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Shakira Martin: “Let’s not act like I’m a typical student leader. I am different”

The NUS president talks about why more support must be offered to working-class students. 

Shakira Martin offers a sweet with the words “NUS National Conference” written on it. “It turns your tongue blue,”she warns. 

Martin was elected NUS president with 56 per cent of the vote this July, promising to restore the union to its members, end a period of vicious infighting, and create a NUS that would be “taken seriously”. How’s it going? “I feel like I’m doing it ... we’re gaining credibility back as an organisation.”

She opened her NUS conference election speech by stating “I’m a black, single, working-class mother”, making it clear, as she does in our meeting, that her circumstances not only affect her outlook, but play a central part in her approach to the plight of students and her style of leadership. “Let’s not act like I’m a typical student leader, I am different. The way I roll and the way that I work is totally different ... I like to use my adversity and experiences to help other people.” 

Martin believes that class has been wrongfully left out of the education debate. “The government often talks about poverty but doesn’t talk about class, so I’m hoping to highlight the class barriers that people are facing”. Beyond the struggle to get more working-class students into further and higher education – young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are still two and half times less likely to enter higher education – she is championing the fight to increase support for them once they are there. The Office for Fair Access found that in 2015-16, 8.8 per cent of young, disadvantaged students did not continue in higher education past the first year.  “It’s not just about getting them into those institutions, but the support that they have while they’re studying.” 

Martin believes there isn’t enough assistance to make the right choice when it comes to education. “I feel it’s really important for us to have proper, impartial IAG – information, advice and guidance. It’s about being able to have the information prior to making decisions so that people know what the best route is for them.” When it comes to higher education, it’s not a case of “one size fits all,” she explains, “this notion that you go to university to be successful is totally untrue.” 

Without hesitation Martin says the single biggest challenge to working-class students is the scrapping of maintenance grants which were replaced by loans in 2016. “This disproportionately affects working-class students.” The 2017 Student Money Survey found the average maintenance loan was £600 per month, whilst the average monthly living cost was £821, and housing cost £394. “Students struggle on a day-to-day basis with finances, knowing whether to choose between bread and milk or going out socialising ... as [former Conservative Universities Minister] David Willetts and Lord Adonis said, the loan system now is regressive. It’s about time government starts listening to them and to me because I represent 7 million students, one of the biggest mandates in the country.” Martin strongly favours a return to the grants system and, in the absence of grants, argues that the maintenance loan should at least cover the cost of living. 

To address the issue of students living in poverty, Martin has set up a Poverty Commission, delivering on her flagship leadership campaign policy. “It’s a two-year project. The focus is looking at the financial barriers that working class people face in accessing and succeeding in education.” For the first year, the Commission will gather evidence and real-life case studies, which will form the basis of a series of recommendations. The second year will focus on campaigning for the recommendations to be implemented; ultimately “what I would like to get out of the Poverty Commission is for the government to do an independent review into student funding.” 

Martin is clear that the disadvantages associated with poverty and class continue past graduation. The OFFA report found that disadvantaged students are six per cent less likely to enter professional employment post-graduation. “There’s a certain level of social capital that working-class people may get when you go to higher education, but as soon as they leave it’s finished.” She uses the example of unpaid internships. “I know for me personally, as a single mother, that is just not an option – no matter how much experience I can get out of it.” The hypocrisy of unpaid parliamentary internships at the time of the Apprenticeship Levy, a government policy to tax businesses in order to create more apprentices, is particularly galling. “I don’t see how [it’s allowed when] it’s the government who has flipping policy on getting apprenticeships! They continue to breed the same kind of elitism.” On the type of young people these internships will attract, she suggests that “it ain’t going to be Jerome from Peckham”. The NUS represents around 250,000 apprentices, and this is expected to increase as the levy comes into act; “with the amount of money that the levy is going to generate, I would definitely welcome the national living wage for all apprentices.” 

For Martin, hearing and understanding individual cases is very important. “When I hear student issues, I feel personally responsible.” She lists multiple examples of conversations she’s had with students “on the ground”, including international students who can’t afford to go home for Christmas. “The amount of money that international students contribute to our education system and our economy … I think it’s outrageous.” On the day we meet, she has spoken to a mother who dropped out in her second year and transferred to a new university, but was paying for the course she dropped out of through a payment plan that will take £8,000 out of her current maintenance. “She’s got two kids. I had to leave her with the note of ‘don’t be deterred, there’s a bigger force fighting for you’ – but it would be much easier for that young mother to just drop out and be on benefits.”  

“It’s very easy for the government and policymakers to analyse data based on numbers, without understanding the pain and the suffering of what people go through … they wasn’t with me when I couldn’t get to college, when I was crying, when I felt like dropping out. It took a lot for me to get here.”

While she’s not personally a fan of the Conservative party, Martin believes in talking to a wide range of politicians – an approach that breaks with recent NUS practice. “I understand that as the president of the NUS, it’s important to work across all parties. The Tories are in government! We need a range of different tactics, from the streets to the boardroom and everything in between, to be able to win for our students.” She regularly makes her presence known to the Universities Minister, Jo Johnson; when his name is mentioned, she sighs deeply. “Poor Jo, Jo, Jo, Jo, Jo. I actually feel sorry for him. Poor ting.” Johnson’s recent suggestion that students struggling to live on a maintenance loan could get a job or live more modestly summarises, in Martin’s view, exactly what the government misses: “Students don’t have a choice when it comes down to living frugally. They don’t have enough money to be able to survive.” 

It is doubtful that anyone who has met Martin would underestimate her, not least Jo Johnson. Next on her agenda is a funding review: “The government announced at Tory party conference that they’re going to have a funding review. I need this funding review to happen now, but it will not be credible if students aren’t part of that process. And if the funding review is announced and there’s no students [represented], then I’ll come for you.” 

“As a leader I’ll be the last one to jump off the ship, I’ll be the first one to jump in front of the bullet, I’ll be the first one to have your back. Everybody knows what the NUS is against. It’s about time they know what we’re for.”

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.  

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Levi Roots: “People say I came a long way from Brixton, but I never left”

The creator of Reggae Reggae Sauce reflects on his Dragons’ Den appearance and the successful career that followed.

Brixton is south London’s proudly bohemian zone. Engagingly alternative, the neighbourhood’s energy exudes from the shops along Electric Avenue to the art galleries, local markets and pop-up restaurants in Brixton Village. It is a melting pot for multiculturalism and identity politics, which one of its most famous sons, the creator of Reggae Reggae Sauce Levi Roots, says has informed some of the key aspects of his business.

Diversity, he says, represents a priority at all levels of the Levi Roots franchise, which encompasses not only a range of table and cooking sauces but also snacks, ready meals and an east London restaurant, Levi Roots’ Caribbean Smokehouse, which opened in 2015 and employs 35 staff. The 59-year-old, who was born in Clarendon, Jamaica, moved to Brixton when he was 11, and says that he makes a conscious effort to be diverse in his recruitment strategy. “I think big companies do have a responsibility to diversify and be more inclusive. The people who think that diversity in business is a box-ticking exercise and all about tokenism are the ones who need to get to grips with diversity the most. They need to see how diversity helps a business.” Roots suggests that having a diverse workforce “offers a whole new depth to market research” because “different people have different experiences and insights, and so you can find out more about what people from different cultures and different backgrounds want and think”.

Despite acknowledging the “institutional barriers” that prevent people from working-class and black, Asian, minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds entering business, Roots is very comfortable in his own skin. His estimated net worth is £35m but the father of eight is still a regular at Brixton’s Hootananny bar where he says the Ska scene is “buzzing on a Thursday night” and he holidays annually to Jamaica. “It’s paradise, man, total paradise.”

While Roots has not compromised his culture because of his business career, he understands why some people from similar backgrounds might be put off by the prospect of having to do so. “The blockages that are in place that stop free-thinking people like me getting into business are put there by a small few, who want business to remain in a certain way, and only be for certain people. Actually, though, business doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. The practice of business, buying and selling things, isn’t for any one group. It’s for any shape, any colour, anyone. It would be good if black CEOs were less of a novelty, for sure.”

Roots is no stranger to rejection. Before getting his big break on the BBC’s entrepreneurial reality TV show Dragons’ Den in 2007, he had unsuccessfully pitched Reggae Reggae Sauce to various banks and businesses, with more than one declining to invest in the product because it looked and sounded “too black”. However, Roots’ Dragons’ Den appearance, one of the most memorable in the show’s history, represented a turning point. What had been a side project away from a career in music – he previously performed alongside James Brown and Maxi Priest – became a full-time venture when his unconventional decision to serenade the Dragons’ Den judges with his guitar paid off. “I wanted the judges to see that side of me. Those are my two passions: music and food. I sang on Dragons’ Den because I wanted them to see something different, you know that unique selling point.”

While Roots succeeded in wowing the judges with his confidence and showmanship, getting his numbers wrong – he mistakenly equated 2,500 kilos to 2.5m litres – nearly derailed his proposal. “Fudging my maths put me on shaky ground. And I had to learn from that.” Roots’ style, ultimately, was enough to overcome the hiccup and he did receive a £50,000 investment from judges Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh, but had to surrender a 40 per cent stake in his business to the two of them – double what he had intended when he first pitched the idea. From this experience, Roots draws that “delegation is key in business”.

Roots warns that “impatience” can be the undoing of some entrepreneurs, “especially the young ones”. Long-term planning, according to Roots, is crucial to success as well as making sure no aspect of business – including financial and legal issues – are overlooked. “Balancing your dream against reality,” he notes, “is tricky, but I think being honest with yourself and acknowledging your limitations is important. You’ve got to know what you’re good at, but you’ve also got to appreciate what you’re not good at too. For some things, you’re going to need some help. Delegation is so important. Be the best at what you do, but don’t be afraid to ask for help where you need it… and trust me, you will need it.”

Aside from entrusting the financial side of his business to a “very, very good accountant”, Roots says he has sought out “expert legal advice” following a high-profile court case relating to the Reggae Reggae Sauce recipe. Roots’ former business partner Anthony Bailey, with whom he ran a jerk chicken stall at the Notting Hill Carnival for 15 years before his Dragons' Den appearance, sued Roots after claiming that the sauce was derived from his own recipe. But Judge Mark Pelling dismissed Bailey’s claims for a breach of contract and confidence and Roots remains at the head of his company.

Roots says that having to deal with “that really unexpected drama” has made him cautious in all of his ventures since. And when it comes to risk management, he takes a Murphy’s Law approach. “When you are serious about business you have to be able to distance yourself and be objective. You’ve got to guard against worst-case scenarios.” He adds: “Having families and friends in business complicates things. I had one of the biggest court cases around after three years in business. Knowing your way around money and the law is important. It’ll come round and bite you in the butt if you don’t.”

If Roots has handed over the financial and legal side of his business to other parties, what does he himself bring to the table? “That’s an easy one – I bring me. I bring Levi Roots. I bring the Levi Roots brand and personality.” The need for effective marketing, Roots points out, applies to who is doing the selling as much as what is being sold. “It’s down to the visuals and the spirit. There are lots of perfectly good sauces out there, but Reggae Reggae Sauce was successful because of the colour and the music we used to sell it. People invest in brands that they can trust.”

Roots says one of his latest business ventures – Levi Roots’ Caribbean Smokehouse in Stratford’s Westfield shopping centre – thrives on his brand. “That’s why I put my name on it. We’ve tried to capture the real Caribbean vibe with the music [playing in the background]. We hire a very particular kind of people. I think the members of staff have to have a bit of Levi Roots in them, so that when I’m not here then my personality and presence is still felt. That means passion and friendliness, and welcoming the customers. In terms of how we market it, we don’t call it a restaurant. We call it a ‘rastaraunt’. It’s an honest insight into me and my culture, my Rasta culture. People will buy into a concept sooner if they can trust it.”

Roots admits that going from making a sauce to running a venue is a huge leap, and he has had to learn about the ins and outs of the restaurant industry, including market trends and changing customer habits very quickly. “Like I said before, doing the research is important. In the food business, people are craving cost-effectiveness. There’s also a trend for young people that they want to be healthier. So you need to find a way of making cheap, healthy food, which can be a challenge. Being receptive to feedback and having continuous interaction with your customers is a hugely important skill to have. Your customers can be the life or death of your business.”

The internet age, Roots highlights, is affecting the way people do business. “A lot of these, how you say, millennials, value presentation when they eat or go out. They want food that is ‘Instagramable’. You’ve also got to have choice on the menu – maybe you will need a vegan option or something. These are new fads and trends that you have to be aware of from the start.”

Is the advent of social media a barrier to business being broken down? Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are free to use. Can start-ups and entrepreneurs benefit from having an online presence? “It’s a really good and important question. I think Twitter and Facebook are important for the immediate future – they’ve definitely done a lot for making advertising more reachable. But I think the long-term future is going to still be rooted in conversation and word-of-mouth business. I think that age-old art of conversation is going to stand the test of time. I was on MySpace a few years ago, but that’s come and gone now. Twitter and Facebook could very well be phased out in the future. There isn’t an expiry date, though, on self-awareness and real-life entrepreneurship.”

Strong conversational skills offline, Roots says, should form the basis of a good businessperson and it is one of the main messages he tries to put across in his capacity as a patron for the Prince’s Trust, a charity dedicated to helping disadvantaged youths. “It’s one of the most important things I do now. I run a big business and that’s one thing, but I enjoy doing the school and university talks. My key message is that if Levi Roots can do it, then anyone can. I want to make sure that these kids get a chance to educate themselves and learn how to handle themselves in those business situations. At the rastaraunt we try and do that with our work with the Prince’s Trust. We train chefs through a programme with them, so the kids are off the streets and then employed, learning the culture of the business and how to interact with customers.”

Having been one of them himself, Roots says he can appreciate the anxieties that working-class, BAME people might have about the world of business, and he urges the “people with power” to “change the system”. He continues: “When I was growing up in Brixton in the ‘70s at the time of the sus laws – that means if you were black you were a suspect for the police – it was really hard. I remember applying for jobs and having to lie about my address. It’s got better now, sure. Still, I don’t think that Peter Jones turned me into an entrepreneur. I was always capable. I just needed a chance, and that’s probably true of lots of young people now. They just need a chance. I know that the mentorship that I got was useful, but a lot of these kids don’t get a chance to be mentored.”

As a teenager Roots had run-ins with the law and struggled at school. Now approaching his 60th birthday, he is a millionaire who stands alongside David Bowie and Sir John Major as one of Brixton’s best-known exports. As he concludes his interview, he chuckles. “People say I came a long way from Brixton, but I never left.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.