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Securing support during coronavirus: learning from our MBA

Parlez, Louis Edwards, 2020.
Written by
Isobel Edwards
Published date
30 April 2020

Louis Edwards credits the skills he learned on the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA for helping secure financial support during the coronavirus crisis, keeping his venture – a refreshed take on the great British pub – afloat.

As the co-owner of a startup business in the hospitality sector, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, Louis Edwards had cause to be nervous. The pandemic could irrevocably change people’s relationship with eating out, and the food and beverage industry needs to be ready.

The organisation’s purpose is anchored by respect for the place that is synonymous with UK culture. After asking what it means to be a Local in today’s London, with its mix of ideas and cultures,Louis and his co-founder Matt, an experienced publican, decided to take it back to basics. parlez came to life in 2017 to bring the neighbourhood together through homemade food, well-sourced drinks and music in a space where people feel at home. Born in Brockley, parlez had been a hub for friend and family get-togethers for three years when everything ground to a halt overnight.

Coincidentally, this was the same time that Louis completed his final project on the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA. Louis had signed up for the MBA to gain the resources and skillset needed to grow his new business but wasn’t prepared for how soon these skills would need to be put to use.

“The underlying theme of the MBA is managing complexity and ethics in business,” he explains. “The world was headed in the direction of increasing complexity, but coronavirus has hit the fast forward button”

In the weeks that followed COVID 19 spreading across the planet, Louis leaned on his learning for support in navigating the crisis. “It feels like we’ve been given a swiss army knife of tools” he explains. “When we saw the virus was spreading to the UK, we went back to the Cynefin framework for decision-making [a problem-solving tool that involves placing a situation in five “domains” defined by cause and effect relationships]. That helped us make sense of the chaotic environment and try to establish some order. We realised the systemic implications of what was going on and put a proposal together asking our bank for help within the first few days of COVID being declared a pandemic. When the Government backed loan-scheme was announced weeks later, we were at the front of the queue. The MBA definitely helped us make sense of the situation. The next stage will be about shifting from an efficient economic model to a resilient model and working with the neighbourhood – surviving will depend on collaborative co-creation over competition.”

At the time of applying, the approval rate of business loans was just 1.4%. parlez received a £75,000 Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan and a £25,000 grant from Lewisham Council. HSBC also extended the company’s overdraft to help steer them out of the crisis.

Louis said: “The MBA learning played a big part in getting offered help. We knew HSBC considered environmental and social performance as well as the financial bottom line and because we’ve made Environmental, Social and Good Governance (ESG) part of our model since the beginning, we knew how to frame things. The fact that the business has been given financial support as a startup in hospitality – the worst-hit sector – says a lot about what HSBC see in parlez. It’s validated a business model that’s built around social value. Personally, I would have drowned in the intensity of it all if I hadn’t had the MBA to fall back on”

The move to support businesses like parlez points to a shift in recognising the value of social enterprise. “Our business was going to be profitable for the first time this year,” said Louis, “HSBC made the decision to support a startup emerging from its infancy because we’ve got a good story, the financial forecasting looked good and because of our commitment to community value. I think the scale of ambition to refresh the schema of the British pub appealed to them too”.

“We can sit in classrooms and learn the theory of why social impact is important, but it’s reassuring to see banks and the government valuing the kind of work we do.”

Dr Pamela Yeow, Programme Director of the MBA, said: "I'm delighted that the MBA teaching has been of use to Louis during the funding application process and that a lifeline has been given to his business. The teachers on the MBA are passionate about placing social enterprise at the heart of future leadership, so it is encouraging to see businesses like these getting the support they need in what is an enormously challenging environment."

Although parlez has closed its doors for the time being, its owners are continuing to search for new ways to emerge from the crisis. "To uncover insight around what people need, we designed a questionnaire that’s been pushed out on our social media. It’s helped us find out what people are missing locally and has gone down well. We have a lovely team, fantastic suppliers and talented chefs, but we don't want to do anything that doesn't add value to the neighbourhood. It's about working together and supporting our business and the community at the same time. Sometimes you feel powerless to do anything in a crisis – we either sit back and wait for the world to sort itself out or we can step into it – we have to show we mean what we say about wanting to bring people together. That's what a decent local is all about."

This article was written by Isobel Edwards, Communications Coordinator for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics at Birkbeck, University of London and first published on the Birkbeck news website.

A close up of two people sat in the audience
Women in Leadership panel discussion with business leaders Diana The, Nancy Johnston, Caroline Hargrove and Harveen Cough. Chaired by course leader Pamela Yeow. Photo: Marcus Tate