“As a young kid I was driven because I didn’t have much. I just felt that I could be more, I could do more and a big part of that came from having a good upbringing – from my gran and the values that were installed in me,” explains young entrepreneur Lee Hazzard.
Born in London to parents of Grenadian and Jamaican descent, Lee’s success is inspiring as much as for the journey he’s been on as for his impressive achievements. Despite dropping out of college he has gone on to run a string of successful enterprises and has also been selected to join an influential group of social technology entrepreneurs known as The Nexters.
During his formative years Lee was raised by his grandmother, who he describes as “an incredible woman”. “She managed a household of children whose mum’s weren’t ready to be mums. That included me, my cousin, foster children and others she adopted,” he explains. “There was always a minimum of 10 of us in the house. She was great at keeping families together and being strong.”
As a child, Lee hated school but poor grades didn’t dampen his sense of ambition. Despite dropping out of college Lee returned only to leave with what he describes as “disappointing results”. He then enrolled on a certified IT course that “guaranteed” a lucrative career but despite completing the course in an over-saturated market no employers were interested in hiring him.
I suggest to Lee that any one of these stumbling blocks could have been big enough to dent the average person’s confidence, to make them think they weren’t good enough or to perhaps reduce their ambition for something less grand or less stretching. But not Lee. He explains that what has always kept him going is a sense of purpose.
His break finally came through music production. When a track he produced was aired on London’s Choice FM it was heard by executives at a major record label. Their interest in Lee’s work led to him go on to produce remixes for the likes of Usher and Beyoncé. His success inspired many young people to approach him for career advice so he decided to share his skills and knowledge by volunteering – initially giving young people advice on how to produce music.
Volunteering led to consulting and within 18 months Lee had gained over 30 clients spanning across all of London’s boroughs and won numerous awards for his work. However when the UK elected a new government in 2010, the cuts in public spending that followed saw his client base tumble from 33 to three in the space of just a few months.
While planning his next move, Lee was approached by a social innovation outfit looking for a resident entrepreneur. One of his success was GamePlan, an online mentoring app for Facebook that targeted at 16-24 year olds.
Yet it wasn’t long before Lee left to start his own company, Fused Education, which provides customizable online learning platforms to both public and private sector organisations. He’s currently working on an array of contracts including one with the South African government to provide online learning and content for 25 education centers across the country.
What is it that you enjoy about working with young people – why do you focus on this particular group?
It’s hard to put my finger on a specific reason. There’s a just a connection that I have with young people. Given that the next generation are our future it would almost be a crime if I had something within me that I knew I could pass on, in the knowledge that it could change a young person’s life, but I chose not to do so.
A great example was when I had a contract to run a film course for young offenders. These guys had a terrible history of engagement so, even though we were getting paid well for the work, I wasn’t looking forward to it. The first couple of days were a little rough so we turned the tables on them and said, ‘you know what, you guys are going to write the script yourself. You’re going to handle the budget, we’re going to give you the money – you can do it all yourself’.
I tell you, I’ve never seen such a transformation! These guys got there on time every day, they were so enthusiastic and in the end they put together a great little short film called You Decide. It was all about the choices you make and when it was finished it they got it shown at the British Film Institute and invited all of the local councillors along to the screening.
One of the guys who did the course, a really quiet lad, said, “As a result of this course I’ve realised I can do anything. I can go places.” I tell you, I just wanted to cry because it was so moving to know that something I’d done could be so effective. For me it was just a little course I’d put together but from that experience I learnt about the responsibilities that the older generation has to these young people. While there’s so much on offer, there’s also a lot that’s wrong with society that we can try to put right so I think that’s where my drive comes from.
How do you go about undoing the damage or lack of aspiration once it has set in?
A lot of it has to do with their environment. It’s a proven factor. If you look at when prisoners are undergoing a resettlement period, many of them will opt to move to the other side of the country because they understand the impact of their environment, in terms of their friends, what they see as possible and the aspirations they have. It’s so important. I think the reason why we had such a great impact on those young people is because we had them solidly for two weeks from morning to night. It showed me that consistent exposure to positivity can change things.
Would you say that you’ve always been a social entrepreneur or did the social side of things come later?
First and foremost I am a capitalist entrepreneur. But all my businesses have had a social element. So even though I don’t run a social enterprise there’s always some sort of social force that draws me in. Whether it’s doing a company around money management, business start-ups or employability – there’s always a social cause. I think it’s important for any business to have that ethos.
Any one of the setbacks you’ve faced in your career could have been enough to make the average person think, you know what, I’m just going to scale down my ambitions and give up on that path. What do you think has enabled you to keep on pushing?
Purpose! Whenever I think about doing a new venture I look at the reasons more than anything else. Because it’s those reasons and the sense of purpose that will keep you going and keep you grounded, not the need to make money or a desire to reach a certain level of success. I always advise that whatever people do, it helps to have a solid reason as to why you’re doing it because it’s guaranteed that there will be times where you’re just thinking ‘sod this I’m gone’ but that sense of purpose reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing and keeps you at it.
What led you to create your own company as opposed to trying to fit in as an employee?
From a young age I knew I wanted to work for myself. I had an innate desire to build something for myself. I’ve always had a tendency not to conform to the norms of life, I’ve always wanted to think bigger and do bigger and to make real change. I think that’s something that you can either be destined to or grow into.
What advice would you give to kids who have amazing ideas but who don’t come from a background in which there is easy access to money?
I can only draw on my experience. The main thing is to be an explorer in terms of seeing what’s out there. Step outside of your comfort zone. One thing I did early on in my early twenties was to say to myself that I had to meet three new people every day. The reason behind that was I knew that connecting with that person could connect me to an opportunity.
Young people now don’t really have an excuse as there are so many resources out there. It’s just about being resourceful, looking online. If you’ve got an idea, research what support or funding you can get, the events you can attend, which clubs you can join. There a gazillion tons of information to get them going, it’s about just getting that initial momentum going.