Dragons fire funding, not flames, at business hotshots

8th July 2011 at 01:00
Pupils from Paisley looking for funding for their ideas get a grilling from the Dragons' Den, writes Douglas Blane

Dragons are supposed to be scary. It's in the job description: breathe fire, fly through the air, scare people. But the dragons gathered for the evening at Reid Kerr College, Paisley, seem kind, sympathetic and encouraging. More like pussycats.

A full-strength Dragons' Den is fine for adult entrepreneurs, but youngsters need something more supportive - which is just what they get at Renfrewshire's annual event for schools seeking funding to get bright ideas off the ground.

Or in the case of the first team up, out of the ground. The six cute contestants from Paisley Pre-Five Centre, in matching green gardening aprons and floppy hats, seem totally unfazed by the banked rows of parents, teachers and distinguished guests in the packed lecture theatre.

"Hello mum," two of them whisper and wave.

Our Green Garden will grow and sell fresh fruit and vegetables. The presentation takes the form first of a song to the tune of Old Macdonald ("I will plant a garden green, then I'll watch it grow. With a dig, dig here."), followed by a brief video with voiceovers in expressive trebles:

"Vegetables grow from seeds."

"We will grow lots of these."

"We need lots of money."

"We will buy wheelbarrows and watering cans and COMPOST."

The pre-fives are looking for pound;1,000, Wilma Leburn, Renfrewshire's enterprise development officer, tells the audience. Then she turns to the children. "Well done. Now Dragon Audrey will ask you a question."

"I love my job," says Reid Kerr College principal Audrey Cumberford, smiling at the wee ones. "Now who's going to plant all these vegetables?"

"Us!" they cry.

"All of you?"


"What will you use? Show me your gardening tools, please."

Next question is from Jay Lamb of the Social Enterprise Academy: "Once you've grown the vegetables, who's going to buy them?" he wonders.

"Mummies, daddies and grans," a young gardener responds immediately, to loud applause.

It's a hard act to follow, but next up is Arkleston Primary with an impressive pitch for its Fairtrade cafe and tuck shop scheme. "We want to unite the community through their love of a good old cuppa."

School shops, cafes and games clubs feature strongly in the projects this year, with each pitch being followed by questions from three of the six Dragons. Seven teams come from primary schools and two from secondaries, with the pre-fives bringing the total to 10.

"We ran the Dragons' Den for the first time last year," explains Mrs Leburn at the break. "We found great enthusiasm for setting up sustainable social enterprises. We funded seven which are still in business, so this year's entries are all new."

Bids are capped at pound;1,000 this time, she says, so the funding from sponsors BAA and Clydesdale Bank can go further. "The other big difference I see is in the variety of the presentations. Last year's were mostly PowerPoints, but we've got all sorts this year - dramas, songs, even a quiz show. It's lovely."

In the lead-up to the event, visits by Mrs Leburn to interested schools gave guidance on what makes a social enterprise - one with a social or environmental purpose rather than profit making - and how to set one up in a school.

"I also explained what to expect at the Dragons' Den," she says.

Facing the Dragons wasn't too daunting, says Hepsi Xavier (P6) from St Catherine's Primary, which has brought two groups to the event. Profits from both are earmarked for the charity Mary's Meals.

"Mrs Leburn told us all about it. We were excited. All the girls will work on our nail bar, but only four could do the presentation," she says. "So we gave speeches in class and voted for who we wanted. I said I was mature enough to do it and wouldn't laugh at other people or get grumpy if we didn't win. So they voted for me."

Setting up a business takes plenty of preparation, says classmate Jacob Devine, one of the boys pitching for a school sports club. "Everyone in class has a job. We researched how much money to ask for and worked out we needed pound;340 to get up and running. I've learned that it's not too frightening to talk to lots of people - once you get started."

It's an important lesson learnt, says teacher Marie McLaughlin. "They were laid back until they realised how big the audience would be. The girls got the nail bar idea from Bushes Primary, who did one last time (TESS 7 January 2011). The boys didn't want to be left out, so they came up with their sports club idea.

"They've been learning so much - about communication, working together, organising themselves, making decisions, solving problems. They've been doing it in a real-life setting and working with real money. It's been great for them."

Kids are quids in

All 10 teams were successful in their bid for social enterprise funding and pound;4,539 was handed out.

Overall winner was Johnstone High. "Not many social enterprises manage to have one activity that both makes money and addresses a social issue. But this year's winner does," said the Social Enterprise Academy's Jay Lamb.

The Growing Greener Company from Johnstone High received pound;700 to grow vegetables, sell them and provide free soup lunches to community groups.

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