Emma Soanes: providing opportunities (pic: Terry Murden)
All go for a square deal
The sky is battleship grey and a little menacing. It’s pouring with rain. Glasgow rain, heavy and persistent. At least it hasn’t deterred those who have turned up for the launch of a pioneering ‘start-up village’ for young people. As they battle to prevent their umbrellas being blown apart, East Renfrewshire Provost Mary Montague declares Square Go officially open for business.
We’re at the premises of Young Enterprise Scotland, tucked away behind the Rouken Glen Garden Centre in in the city’s south side. At the end of a narrow lane, a collection of former shipping containers have been arranged around a small courtyard. Turned into pods, they’re now being used as offices and workshops for would-be entrepreneurs.
“It’s the first of its kind,” says Emma Soanes who six weeks ago stepped into the shoes of long-serving CEO Geoff Leask. “Young people don’t usually have the money or the confidence to take on a lease. That can be a bit scary,” she says. “So we provide them with a space and the mentoring support they need.”
Soanes explains that there are few criteria for getting a pod. “Basically, they just come to us with an idea. It’s not quite that simple, but that’s broadly about it.”
Square Go gets its name from the Glasgow term for ‘having a go’ and it emerged from a brainstorming session among the team working at YE Scotland. Would it work elsewhere? “Yes, of course, says Soanes, though I guess we’d have to change the name”.
She arrived at YE Scotland after a 30-year career in the third and caring sectors, latterly with Unity Enterprise, a charity focused on supporting those with disability and learning difficulties.
Helping others seemed to be something she was born to do. While other teenagers worked in burger bars and waited on tables, she was helping out in a residential care home and as a 13-year-old did her school project on disability. “I loved it. They kept asking me to go back as a volunteer,” she says. She dropped out of a nursing degree at Queen Margaret University – “I wasn’t particularly academic” – and got a job in the social care sector.
In her first few weeks at YE Scotland she has been encouraged by the enthusiasm of the team. “We need to build confidence in young people who come to us, so it is important that we are also bold and aspirational. If the people in my team feel valued they will pass that on to those who come here looking for support.”
YE Scotland is part funded by the Scottish Government and enjoys the support of a range of public and third sector bodies. It has developed a number of successful programmes, alongside schools and colleges, to help young people get a taste for enterprise.
It was awarded platinum standard on the Investors In People programme, a rare achievement, says Soanes. “It is as good as it gets. I can take no credit for that, but I can make a commitment to invest in developing our people. You have to continue meeting the standard as it doesn’t happen by accident.”
Soanes is keen to ensure that those participating in the programmes are not lost once they end. “We have to capture more of what sort of impact the programmes have had so we need to track someone’s journey and what happens to them.”
However, she does not see it as her purpose to focus young people’s attention on sectors where there are chronic vacancies.
“I don’t think we feel an obligation [to do that]. We are not looking to shoe-horn people into jobs just because of skills shortages.”
However, she accepts that there are sectors “where it is a struggle to get young people interested”. She says this is often a result of misinformation or misunderstanding. Engaging with businesses which can provide first hand experiences can help overcome those views.
“There is nothing like seeing the world of work in action and opening young people’s eyes to the opportunities that are available” she says.
Occupation: Chief executive, Young Enterprise Scotland
Education: Left Queen Margaret University course on nursing.
Career highlights: Worked for a housing charity in Nottingham. Latterly CEO at Unity Enterprise
What makes you frustrated?
Inequality, lack of kindness
What occupies your time when you’re not working?
I’m a mother of two… and I walk the dog. I also enjoy ‘insane’ high impact exercise.
If you could invite three people, living or dead, to a fantasy dinner party who would you choose?
Emily Pankhurst…. suffragette, for her insight
Billy Connolly… for the laughs
Stephen Fry … to challenge us, inform us and enthral us with his brilliant use of language