By James Reed, Chairman of the REED Group
Shocking events provoke powerful emotions. I saw this at first hand last year in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The whole country was deeply affected by the deaths of 72 people in such awful circumstances on June 14, 2017. Raw reactions of fury, bewilderment and shame drove a demand for justice and a cry for change. In Kensington, the site of the tragedy and also my home, these emotions were felt even more keenly. Embarrassing levels of inequality in the borough had been exposed in the starkest fashion.
The community rallied. Locals took to the streets to offer food, shelter and practical support. People reached into their pockets. The Big Give, a charity founded by my father more than a decade ago, raised £2.6 million on behalf of the Kensington & Chelsea Foundation, a local independent charity, taking its total of funds raised to help victims and the wider affected community to £7million. More than £5 million of the foundation’s Grenfell Tower Fund was distributed to the bereaved families, to those who were hospitalised and to the survivors. Grants were also made to local organisations helping those affected by the fire. As with any shock, the initial impact subsided as weeks and months passed.
One year on, news about Grenfell is focused on the heartbreaking stories emerging from the public inquiry. Our thoughts remain with all of those who have been affected. It is absolutely right that the causes of the blaze and the adequacy of building and fire regulations are pored over. But as well as examining what went wrong in the past, we need to listen to that cry for change. We must build a better borough for a fairer future.
As I walked the streets of North Kensington in the days after the fire, I thought hard about what I could do to address inequality in the community. I concluded that the idea had to be linked to training and employment. It’s what I know from my career and I understand the positive impact jobs have on society. After plenty of thinking and discussions, I came up with the idea of creating a tech hub in North Kensington and naming it Silicon Grove, a nod to the area’s Ladbroke Grove. All of the statistics show us that there is a serious skills gap in technology which must be closed quickly if the UK economy is to fire on all cylinders. London’s tech centre is firmly fixed in the east of the city at Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout. But I could see no reason why West London couldn’t become a prolific contributor to the digital boom – and with it provide the opportunities that so many young people in North Kensington were looking for.
This vision swiftly evolved into a concrete plan. Working in partnership with the Kensington & Chelsea Foundation, with invaluable support from other local voluntary sector organisations, key players from the business community and social purpose experts Profit With Purpose. We were all determined to change the future of North Kensington.
Just days after the fire, our team met with the Founders Forum, an exclusive network of the world’s leading digital and technology entrepreneurs. The main criteria to join the forum is to have started a digital or technology business worth in excess of US$500million. It goes without saying that Founders Forum members are seriously talented and successful individuals. We discovered that they are also leaders with vision and a belief in social justice whose motto is Where the future unfolds. They have been true to those words by agreeing to invest for the long term in our project and lending their expertise to shape it. That far-sighted commitment has enabled the launch of Silicon Grove phase one – Get into Tech: North Kensington. It will match the community’s need for employment with the needs of one of the most in-demand and fast-growing job sectors in London.
Broadcaster Sky, a UK business success story which relies on tech, has played an indispensable role in getting the scheme off the ground. The company already runs a similar free course for women looking to pursue a career in technology and has agreed to co-host this programme. Sky’s industry expertise and knowledge give our plans a fantastic kick start. We can’t thank them enough. The pilot is for three training programmes, each lasting 16 weeks with 4 days a week training. Each programme will equip a class of 16 people aged 16+ in North Kensington with the skills, mentoring and training to work in technology. They need to sign up by – you guessed it – July 16. The first course will start in September. It will be pivotal to building confidence, educating participants and ultimately ending cyclical unemployment in the area. And it’s not just about getting any job. This training will open the door into a career in one of the most exciting sectors of the UK economy. With Sky playing such an integral part in the scheme, trainees will know they have already got a foot in the door with one of the country’s top companies or with other companies keen to engage with the scheme.
The statistics show that the initiative is desperately needed. Unemployment in North Kensington is double the national average; 16 to 18 year olds not in education, employment or training in the whole borough stands at 8.6 per cent – nearly three points higher than the national average; and more than a fifth of residents are in jobs that pay less than the London Living Wage.
We are bringing together people across the community to work collaboratively to ensure buy in and success for Silicon Grove. The values we will work to are hope, collaboration, support and achievement. I now want to see other businesses take their lead from the likes of the Founders Forum and Sky, and give us their time, their money or ideally both. Social Enterprise Camara is making an exception to its normal work in Africa and providing reconditioned laptops at low cost. Senior people from Uber, The Panoply and my own company REED, have pledged to mentor trainees and have already given inspirational talks at meet ups in North Kensington at the ClementJames Centre, a charity that empowers the community to reach its potential. These meet ups are being run by coding bootcamp team Founders & Coders and have convinced us beyond all doubt that this project will work.
Technology has been the great change agent of my lifetime. But beyond the miracles of smart phones, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, driverless cars and the Internet of Things, the power of tech must be harnessed to change society. And those powerful emotions that stirred in all of us last year must be used to render inequality redundant.