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The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

The True Meaning of Work: Lessons from Italy

22nd May 2015

I was sitting in a vibrant Milanese coffee shop a few months ago with three Italian university students – they were sparky, enthusiastic, effective communicators and they had a really good business idea (a music based product – very clever). They were intelligent and persuasive but were bogged down in the detail of a business plan. It was interesting that when I used the ‘3Q Model’, they were at their best. Simply put, the 3Q Model asks three questions of aspiring entrepreneurs: ‘What are you selling? To whom are you selling it? For how much are you selling it?’ A simple approach to enthuse and get the young people thinking very practically and to focus on the customer. This is not a replacement for a business plan but is a good starting point.


I was reminded of the three Italians when I listened to a presentation by The Kauffman Foundation, a significant American charitable body which emphasises the need for quality education and practical support for entrepreneurship in pursuit of its mission to ‘foster a society of economically independent individuals who are engaged citizens in their communities.’ The impressive feature of Kauffman is that they take practical and active steps – direct to real people – in order to make a difference. Though it is not on its own, it is a relatively rare example of a private sector foundation doing sustained and impactful intervention to promote market led solutions to economic inequality and disadvantage. Kauffman is not a bloated, bureaucratic, supply led organisation but rather an enabling force with clear successes. What the three Italian students were absolutely wanting was practical support, insight, an experienced eye to look over their idea and someone to listen to them and help equip them to become economically independent. Perhaps an Italian Kauffman Foundation is needed?


In the UK, there are some impressive examples of how organisations can support individuals, and organisations, to become economically independent, and some of these are based on the idea of ‘active incubation’. Active Incubation is an approach which combines co-working space + enterprise coaching + micro-investment + community. It is based on methodologies which focus on individuals and their talents and potential. It has adaptations into schools, FE and HE and can be used in both a social business and more traditional business contexts. Active Incubation offers a practical approach to economic independence – the very point of Active Incubation is to create jobs and to create opportunity. But Kauffman is right to emphasise education – practical education and academic education which prepares people to become economically active, decision makers and economically independent. Some forward looking educational institutions, and there are examples in Lithuania, Sweden and the UK, place employability, economic independence and enablement at the heart of their education – developing academic qualifications in parallel with decision making, problem solving, team work, business knowledge, practical business and negotiation. Indeed some schools were represented at the Global Entrepreneurs Congress held in Milan in March and were amongst the most impressive of participants with their clarity of thinking, high level English language, impressive products and emerging skills and confidence in listening to customers. In an example closer to home, a normal state school in The Black Country, for example, a team of Sixth Formers are making real decisions, developing budgets and plans, actually selling goods and services and making money. Perhaps there could be a re-examination of the curriculum for 11-21 year olds to make enterprise and employability at the heart of what is learnt?
Many approaches to supporting new and young entrepreneurs are definitely well meaning and offer useful support but too many tend to be too focussed on ‘business skills’ and an over emphasis on theoretical approaches. A far stronger approach is to emphasis the qualities, experiences and attitudes of employment, enterprise, entrepreneurism and independent life within a strong community. An approach to address is currently being developed in a cooperative endeavour between grass roots organisations in Poland, Lithuania, Greece, Spain, Czech Republic and led by the UK and based on a programme called ‘SLAM!’ which has been heavily developed in the West Midlands.

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