WHILE the Asian business community contributes billions to the nation’s economy, many budding Asian entrepreneurs can still find it a struggle to access the support they need. Despite being an important part of the region’s economy, there is still not complete integration between Asian entrepreneurs and the wider business community.
Research from the Ethnic Minority Business Task Force shows that black, Asian and minority ethnic businesses contribute between £30bn and £40bn to the UK economy and make up 9% of its VAT paying businesses – a disproportionately high amount for the number of people concerned.
The figures also shows that self employment among ethnic households is greater than that of white households, and that this could present a major source of job creation as the country looks to drag itself out of the downturn.
However, there are a number of barriers preventing many ethnic entrepreneurs from realising their potential, among those is integration with the wider business world.
Although Asian businesses play a key part in the life of many inner city communities, research shows that many Asian people still feel segregated from the wider North East and feel that there is a lack of targeted business support available to them.
It is for this reason that Newcastle-based entrepreneur Ammar Mirza launched social enterprise Asian Business Connexions (ABC) last year, which has teamed up with a number of private and public sector organisations to provide business courses and advice for Asian people wanting to start up or expand their existing businesses.
The organisation, which is based at Old Eldon Square in Newcastle city centre, is headed by Gateshead Council diversity officer Nitin Shukla, whose father, Hari Shukla, is a prominent in the Asian community and vice chair of the Newcastle Council of Faiths.
He said: “We have managed to involve a number of very high profile and influential people in our activities, which has allowed us to help a greater number of people in the community.
“The combined experience of our directors and supporters is very important as we look to increase our membership.”
Mirza, 37, is himself a prominent business figure in the North East and rents a large portfolio of flats between Newcastle and Sunderland. After running a number of call centres for communications company Telewest, he worked at a property company before going it alone and setting up Ammar in 2005, which provides business consultancy, marketing, training and property management services.
It was his expertise in property and the wider private sector that saw him attend a number of local strategic partnership meetings at Newcastle City Council, where the subject of Asian businesses first came up.
He said: “I had never considered myself as part of the Asian business community as such, but became concerned that there was a lack of business support targeted at Asian people.
“It was clear that a support network needed to be introduced that was based around a social model, that allowed Asian people to feel more at ease with their surrounding communities and feel more confident about branching out into business.”
Mostly funded by Mirza, the organisation, which also has Jalf Ali, owner of Newcastle’s Spice Cube restaurant, on its board of directors, has grown to around 400 members and has helped to set up 47 North East businesses in the last three months.
Recent initiatives have included working with Newcastle-based law firm Ward Hadaway to hold a series of five seminars based around debt recovery, property law, health and safety, corporate law and alcohol licensing.
Rules surrounding the sale of alcohol has been a contentious issue within the Asian community, as some shopkeepers have been accused of supplying alcohol to under-age customers.
In response, ABC has launched a licensing education programme, which seeks to update shopkeepers on current legislation as well as assess their business models.
Mirza said: “A lot of corner shops are run by Asian people, that’s just a fact. Although there will be some that sell to minors, the majority do not, but are tarred with the same brush.
“We go to these shops and advise owners on what they should be looking out for when serving their younger looking customers as well as whether they are running a tight enough business.
“Many of these shopkeepers can also suffer from intimidation from gangs of youths and we advise them on how best to deal with those situations.”
The organisation has also forged relationships with senior council members, including Andrea Tickner, head of corporate procurement at Gateshead Council, who recently held a tendering workshop for those looking to win new business. It has even set up its own radio station, Spice FM, which is currently holding a Dragons’ Den style competition, where listeners are invited to call in with their business ideas.
The best ones will be asked to go head to head on the airwaves, where they will compete for investment, provided by ABC.
While members of ABC pay an annual membership fee of £20, most of the not-for-profit organisation’s funding comes from its directors, with Mirza having invested around £60,000 himself.
However, he is now calling on local authorities to get involved to help support its future plans.
He said: “I realise it’s a difficult time to seek funding, but if the Government is serious about building a ‘big society’ it is organisations like this one that it should be supporting.
“A little funding would go a long way with us. We just need the right people to put their hands in their pockets.
“However, I realise that there has to be a time when the organisation is able to support itself, and we are currently looking at a number of ways to make this happen.”
As well as aiding businesses, Mirza sees ABC as a means of creating community engagement, with many of its initiatives designed to bring together people who would not normally link up.
One of the more unusual approaches has been working with Newcastle-based modelling agency Tyne Tees Models to provide training for women in the local community, with the hope of convincing Asian women to sign up.
Mirza said: “Many women in the Asian community can feel apprehensive about getting involved with a modelling agency themselves. However, through us they are getting a friendly introduction and are more likely to take it seriously. The fact is that most models are self-employed, so the trainees are taught all about what it takes to run a business.
“It doesn’t just teach you how to walk down a catwalk, the course can also help to boost self confidence and can also help to build up a host of other life skills.”
The organisation is also planning a networking event at Newcastle-based law firm Sintons on November 25, which will see keynote speaker Syed Ahmed talk about his experiences in business, as well as living and working in a multi-cultural society.
Born in Bangladesh, Ahmed featured in the second series of BBC TV show The Apprentice and is currently chief executive of SA Vortex, which specialises in high-speed hand dryers and body dryers.
Charles Penn from Sintons said: “We are very happy to be supporting ABC in its activities and also have a good relationship with other organisation including the Asian Business Forum North East.
“We have a number of Asian clients and believe it is important that their business needs are met.”
AMONG those to have benefited from the support of ABC is 23-year-old Johurun Nessa, who is looking to open her own Indian restaurant in Newcastle city centre next year.
Nessa is being supported by her family, which has run Indian restaurants since the 1960s, including The Spice Cube at The Gate in Newcastle, which is ran by brother Jalf Ali.
She plans to launch the restaurant around the theme of the atmospheric street stalls of India, with food available to take away in snack form.
Nessa, who plans to call the venue The Dabbawal, plans to offer takeaway meals in traditional tiffin style boxes as well as provide traditional curries in the sit-down restaurant. She graduated with a law degree from the University of Leicester this year but decided to follow in her family’s footsteps.
And she has received a lot of advice from ABC in putting her ideas into practice.
“It’s great to know that advice and support is available from ABC,” she said. “Many of its members are involved in the Indian restaurant trade so there is a strong network of experience to draw from.
“The advice I have received from the organisation should allow me to stay really close to my original concept.”
AS well as helping to get new businesses off the ground, ABC has helped a number of franchisees to forge contacts within the North East business community.
One example is Ahmed Khan, who moved up from London earlier this year to head up five McDonald’s franchises, four at the Gateshead Metrocentre and a site on Northumberland Street in Newcastle.
Although Khan has a wealth of experience in the trade, having managed a number of McDonald’s down south, he found it difficult to adjust to North East culture after moving his wife, two girls and two boys to the region.
With help from ABC, the 44-year old has managed to grow his workforce from 300 to 450 staff over the last six months, with 25 of them promoted to management positions.
He is also set to invest around £1m in the refurbishment of his two-storey restaurant in the Green Quadrant of the Metrocentre, as well as an additional £1m at his drive-through restaurant in the retail park.
Khan, who is originally from Essex, was first introduced to ABC through Dave Anderson, Labour MP for Blaydon, who visited one of the restaurants to congratulate him on his good work.
Khan said: “Although I knew how to run a McDonald’s franchise, I was alien to the surrounding area and realised that I needed a way in to help grow the franchise.
“ABC has helped me do that and McDonald’s has since sponsored a number of its charity events, including a recent abseil at Segedunum Roman Fort in Wallsend.
“As well as making a number of contacts, sponsoring these events has allowed me to market the brand and pick up additional customers.”