15th May 2018

A research project led by Lancaster University Management School is working with people facing barriers to enterprise and employment and successfully getting them back into work. This is thanks to a new training programme delivered in community ‘hubs’ like cafes and laundrettes.

The European project, named Eliemental, ran in the UK, Greece, Poland and Romania between 2012-2015, and began by academics finding out what stops ‘ordinary’ people from being enterprising and setting up their own businesses. The Lancaster team worked alongside co-researchers from local communities in Lodz (Poland), Targoviste (Romania), Thessaloniki (Greece) and in three UK settings - Lancaster, Manchester and the East of England.

Due to the success of the pilots, the first wave of training has been rolled out in the Islington Council Estate in Salford, with a second training programme started in Morecambe in January. A third programme is due to be rolled out in Oldham later this year.

Dr Carolyn Downs from Lancaster University Management School led the research project. She said: “The key to Eliemental has been getting to work with hard-to-reach groups of people and making sure it wasn’t a project where a university sat at a distance to reflect, but got fully involved. We worked locally with university partners but also with probation services, chambers of commerce, charity initiatives and housing associations - and we’re already seeing some fantastic results.

We looked hard to find the real community access points - familiar places where people felt comfortable. There’s no point in inviting socially excluded groups to colleges, government buildings or even hotels and libraries. They’re too official or associated with the trappings of the wealthy and places where they will be judged and assessed. So access points were set up in launderettes, betting shops, street markets and cafés and well-established community centres. We also learnt to use other language than that typically used around ‘entrepreneurs’. The research underpinning the Eliemental programmes found entrepreneurs from more disadvantaged backgrounds rarely used the word, or wanted to, preferring to see themselves as ‘self-employed’, an ‘owner’ or ‘manager’, or in one case just as a ‘busy mum and housewife. This particular lady was employing a staff of nine at the time.”

A key barrier among the excluded groups wasn’t writing a business plan, but wanting to start a business in the first place – believing that this could be an opportunity open to them. The research team began identifying the top 10 skills needed to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. A toolkit was created to help people get started, delivered by local groups. Materials are available online, but the focus was on making sure there was engagement through face-to-face work.

Dr Downs continues: “So far around 35% of the participants in Eliemental have gone on to start their own business in the UK, Greece and Romania. The figure is lower in Poland, because of the nature of the bureaucratic barriers to establishing a new enterprise in the country, but is still over 25%. For groups often facing severe and complex personal issues and disadvantages, the success rate is high and has demonstrated the importance of this new approach.

The stages from initial engagement to going full-time in business can be a slow burn. Eliemental provides the all-important initial impetus and germ of an idea, and many participants have moved on to be involved with other business support programmes to convert their enthusiasm. Resulting enterprises have been thoughtful and creative, linking into personal interests. An agoraphobic has set up craft workshops. Members of Romany communities in Romania have started floristry, recycling and cleaning businesses.”

Eliemental has since been selected as one of the best initiatives in Europe for supporting third country nationals. Discussions have been held with Job Centre Plus, Department of Health and Department of Employment to explore opportunities for rolling out Eliemental still further.


Dr Carolyn Downs is a Senior Lecturer with a particular interest in the role of entrepreneurship and enterprise education in societies, as well as the organisation and management of healthcare services.