I came to Belfast 10 years ago on a three-month contract and was immediately hooked. The reason was simple: I had arrived in what seemed like a business utopia.
Many regions within the UK and EU could only dream of |the funding and support available here to companies and start-ups. I just had to stay and avail myself of these extraordinary opportunities.
The access to finance, grants and training courses seemed endless — and a significant number of consultants (testimony to the available pot) were on hand to guide both fledgling and established businesses to a bright new future.
However, it was shocking to find out just how many locals moaned and groaned at the prospect of actually working out how to tap into this system of support. They were blissfully unaware of how lucky they were not to be dealing with the English Development Agencies.
The existing funding and support regime is still a significant differentiator for Northern Ireland.
In my experience, however, |it is often poorly leveraged by the recipients or sometimes simply wasted.
In my view, the main reason for this is a lack of independent experienced mentors involved in the early stages to help |evaluate business and social |enterprise propositions.
Ten years on the story has |not changed much, except for the fact that Northern Ireland finds itself in the deepest of |economic challenges with |only the prospect of a very long haul to recovery.
Just to remind ourselves — the UK debt to GDP is still |94% or thereabouts and that is not factoring in pension |commitments and private |debt, which takes you into a place you do not want to |contemplate.
I would go so far as to say |that mentoring could be one |of the most important economic tools at our disposal in the fight to turn around our ailing economy. There is not a region in the UK or Ireland |that has not written a strategic plan that stretches out until 2020 which includes inward |investment, taxation breaks, seed funding, training, |increasing visitor numbers — the list goes on.
I have not seen one plan that mentions mentoring as a ‘key’ component.
Mentoring is an activity that anyone with business and social enterprise experience can get involved in with the potential to generate enormous long-term economic benefits.
For the past few years, I have been involved in a mentoring scheme run out of the Northern Ireland Science Park. As an |‘Entrepreneur in Residence’, along with my fellow mentors, |I mentor start-up businesses on a ‘gloves off, no-holds barred’ understanding.
In a very short space of time ideas, assumptions, concepts and |financial positions can be scrutinised, then put through the proverbial mangle to wring out the real value and commercial opportunity.
The results of this process can be startling and inspiring for both parties, and fast tracking like this makes eminent sense when you are fighting an economic war of attrition.
Large-scale mentoring would cost nothing but an individual’s time and energy. It could and should be developed across every city, town and village in Northern Ireland.
There are many experienced people from all walks of life willing to use/share their knowledge with others and help provide a resource that no government support agency could or should deliver. Show potential mentors what is required and they will take care of the rest. It could prove infectious!
Eoin Lambkin is a business mentor of Takker