Sophie - Unearthing Talent

Sophie Marie Bennett

Founder and CEO of Black Owned Birmingham

BA (Hons) Business Administration/ MSc Management and Entrepreneurship

Sophie’s passion for business led her to complete both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at BCU, before setting up her business Black Owned Birmingham, which is now the second largest black business and community network within the UK. Her work to develop the business community has seen her win several awards for her social and community activism.

“My parents were both immigrants who left school at a young age. They had good jobs and a big, loving family so university was never something on their mind or something that they thought was necessary for their children to experience.

Since they told me that getting a good job was the most important thing, I did an apprenticeship, but it really wasn’t for me. So, I applied to a foundation year at BCU. I completed the course and at my graduation, the look of pride on my parents’ faces made all the hard work worth it.

Sadly, both my parents have now passed away but their pride is something that has motivated me throughout my entire academic journey and career. I also found that I enjoyed learning about the theoretical side of business, so applied to BA Business Administration at BCU and then went on to do my Master’s.

My time at BCU was fantastic. During my Master’s, I really enjoyed focusing on the areas of business that I felt applied to me and the black community. I did my thesis on black female entrepreneurship and why it’s so hard for black people to get into business. I wrote about what could be done to help black business owners, but I never expected to make a career out of it.

During my Master’s, I was pregnant, working a full-time job, and running my own business and people would think I was crazy to be juggling all of that, but I was having fun. I loved my Master’s, doing my own research and I had formed great relationships with the people on my course and my tutors. I felt so supported and encouraged and just generally loved being at BCU.

After graduation, I worked as a freelance business consultant. People could hire me through a website by selecting my profile which listed my skills and expertise, and I could complete my role working from home. I had regular clients that I enjoyed working with and I was earning a great wage. Then, the website introduced a new policy: all members must have a profile picture. I uploaded my profile picture and instantly lost clients, I lost so many that I was struggling to make ends meet. The only thing that had changed was that now my clients could see that I’m black and it was clear that my race was an issue for them.

Companies that I had strong connections with began ignoring me, and people I knew on a first-name basis wanted nothing to do with me. This sparked something within me, and I knew I had to build my own community to support other business owners and freelancers going through this, so I started the Black Owned Birmingham Facebook page.

The group was just a page for people to chat about their business struggles and support one another, I never expected it to blow up the way it did, but it just snowballed. We gained 2000 followers overnight, then 3000, and by the end of the week we were 7000 members strong.

28 per cent of black-owned businesses apply for government funding but only 0.2 per cent receive funding. There were so many people in the group who needed the community because they can’t rely on funding. I realised that I could build a business out of this, and that’s how Black Owned Birmingham was born.

We help businesses register and we have created a directory of black-owned businesses in Birmingham. We also offer business advice. I work with local communities, providing equipment for school children and running summer schools. I also sit on advisory boards such as the UK Black Business Show Advisory Board and Forbes Black.

The business has gone from strength to strength, we’re the largest black business and community network within the West Midlands and second largest within the UK. We even have our own awards ceremony, which is one of the best parts of my job as I get to celebrate my community’s success.

When I started my foundation year at BCU, I never thought I’d be where I am today: making a difference in the black community and returning to BCU to do my PhD.

When I was a BCU student, I used to see pictures of alumni on the walls, I’d read about them and think ‘wow, they’ve gone on to achieve so much’ and now I’m one of them. It fills me with pride to have been born and educated in Birmingham.”