Thoughts & Insights

Enabling entrepreneurs for the good of the West Midlands

An experienced educator, entrepreneur and investor, Duncan Chamberlain backs businesses and individuals that help under-represented communities.

In 2007, he founded business incubator Bridging to the Future to help people like himself, “Those who are working class, marginalised and often unaware of the opportunities that a career in business presents – that was our original target”, he says. Over the last ten years, Bridging to the Future’s ambition has evolved, expanding its scope but still specialising in social enterprises and micro businesses.

Speaking about what motivated him to start the organisation, Duncan says, “I wanted to help people from marginalised communities become business people. And, I knew that by combining education with professional programmes that it was possible.” He adds, “I started my first business when I was 16 years old because it was the only way I could stay on at school – business was a necessity not a luxury.”

To build Bridging to the Future’s range of leadership and entrepreneurship programmes, he created a new department of his business to run in parallel with his career as a professional investor. “That was an easy choice for me”, he says,

“When I entered the start-up investment world, I soon realised that most people seeking funding were already well-represented in the worlds of business and commerce.” He adds, “I wanted to help groups under-represented in business and leadership such as women, gay people and those raised on council estates but there just weren’t enough opportunities to do so.”

Bridging to the Future’s central offering is the ‘Bridge Model’, which guides start-ups from their idea inception through the different stages of growth, until they become established businesses that are ready for investment and then into sustained growth.

The leadership and entrepreneurship programmes are the complementary programmes to this, support individuals and organisations to be ready to enter the Bridge Model. “In particular, we work with those that make both investment and moral sense”, he says, “Thereby, we cut dependency and develop an economy that better serves communities that have been long neglected.”

Since its inception, Bridging to the Future has grown to operate in11 countries, and has bases in Birmingham and London. In the process, Duncan has worked on everything from a guitar app that helps music students develop their talent to supporting a school in Birmingham to create their own small business, run by the students.

Duncan is particularly passionate about entrepreneurship and young people, “I believe in embedding entrepreneurialism and business acumen in young people. Successful careers in all types of business cannot be reserved for a privileged few.”

He says there is a huge amount of untapped talent in the West Midlands region, but laments how “the current infrastructure fails to reach down and draw out the potential. There is help out there but much of it is difficult to access if you are from certain backgrounds or communities.”

The inequality of opportunities in the West Midlands is something he hopes today’s West Midlands Inquiry will tackle, “I would like to see more local level support to create jobs and help increase the rate of self-employment. The goal has to be developing community leadership and local solutions. For example, turning an empty shop into an enterprise hub. Why leave it empty?” he adds, “Local people know their communities; know their areas better than anyone else. They know what will work and they certainly know what will not.”

For Duncan, it all starts with the individual, “By upskilling people we enable them”, he says, “And we lay the foundations for the commercial attitude and professional skills that will allow them to fulfil their potential. Give people the tools and they will empower themselves.”

Duncan Chamberlain is founder and managing director of Bridging to the Future (www.bttf.org.uk) and can be contacted on dc@bttf.org.uk and will be represented at the West Midlands Inquiry by Xavier Lewis Rodriguez (xlr@bttf.org.uk)

Duncan was writing ahead of the Live Lab event in Birmingham. For more information on the event, visit the official page.