Kevin Davis, regarded by several well-informed observers as the top social entrepreneur in the Black Country, approaches new projects with the same calmness as an expert circus juggler: the more balls in the air the better.
This summer he has seen one dream made a reality, a £3 million purpose built youth centre in Walsall for which he negotiated both planning permission and funding. It includes start-up accommodation, a business hub, a theatre, conference facilities and outdoor performance space. From this September, thanks to his negotiations, it will also include the area’s first studio school, providing a radical new approach to vocational education. Shortly after that a School for Social Entrepreneurs is being planned and perhaps even an outpost of The Young Foundation’s Accelerator programme, designed to help small social enterprises grow.
Meanwhile, his ‘second chance’ school, which he started in 2000 to re-engage excluded pupils, still continues, as does the local social enterprise zone, which has pioneered bringing together local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) intent on generating growth. The success of the zone has prompted the west of England to pursue further expansions and others are expected to follow. It has just hosted a national conference of LEPs, which saw success in attracting new businesses.
How did it all start? Like many entrepreneurs, there was some early voluntary work in youth clubs, church and school. He was head boy of Walsall Blue Coat School. He deliberately chose management to be included in his first degree before topping this up with an Open University diploma in management followed by a City and Guilds courses on community work- all of which was a perfect foundation for what was to follow.
Recruited by Walsall’s Vine Trust, a community development agency with a Christian ethic, Kevin’s first remit was to create a new strategic vision for the trust. From there he moved up to project manager, creating a one-stop shop to re-engage disaffected young adults and a separate ‘black grape’ network to raise the achievement of BME youth. The Trust’s HQ was in a former pub, where he helped jump start a restaurant providing young people with skills in the catering industry. It even enrolled a local college to run connected courses for 16 to 25-year-olds. Finally Kevin was promoted to his current post of Chief Executive, where he has negotiated innovative schemes with large corporate partners such as IKEA and Microsoft.
His recipe for success is relatively simple. First, be tenacious. Do not be put off by the first, second or third barriers. Second, don’t try and do it all by yourself. Look for collaborators who are passionate about the work. Third, look for people who can help keep your feet on the ground. He praised a trusted deputy, who helped provide a reality check on his vision. Historically, the Black Country, wedged between Birmingham and Wolverhampton, was at the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution with its coal mines, iron foundries and steel mills. Kevin seems intent on generating a new revolution, with entrepreneurs pursuing cleaner and less polluting enterprises fit for the 21st century. Students at the new studio school will work on ‘live’ business projects and experience workplace life within local companies and social enterprises. The new school for social entrepreneurs could help some of those students develop pet projects, while a new accelerator programme could help expand them. Keep a watch on Walsall. Kevin has already won awards from Business in the Community and the West Midlands’ High Sheriff, but he’s still only 39. There’s more to come.