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How do you encourage people to start a new business if you can't lure them into places where the skills they need are on offer?

You create a training package which can travel - to community centres and groups where people already meet - and you make it flexible enough to be delivered in different languages or at a different pace, so it helps to build confidence and self-esteem.

IdeaSpark is such a programme, aimed at disadvantaged communities in Leicester - people on benefits, refugees and those from different ethnic groups who are in one way or another excluded from more conventional business training.

Project co-ordinator Kate Cowan explains: "People from disadvantaged communities may not be confident enough for traditional training or can't afford it. We showed that by going out to communities and using the local skills and knowledge of the community you can encourage people who would not normally participate and reach people where they feel most comfortable."

The basis of IdeaSpark is a business skills course of up to 20 hours, covering five different areas: a basic introduction to business, finance, marketing, market research and legal issues. By the end of the programme, participants have enough knowledge to put together a basic business plan and be referred on to others who can help them develop it further.

While IdeaSpark is a general business introduction, Ms Cowan says clients often want to use their existing skills and spot the gaps in their area for services such as catering, sewing and dressmaking, care and childminding. And IdeaSpark certainly does seem to have sparked activity. The programme has trained 160 people, identified by going out to communities and using the local skills and knowledge of the community. Its 12 business mentors have generated 65 business mentoring relationships. Ten organisations have been trained to deliver the IdeaSpark programme and 18 individuals have started a business as a result.

But the project doesn't end there. April 2004 is the start of IdeaSpark II - a programme aimed at developing the concept further by offering business coaches, providing a Business Resource Centre including the use of photocopier and internet, and help with business plans. It's also launching two social enterprises as testing grounds for would-be entrepreneurs to gain hands-on experience:

What difference has it made? Ms Cowan says other organisations are now aware of the benefits of working within the community and building new links, but also that much more support is needed in the first three years of a new business than is often acknowledged. "We've built a momentum in the city and within communities:" she says.

The individuals who benefited from IdeaSpark are the proof of how it can change lives. Mary, for example, is an African-Caribbean with two young children, who has been on benefits for a long time. She was introduced to IdeaSpark in May 2001, with an idea of starting a West Indian Bakery/Caribbean Restaurant. After the IdeaSpark training she went on to Basic Skills and Computer Literacy at a local college and has now started test trading.

Ian and William had been working together for a local firm which made them redundant. They attended an IdeaSpark Course, received support with a business plan and used the redundancy money to set up a business called Guttersnipe, cleaning gutters and dealing with household waste.

Contact details

Skills for Enterprise Ltd
Jubilee Building
Phoenix Yard
5-9 Upper Brown Street
Tel: +44 0116 229 3301