Life’s what you make of it

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DDN hears from four winning entrepreneurs – whose success was made even more remarkable by their challenging journeys overcoming addiction.

At a glitzy ceremony in London, four entrepreneur finalists competed for a prestigious business award. Their final task was to pitch their business idea to a panel of judges led by award-winning businessman Will King, founder of the £60m company, King of Shaves, alongside chairman of Youth Business International, Sir Malcolm Williamson.

Twenty-one-year-old Chris Adams pitched his mobile hairdressing business, Baseline. Christine Dore, aged 45, presented her Caribbean catering operation, Mix & Blend, serving up a feast for the high-profile judging panel. David Howell, 41, made the case for his cleaning and catering enterprise, Servants-r-us. And Kirsten ‘Fifi’ Imrie pitched her dog-walking business, Walkies with Fifi and Friends, securing first place, a cheque for £1,000 from sponsors Fujitsu, and a year’s support with advertising and marketing from successful marketing agency AnAbundance

All four finalists had been selected from more than 50 people who had completed the E=MC2 programme over the past year – an initiative run by award-winning social enterprise and charity The Small Business Consultancy (TSBC), whose chief executive and founder, Amar Lodhia, writes DDN’s Enterprise Corner.

And this is where the story becomes truly remarkable; for not only had the entrepreneurs started successful businesses, they had transformed their histories of substance misuse problems into character-building experiences. Referred to the programme by their local London DAATs – Southwark, Barking and Dagenham and Haringey – they grasped the opportunity to relegate negative experiences to the past, learn from their mistakes, and bring their business ideas to life.

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To Kirsten Imrie, winning the award seemed a far cry from her past. Her problems with alcohol began in very early childhood. When she was just three years old, her father crashed a car after he had been drinking, killing two passengers, one of whom was her mother.

‘After that he drank more and more, mainly to forget I think,’ she says. Young Kirsten was moved around from grandparents to foster homes and whenever her dad visited, he’d take her to the pub and make her sing for beer.

‘By the time I reached 14 I already drank heavily and had two failed suicide attempts behind me,’ she says. By the late eighties she found herself with a glamorous career as a successful model, which opened up opportunities as a TV presenter. Alongside the lifestyle and heavy drinking she developed a serious cocaine habit, ‘mainly to keep awake as I was also running a nightclub. I had too many jobs, too much money and not enough time in the day. I was very unhappy.’

Things came to a head when Kirsten lost her job at LIVE TV, then her home, sleeping rough on Clapham Common, drinking every day to blot everything out. Things went from bad to worse; conflict with a tabloid newspaper that had got hold of her story, a partner who left her with enormous debts, and diagnosis of a serious medical condition called adenyosmosis, which could cause her to hemorrhage dramatically. At the beginning of 2011, while struggling with sobriety, she was viciously attacked by a dog, which hospitalised her and left her with scars on her face. With her confidence in tatters, her drinking increased, ending in admission to rehab.

Several episodes of treatment without follow-on support had ended in her slipping back into using, until in 2012 things changed with a referral to the E=MC2 programme, run in the London Borough of Southwark, where she met entrepreneur Amar Lodhia.

‘Amar told us that if there was something we were passionate about, that would make the best business,’ she said. ‘They say that if you have a really bad experience you should try and turn it into a positive’ – which was how Walkies with Fifi and Friends came to be born.

Taking practical lessons from the course, she learned how to analyse strengths and weaknesses and use them for the business. Most of all she learned confidence, and to realise that she is in control of her own destiny.

‘The days when I had doubts have been washed away and each day looks brighter,’ she says. ‘With the support of the TSBC team I know that I can achieve a business and a future to be proud of.’

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Award runner-up Chris Adams began living in supported accommodation in Barking, after being estranged from the family home. He dropped out of school at the start of studying for his A levels and six months later found himself in a dead-end job in an electronics store.

‘I was 16, still young and I wanted to do something else,’ he says. After talking to some friends who were at college studying hairdressing, he decided to give it a go himself and became an apprentice in a well-known salon. But three months later he became bored with sweeping the floor and decided to improve his prospects by going to college.

‘I was doing very well, achieving distinctions in my assessments and was chosen to be a peer mentor to keep other people on track – then was picked to go to Finland to gain work experience in a salon abroad,’ he says. But on his return everything began to go downhill: ‘I was still living in supported accommodation and felt I hadn’t achieved much.’ Feeling demotivated he dropped out of college, just a month before final assessments and completing his qualification.

Being referred by Barking and Dagenham DAAT to the E=MC2 programme helped him get back on track – ‘I found the passion and drive again that I wanted to be an awesome hairdresser.’

As founder and director of Baseline, he now has his own business and has come a really long way, he says.

‘Not only have I accomplished something for myself, but feel that I can inspire other young people to follow their entrepreneurial idea and turn that dream into reality.’

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‘While this has not been the perfect year, I must put it down as the year I have achieved the most after battling my alcohol addiction,’ says 41-year-old David Howell. Not only did he reach the final with his Servants-r-us cleaning and catering business, he also completed two novels that were delayed by his struggle with addiction.

Looking back he reflects that he ‘hasn’t had the easiest road’, with health problems that included becoming insulin dependent and being diagnosed with arthritis. Employment as a security professional put him in dangerous situations that further compromised his health, not helped by several personal tragedies. With his drinking out of control he accepted that he would have to go into rehab before it was too late.

A referral from Haringey DAAT finally steered him into achieving his potential. From being surprised that his idea was accepted for the final of the awards, he is now confident that he is steering towards financial stability, with TSBC’s help.

‘Having my own business means I now have the opportunity to achieve my full potential,’ he says.

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Christine Dore can now look back on 12 years of cocaine addiction and remember the moment she realised she had to become drug free.

‘I had three children but they were removed from my care and this led me to spiral downhill,’ she says. ‘I always thought I would remain an addict. Then at the age of 40 I became a mother again and that was the turning point in my life.’

Attending RISE, a drug rehabilitation centre in Haringey, brought her in contact with TSBC and she was referred to the E=MC2 programme by Haringey DAAT. She cites completing the course as one of her greatest achievements, alongside overcoming her addiction.

Having worked as head of a kitchen, she had the cookery knowhow to found the Caribbean catering business Mix & Blend, coupled with a lifelong passion for creating food.

‘It’s been my life since I was a small child,’ she says. ‘I come from a family of ten and when my mum used to prepare the food, she used to make us help with the cooking. I can remember helping to make bread and cakes – particularly licking the bowl!’

Hearing that she had been selected as one of four finalists brought her to tears, realising an impossible dream could become a reality.

‘I have one motto that I stick to in my life – “life is what you make it”,’ she says. ‘I really believe this, because only you can determine your fate and destiny. If I can do it, anyone can.’

After the competition, which was recognised by Global Entrepreneurship Week as one of the highest impact events of 2013, many doors opened for the finalists. Their biggest highlight to date was being invited to Downing Street to meet with the prime minister’s enterprise advisor, Lord Young, during Alcohol Awareness Week. Best known for being the force behind the Start Up Britain campaign, Lord Young recently initiated the highly commended £82.5m Start-up Loans for Young People scheme, offering support to 18 to 25-year-olds in getting a start-up loan for their business, in the same way as students secure loans for higher education.

During the visit to Downing Street, Lord Young shared his two tips on running a successful business with the finalists.

Along with emphasising cashflow management as crucial to any business, he advised the finalists to always see the glass as half full – a lesson for life as much as business:

Those that miss opportunities usually say they were unlucky, but in business you create opportunities and your own luck by having your glass half full.’  DDN

Amar Lodhia and colleagues from TSBC will be participating in an enterprise workshop at Be the Change, our national service user involvement conference on 14 February in Birmingham. Full details and booking at www.drinkanddrugsnews.com

For more information on the E=MC2 programme go to www.tsbccic.org.uk/commissions/daats/