There are approximately 50,000 Westminster-based businesses that contribute £55.7 billion to the UK economy, more than the City and Canary Wharf combined. A staggering figure, particularly in an age of heightened uncertainty caused by Brexit and ongoing terror threats. Supporting such businesses is no easy feat, and it is a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of Elizabeth Crowther-Hunt, Chief Executive of Westminster Business Council.
Westminster Business Council (WBC) is a non-profit organisation that offers valuable insights into business opportunities and provides companies with the connections they are looking for. Led by the ebullient Crowther-Hunt, the Council has built strong and extensive networks with over 12,000 enterprises across Westminster. Their service offers bespoke connections and 40 events a year for businesses to network, collect business intelligence, meet buyers and other partner organisations who can support growth as well as a mentoring programme which has helped 600 entrepreneurs.
With a career spanning over four decades, Crowther-Hunt is well-equipped to offer such support. Before becoming Chief Executive of the Westminster Business Council seven years ago, Crowther-Hunt began her career as Assistant to the Chief Executive (or ‘Ace’) in the Borough of Southwark, marking what she called “the full circle” in her career. A wry smile crosses her face, knowing that the comment is a facetious one. During her tenure as Ace, Crowther-Hunt oversaw a radical transformation in the way in which the borough dealt with youth unemployment. Using her business acumen, Crowther-Hunt set up a business-led charity that connected young people in Southwark with companies on the other side of the river by providing them with an office, work experience, and training. “The system had rejected them,” says Crowther-Hunt, “they were eminently suited to work but the opportunities simply were not there.”
Such was the success of the programme that the borough became an exemplar in London and the demand for Crowther-Hunt’s services skyrocketed. Crowther-Hunt subsequently spent eleven years at the Prince’s Trust as Executive Director, before moving to Enterprise UK where she continued to focus on the issue of social mobility. The lack of social mobility in London is a salient issue, and it is one that today’s politicians are accused of passing the proverbial baton on, but Crowther-Hunt is indefatigable in the face of such adversity. Her boundless energy derives from a genuine zeal to help those that have been rejected by the system, and her career path is a reflection of that. She is also unflappable, undoubtedly a necessary trait in this line of work. If a plane were to be falling out of the sky, it would be Crowther-Hunt in the cockpit guiding it to safety.
Taking on the role of Chief Executive at Westminster Business Council was no small step in Crowther-Hunt’s career. “It was a complete revelation to me”, laughs Crowther-Hunt, “the first thing I noticed is just what a big place for business it is.” And it was not just the number of businesses operating in the area, but the diversity of industries in which they operated too: technology, tourism, hospitality, finance, property, retail, and communications are all part of the wide assortment of businesses in the eight-square mile radius. Evidently, there is more to Westminster than white papers and Whitehall.
But in all these different industries, companies are often faced with the same problem. “People lack digital skills to keep their business going,” says Crowther-Hunt, “there is a digital shortfall and most businesses suffer from it.” One way in which Crowther-Hunt has sought to rectify this imbalance is through apprenticeships. On her arrival to office, Crowther-Hunt was disheartened by the dearth of employment opportunities for young people and jumped at the chance to provide work experience for City of Westminster and Westminster Kingsway Colleges. In addition, she has taken a leading role in expanding apprenticeships with the introduction of the new levy by promoting colleges and training providers to encourage local businesses to offer schemes. Thereafter, a number of local businesses introduced apprenticeship work placements, most notably broadband provider M24-Seven, which placed a new apprentice in every department. It was a bold move that has paid dividends for the business, which now employs 230 people with over 30,000 clients.
The proliferation of tech and communications companies in Westminster has, however, masked some underlying issues in the borough, including childhood obesity and youth support. According to a recent study by Trust for London, a quarter of year 6 Westminster pupils are clinically obese. Crowther-Hunt has worked with local charities and businesses to raise awareness of such issues. She dismisses the notion that affluent boroughs like Westminster do not face their own socio-economic problems, “it is in the better-off boroughs that the problem can be more pronounced.” Perhaps no case better exemplifies this sentiment than in this year’s Grenfell Tower tragedy, whose occupants reside in Kensington.
Amid these sweeping changes while in office, it would be easy to overlook the fact that Crowther-Hunt is also a mother. Having two children during her spell as Ace in Southwark, Crowther-Hunt wanted to send a message to other women that they could do both: “I got back into work quickly, but I still fed my boys!” jokes Crowther-Hunt. As a mother and a woman in leadership, Crowther-Hunt is part of a very select niche, but it is a niche that remains too select for Crowther-Hunt’s liking: “In virtually every industry, women are not breaking into the higher levels of leadership.” In her role as Chief Executive, Crowther-Hunt aims promote gender equality and encourage women to push for more leadership positions through a series of ‘Women of Westminster’ Business Leaders events. The fact that, just a few miles down from Portland House, there are now a record number of female MPs (208) in Westminster, iterates that women are now forcing the issue.
For Crowther-Hunt, having a strong team is paramount. As new challenges arrive at her desk each day, it is only with a proactive and well-organised team that these challenges can be addressed. The absence of a rigid hierarchy at the Westminster Business Council encourages all team members to flourish and, importantly, to act. The final ingredient? Noise. And a lot of it. “You are only going to change the world by talking and collaborating,” says Crowther-Hunt, “we’ve attracted all the noisy ones!”