Employability: Bridging the gap between two worlds

Colin Cottell investigates Street2Boardroom

Roger Moore is not your typical business owner. After leading a ‘dodgy’ life on the streets of Bristol, in October he opened his second Roger Moore’s Caribbean Cuisine restaurant in the city. Now employing 15 people, he has no intention of stopping there. “My ambitions are to open nationwide, and to release cooking sauces and other products,” he says. Although he says he was never in trouble with the law, he admits: “I was doing things that, had I been caught, I would have been in trouble.”

Moore makes no bones about the fact that the only reason he is where he is today is because of the intervention of the founder of a Bristol-based social enterprise. Set up in 2016, Street2Boardroom is the brainchild of Clayton Planter. “I knew Clayton previously, and he engaged me to get involved, but I didn’t really listen – I fobbed him off to be honest,” says Moore. But Planter persisted, asking him what he had to lose by attending the four-week motivational course.

Since doing the course in November 2017, Moore has barely looked back. “The biggest thing it gave me was confidence. It changed the way I think about things. It gave me a different perspective: that what I wanted I could actually achieve.”

Planter, who works full time as a youth worker, says around 50 people have been through the course, with 60-80% not returning to a life of crime.

Bridging the gap

Planter says he was motivated to set up Street2Boardroom because of the lack of opportunities for many of the friends he grew up with in St Pauls and Easton, two of Bristol’s most disadvantaged areas. He says some of his friends turned to selling drugs, with the result that several ended up getting into trouble with the law.

But alongside this desire to help others was his own frustration and, indeed, anger that despite having been head boy at his school and sports captain, and “doing things the right way” career-wise, things hadn’t turned out the way he had been led to believe would happen. Rather, he says: “It’s not what you know but who you know, what you look like and your network.” Moreover, having worked for Bristol City Council, where he came into contact with the business world, Planter, who is dyslexic, says: “I realised that most people in the corporate world were no smarter than my friends, and my friends no smarter than them.”

All some of these kids need, growing up, is an opportunity and a chance to do something else, a chance to earn an honest living”
- Roger Moore, owner of Roger Moore’s Caribbean Cuisine restaurant, Bristol 

After coming to that realisation, Planter came to the further realisation that the only way to bridge the gap between these two worlds and two groups was “to give them [those like his friends] the right training, the right mentoring and the right support”, after which, he says, “I guarantee it can happen”. And so Street2Boardroom was born.

The idea that a life on the streets selling drugs is good preparation for running a business, or working for someone else, is certainly controversial, but Planter is keen to draw parallels between the two worlds. “In the corporate world, it’s profit and loss; on the street, these guys will make money or lose money. In the corporate world, you have your team; on the street, it’s your crew. On the corporate side, you can be made bankrupt or lose your job; on the street side, you go to prison or you might die.” And in the same way as legitimate business, those involved in drugs on the street also employ sales and marketing strategies. The link to sales is particularly strong, Planter claims, which is why he has identified recruitment as one possible destination for those who have completed the course. “One way – the right way – is recruitment; the other way is the wrong way, but they are both about selling,” he says.

“But which person is taking more risk?” he asks. The person on the street, he says, “where there are no rules, and you either make it or you don’t”. Moreover, while most sales jobs include a basic salary, that is not the case on the street.  

“As I have said to many people before,” he says, “if you were to swap the roles so that someone in a corporate role goes onto the streets, and the person from the streets goes into a corporate role, the person from the street going into a corporate role will win every time. So for me it’s about how can I transfer those skills into corporate industry?”

While Planter makes the case that those involved in drugs have a particular skillset that is valuable to employers, he admits that so far there has been a reluctance from companies to actually take on people, most of whom have a criminal record. “People can be a bit funny about it,” is the way he puts it, which is why for most of those who attend Street2Boardroom, setting up their own business is the only option. He explains that while a lot of the business ideas focus on fashion, music and sports, he is trying to get course participants “to think broader and more realistically”, citing food shops, or restaurants such as Moore’s, as a good example.

If you were to swap the roles so that someone in a corporate role goes onto the streets, and the person from the streets goes into a corporate role, the person from the street will win every time”
- Clayton Planter, founder of Street2Boardroom

That said, Street2Boardroom has received backing from several organisations. Among these is Bristol-headquartered IT, tech and engineering recruiter Opus Talent Solutions. Founder Darren Ryemill, who first met Planter in 2017, explains that Street2Boardroom “resonates with us on multiple levels. It aligns with the entrepreneurial spirit that flows through Opus on a daily basis, and with who we are in terms of our corporate social responsibility policy and our corporate vision”. Opus also offers practical support. Not only does it allow Street2Boardroom to use its own boardroom for its workshops, but Opus’s staff are actively involved. “Many of our staff will go in and give talks around recruiting, how they got into it and what it is all about,” says Ryemill, adding that “one participant has expressed an interest in going into recruitment”.

According to Ryemill, “a number of relationships have been forged between participants and members of our staff that include idea exchange, CV support and mentoring”. Opus’s own staff also benefit from the relationship, he says. “It takes our people out of their comfort zone to work with people from different backgrounds and levels of privilege.” He says that while the recruitment industry is open to employing people such as those whom Street2Boardroom supports, unlike his own company, “there are very few that invest in the right training and resources to allow people from that background to flourish”.

Street referrals

Street2Boardroom has also developed a close relationship with Avon & Somerset Police, which earlier this year started referring people to the social enterprise. So far, Planter says 12 people have joined via this route, of whom two have gone on to reoffend. And Bristol City College is interested in developing a college course based on the content of Street2Boardroom’s workshops.

The background of those who come to Street2Boardroom is certainly challenging. Planter says that they have an average age of about 25, and many have spent time in prison, received a caution, or generally got in trouble with the police. “Most of them are now starting families, maybe have just had a baby, and they realise they can’t keep doing what they have been doing, and want to change their life.” Around 80% are from a BAME background, and they are mainly men, he says. “People like Street2Boardroom because it relates to them – they can understand that what it says in the title is what we do. That is why people come to us.”

Planter describes the workshop as “a four-week motivational course”. Looking at the parallels between the skills needed on the street and those required to thrive in the corporate world, the course then moves on to cover mindset and presentation skills, followed by developing a marketing and business strategy. It culminates in a Dragons’ Den-type presentation, where participants present their business ideas to a panel.

Swapping the environment

One of the key aims of the course is to take attendees out of their comfort zone, says Planter. One way it does this is by sticking to office hours, and holding it in a corporate environment, he says. “If we did it in their community, and in their neighbourhood, there would be no need for anyone to change,” he explains. “But when you are taken out of your comfort zone, then you are automatically going to have to change, and this means we can change people’s mindset and how they look at things.” Planter can speak from experience, having persuaded his mother to allow him to attend mainly white Caucasian middle-class schools, and not those in the more socially disadvantaged area where he lived. “That’s what made me the person I am today,” he says.

In addition to running some of the workshops himself, often with the help of someone who used to be involved in crime, Planter also brings in outside tutors, with him acting as an interpreter between the tutors who “are talking a corporate language” and those attending the workshop. However, of equal importance, he says, is the inspirational message sent to attendees when they see Planter, who is from the same community and background, running the show in this corporate environment.

Planter is realistic enough to realise that those who attend Street2Boardroom are ‘a hard sell’, especially to employers. However, he offers a heartfelt plea to give them a second chance. “We have all made mistakes in this life. But the bottom line is about looking at people’s potential. For me, it is about understanding a person’s story and their background, and taking a chance with people.”  

And he argues employers that do so will get the benefits that come with greater diversity. “If you want to be a company that is innovative, and you still want to be around in 20 years and really doing something for the world, you need to start thinking differently. So for me, it’s about stopping employing people who act and sound like you, and starting to be more open and more creative.”

Fresh from opening his second restaurant, Moore urges employers “not to judge a book by its cover”. “I have done absolutely everything wrong in terms of a criminal lifestyle. I would never have thought when I was involved in things like that I would be capable of something like this.

“All some of these kids need is an opportunity and a chance to do something else, a chance to earn an honest living and to come out of the criminal lifestyle, because a lot of them don’t know or don’t see another way to make money to look after themselves – and often the entire family.”

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