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The Small Business Commissioner Liz Barclay on why every business needs young talent

Discover why small firms need to be championed and how Gen Z can provide essential business intel

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Liz Barclay helps small businesses to succed in her role as the Small Business Commissioner. We chatted to Liz about landing the role, her experience in supporting young people, and why Gen Z voices and insights in business are essential for a better future!

Can you tell us a bit about the work you do with the Small Business Commissioner?
Our remit is mainly to help small businesses with fewer than 50 employees resolve payment disputes with their bigger customers. We often achieve that simply by providing the information the small firms need to challenge their customers. Sometimes just knowing that we have been contacted, or that information has been gleaned from our website, is enough to get the payments flowing, without our formal intervention.

We also do a lot of webinars, seminars, meetings and blogs to discuss, inform and support firms and other organisations with a view to helping them get paid quicker. And we share all our insight with policymakers, ministers, tech developers and anyone else who will listen.

What is your professional experience of supporting young people?
I was well supported by a small local retail business for which I worked in my school holidays for 3 years before university. I was given responsibility, taught, empowered and held accountable. That was amazing. I felt I belonged, was heard and valued. I got terrific experience of working in retail, and of how to be part of the workforce.

I wanted to give some of that experience to young people too. In broadcasting, young people are welcomed in for work experience but at an independent production company in Manchester (earlier in my career), we took that further. We took on paid interns, actively looking for young people who would never otherwise have had the chance to work in TV and radio. We had financial support from the BBC for the project and some of the interns went on to work in the industry. Others decided it wasn’t for them but the experience they gained helped them to secure other jobs. We gained new thinking, a different world view, new ideas, energy and enthusiasm.  

Why are Gen Z so vital to small businesses?
We desperately need to get the 16-24s into small firms, with their digital skills which many small businesses are struggling to adopt and use fully. They’re born to it. On top of bringing in new ideas, skills and thinking Gen Z will contribute to increased productivity.

They also want to work for firms with a purpose, be included, valued and heard. They will drive a more inclusive culture in many small firms. They won’t put up with gender pay gaps and lack of diversity. They will call out unfair practices. And by the time they get into the workforce, they will be experts in wherever technology is taking us. Technology is changing ever faster and driving change and whether we like it or not being left behind is no longer a viable option. Besides, all generations benefit from working alongside each other and so does the business.

How did it feel to be awarded the role of Small Business Commissioner and how has the role progressed for you?
I was utterly amazed, stunned and delighted to be offered the Small Business Commissioner’s role. I’ve always been passionate about small firms and their value to the economy, their mindset and willingness to innovate and create jobs, and their connection to their local communities and power to motivate change and improve lives.

The role has been amazing so far. We have a terrific team of people, all genuinely passionate about helping small businesses, and who understand small businesses. I get to tell the stories about small and micro firms and sole traders to big firms and policymakers who often don’t understand how they work. I get to spread the word about the importance of small firms to the economy, communities and local areas and talk about the vital role they will play in recovery, building back better and levelling up. I am thinking about issues like the importance of payment practices when it comes to Boards, Chairs and Non-Executive Directors and their governance and ESG responsibilities. I see ‘Making Tax Digital’ and Net Zero coming down the line and think about how we can help small firms get ready when they have so many other worries around loans, debts and bills. There is so much to do and I’ve only got a four-year term.

What would be a career highlight for you so far?
The highlight was the lightbulb moment when I realised that people love to share. They are generous and delighted to be asked for help, support, insight, information. Whatever they know they will share if you ask them. Since I realised that, I’ve never again been shy about asking a ‘silly’ question, or saying something stupid, or admitting that I don’t know something. That is so liberating and empowering. Each role I’ve done has added more pieces to the jigsaw. I don’t think I could do this role without having done the others. The highlight is always about what you learn from people in each new role you take up, and how you use that learning to inform other roles and deliver better outcomes. And then people start asking you and you can pay back.

What types of businesses do you think will be most influential for young people in the near future?
Technology is developing exponentially and people are worried about being able to keep up. However, technology is giving us so many tools that are so simple to use that one day soon there will be no need for smartphones, tablets, keyboards etc that are often barriers to adoption. Young people will be a huge part of that, especially at the design stage. We need goods, services and products that are designed for everyone from the idea right through to the shelf. We need fair designs that factor in everyone’s needs.

Young people are much more inclusive in their thinking than many older people who have long experience of particular workplaces and working practices. Young start-up companies treat everyone with respect regardless of background, protected characteristics, education but look at capability, ability, aptitude and attitude. They get the best out of young employees. What an amazing mix. That’s what will change so many of the aspects of the world that we wish we could change just now.

Words: Grace Goslin

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