other materials are made available online, not all participants have internet access. Therefore, we’ve concluded that face-to-face engagement in familiar, comfortable surroundings is essential.

The results have been encouraging. In Greece, Romania, and the U.K., about 35 percent of the Eliemental participants have started their own businesses, found sustainable employment, or moved into full-time education. For some, this is their first time in the workforce in many years. The figure is lower in Poland because there are more bureaucratic barriers to establishing a new enterprise—but it’s still more than 25 percent. We feel that this is a high success rate, given that our participants face complex disadvantages and personal difficulties.

So far, many participants have moved from Eliemental to other business support programs as they stoke their enthusiasm for their new business ideas. The resulting enterprises have been thoughtful and creative, linking into the personal interests and lifestyles of the participants. For instance, an agoraphobic has set up craft workshops. Members of Romany communities in Romania have started businesses devoted to floristry, recycling, and cleaning.

To ensure ongoing impact for Eliemental, we have created a new “train the trainers” program. That is, in each of our target areas, we have trained individuals who will use our toolkit to continue to impart entrepreneurship skills to other members of their communities. The “train the trainers” course consists of four sessions of four hours each that take place over several weeks. Once they begin delivering their own face-to-face sessions, all trainers are asked to report back to the team with anonymous data about trainees, such as baseline assessments, post-training assessments, and the trainers’ plans for their next steps.

Costs are minimal because the biggest expenses are the trainers’ time and the printing of the training materials. The creation of these programs ensures that as many people as possible will gain access to entrepreneurship skills.


The EU funding for Eliemental ended in 2015; since that time, the program has run on smaller amounts of money from Lancaster University and the Higher Education Innovation Fund. The variation in funding affects how much time my team and I can spend on Eliemental. I currently average about three hours a week; as funding has fluctuated, my team has included both full-time and part-time members.

Even so, the program has continued to thrive, and in 2017 Eliemental was selected by the European Commission as one of the best initiatives in Europe for supporting third-country nationals.

We are continuing our efforts to expand Eliemental to other communities. To that end, we have been holding discussions with federal agencies in the U.K. such as the Department of Health, the Department of Work and Pensions, and the Department of Employment. We are even planning to roll out an Eliemental program in Latin America.

I believe business schools around the world could—and should—be getting involved in projects like Eliemental. Nearly every university is located near communities where residents could benefit from support and training. Moreover, the Eliemental model is easy to replicate elsewhere—in fact, training can even be conducted by student volunteers while business engagement teams from the university could offer support to people who have completed the training and want to develop their ideas more fully.

Offering entrepreneurial training makes sound sense from both a social and economic point of view. Not only does such training give people from all walks of life the chance to chase their dreams, but it also generates positive impact on the economy. Further, initial training often encourages participants to seek additional education. The program has the potential for lifting individuals out of poverty, raising intellectual ability, and strengthening the local economy—massive rewards for a simple investment of time and resources.

Training materials for Eliemental and updates on recent developments can be found at www.eliemental.org.

Carolyn Downs is a senior lecturer at Lancaster University Management School in the United Kingdom.

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