In advance of our ‘Endless Possibilities’ debate, we asked Jacqueline Winstanley, FRSA our Visiting Fellow and Co-chair of our debate, to set the scene as we explore the impact of the pandemic on the Inclusive Entrepreneur Network which she founded. The APPG and her view on the new hybrid ways of working within inclusive entrepreneurship particularly in relation to working with universities.
I am one of the lucky ones, I get to do what I am most passionate about as my job, seems weird referring to it as a job as it’s actually a calling and despite a few distractions along the way it’s been my ‘Why.’
I have a portfolio career which is focused on increasing equality of access to life’s opportunities which can be found at https://www.universalinclusion.co.uk/ For the purposes of this blog I am going to explore the impact of the pandemic on the Inclusive Entrepreneur Network which I founded 2015. The APPG for Inclusive Entrepreneurship alongside my thoughts on the new hybrid ways of working within inclusive entrepreneurship particularly in relation to engaging with universities.
The network was born out of my own lived experience of acquiring a complex health condition in the workplace and sadly finding myself no longer doing the work that I loved doing. This traumatic experience catapulted me back to my entrepreneurial roots.
One of the things I am most often asked is what do we mean when we talk about inclusive entrepreneurship, I am really clear on this, it is enterprise created by individuals who face barriers and those who support us to create inclusive economic growth.
Our Network was formalised at the same time as the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted so we are in good company.
At the onset of the pandemic our network was predominantly based in the real world. We were and still are considered exemplar in our field and the blueprint I created in this sector is cited internationally as well as here in the U.K. as good practice.
Pre pandemic our engagement with universities was generally through facilitating a workshop, being interviewed as part of a research project etc. all of which would be undertaken within the real world. It is also worth saying here that the broader academic sector at that time was not really looking at enterprise created by disabled people but engaged in more familiar studies within the employed sector and mainly reflected gender issues and what was often termed as BAME communities.
We had as a network participated in part because I am very proactive in terms of seeking academic engagement and validation for the various good practice models I have created over the years but also because of the collaborative nature of these academic institutions.
The onset of the pandemic changed my whole business model across the full portfolio, particularly for the Inclusive Entrepreneur Network, faced with the prospect of losing our businesses during the first Lockdown, alongside the impact on the sector as our voices were effectively silenced at this crucial time.
I don’t mind openly admitting to being in complete shock and disbelief as it looked like everything, we had fought so hard to create to support our network and the valuable work we did, sharing good practice and advising government and policy makers was fading away in front of my eyes. It was only when I was contacted by members of the network who expressed experiencing severe mental health issues in response to the lockdown and deep fears about losing their Access to Work award, being unable to trade and importantly feeling helpless and left out of government responses to business disruption. More so for members from the Deaf Community that my entrepreneurial mindset shifted and by the end of that first week I had placed all our real-world activities online and created what we called the ‘Friday Briefings’ which included valuable updates on government responses to the pandemic, which we recorded edited and put out on YouTube. This also ensured we were also able to keep giving valuable insight and recommendations to government and policy makers via social media.
I guess this was the birth of what we now term ‘hybrid ways of working’ as like people around the world we innovated and re invented. I remember the contraption I pulled together to set up my first ever Zoom call, as we launched our ‘Friday Briefings.’
Our early sessions were quite amateur to be honest, my technophobia took a lot of time to overcome and the set up at home for Zoom was hilarious looking back as can be seen with my home furnishings as a light source!
However, we quickly improved and as we had done this early, we benefitted from engagement with others who were embracing the connection that the virtual world provided across sectors spanning the globe.
It’s worth saying here we were lucky, most of our network had access to the necessary tools and in the early days whilst Zoom was realising the need to embrace captions and BSL, we navigated things as best we could. Heavily supported by one of our members who has a business focused on increasing the use of BSL. There was also a level of understanding from the sector that this was difficult for everyone whilst those measures improved, I think we just had one very vocal criticism when someone shared a link and in doing so that meant we missed the valuable info we asked on Eventbrite about support requirements. It was a wonderful era of digital connection and collaboration.
Our members reported that our move to the virtual world was invaluable both in terms of their mental health and wellbeing and reducing the impact of business disruption.
Out Network and other elements of my portfolio grew in ways I had never imagined possible pre pandemic. As the digitalisation opened new opportunities for example, I developed and delivered a bespoke training webinar for the European Parliament secretariat HR Team via Zoom, something I would never have done before preferring face to face training.
We were funded by the RSA to create a podcast of our members experience in the pandemic which was picked up as an Apple podcast.
As a direct result of our digital presence and actively reaching out to key stakeholders, we engaged with universities on a new level, as they joined us on our Friday briefings and we in turn contributed to the content creation of the digital offer Birkbeck and others were developing as they also responded to this new way of working. We collaborated on the digital sessions they were creating in response to the devastating impact on universities and students.
In essence the academic practitioner relationship was catapulted by this new way of working with some incredible results for all concerned. I was also asked to be a Visiting Fellow of Birkbeck, UoL.
Members of our Network who previously would have weighed up the cost and impact on health and wellbeing of embarking on long journeys, were suddenly afforded opportunities to be active participants in ways never thought of before, with the added function of being able to be on or off camera at times.
One of the most significant things to come from our digitalisation was the opportunity to make recommendations to parliamentarians on the creation of an All Party Parliamentary Group for Inclusive Entrepreneurship and after inviting Dr Lisa Cameron to one of our ‘Friday Briefings’ Dr Cameron agreeing to Chair this new group. Universal Inclusion is also privileged to be providing the Secretariat for the group supported by Savvitas.
Our recommendations on how the sector could be supported and upscaled formed the basis of the 2 Year programme of work and the Network we had created pre and during the pandemic which of course included academics, became active members of the APPG and various work stream task and finish groups. This cross-sector collaboration is crucial in establishing recommendations to parliamentarians which are based on sound academic research and validation.
We are seeing incredible results from the APPG for Inclusive Entrepreneurship.
So fast forward to where we are today, there is much debate relating to the pandemic and its status in terms of are we in or out of it? But as restrictions have been removed, we are definitely in the era of the new hybrid ways of working and this is not just in relation to inclusive entrepreneurship but the future of work in its entirety.
In answer to how I view the new ‘hybrid ways of working’ within inclusive entrepreneurship particularly in relation to working with universities. First of all, what does it even mean? Technically it combines working from home and traditional office spaces, something we can all agree was completely turned on its head following the work from home directive.
These new hybrid ways of working have created an era where the future of work really does come with endless possibilities, particularly for disabled entrepreneurs.
There is no doubt our Network members embraced the working from home aspect (myself included) and the increased levels of opportunities it presented, some of whom not only retained their businesses during the pandemic but went on to create additional ones. Members reported the positive impact achieved by these new hybrid ways of working extended to navigating complex health conditions whist creating enterprise (more so for those who have hidden and fluctuating conditions). Members welcomed the increased collaboration with universities they experienced within the virtual world and the positive relationships developed which have continued on into the new hybrid ways of working and are currently working on real world collaborative events.
All indications so far within our Network and expressed within the APPG are that this is the preferred way forward in terms of the fine balancing act of having a disability and creating enterprise based on sound lived experience and a desire to engage in ‘Work that is Good for your Soul’.
There are some caveats to this. It has to be about personal choice and equity within the new hybrid ways of working across all aspects of creating enterprise, particularly relating to the Access to Work award, procurement, technology, access to markets and of course in respect of our debate in our engagement with universities which has grown exponentially in such creative and positive ways during the pandemic.
I am looking forward to hearing along with my Co-chair David Walsh, Fellow of King’s College our panel members perspective on what role universities will play in new hybrid ways of creating inclusive entrepreneurship.