"It’s great to be here and share our story, if this was nine years ago I might have been telling a very different story from a deportation centre," explained entrepreneur Pheona Matouva as she took to the microphone on the latest leg of the Voom Tour.
It was a cold but gloriously sunny morning in Glasgow as Pheona began to tell the inspirational story behind Radiant and Brighter - the company improbably founded by herself and husband Michael - to the fellow business leaders and fledgling entrepreneurs in attendance.
Having relocated to the UK from their native Uganda, the couple had been granted a visa and started to build a new life for themselves.
However nine years later, in 2007, their world would be turned upside down as access to a new visa was suddenly denied. This meant the Matouvas were now classed as undocumented migrants and therefore unable to work, claim benefits or gain access to medical support. They would remain in this situation for a further five years, relying on friends, family and the church to support themselves and their young family.
"We went everywhere looking for help, from charities to the citizen’s advice bureau, but the lack of a visa meant we couldn’t access any support," explained Pheona. "At the time our children were under five and I was six months pregnant, but we couldn’t sit around and do nothing - so we went out and started to volunteer. Through volunteering we discovered that you can make a big impact in other people’s lives and also that so many others were also in the same situation as us."
This realisation led to the Matouva’s setting up an initiative to help people in the same situation as themselves, determined to keep busy and use their time to make a positive difference. In 2012, after five years of silence from the Home Office, they received the news they had been waiting for - their permanent residence status had been granted. Their first reaction was to go back out and find employment. Having worked in the UK before they assumed it would be straightforward; however five years without work meant that nobody was willing to give them a chance.
"Nobody would accept us, no matter what we said, employers wouldn’t listen," explains Pheona. "We soon realised what we had to do, we’d already been doing it. We would set up our own organisation that supported people like us. So in 2012 Radiant and Brighter was founded. We were so shocked by the amount of skills and qualifications that people come to this country with that were going unused, skills that were depleted, dead and gone. Those people’s lives are frozen - we work with them to change that."
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Radiant and Brighter story is the approach the Matouva’s take with people who come to them looking for help. There is no fast track route to easy employment or one size fits all template to getting people a job, any job. Once you understand the process they go through with each individual they meet, you soon realise just why they have had such success.
"The first thing we do is find out a person’s skills, passions, talent and past experience. A lot of people will say ‘oh, nothing much’ but when you ask more questions you can get to find out what really drives people," explains Pheona.
"We met this young man, a refugee who had arrived in Scotland. We found out that he loved to run, he would just run around his block of flats. He was a runner but it didn’t occur to him that he could use this talent, so we started to work with him and now he’s at university completing the final year of a health and fitness degree.
"It’s about getting people to understand that their dreams and passions are probably rooted in something that they’re capable of making more of."
As well as helping individuals find employment through training schemes, community integration initiatives and work readiness programmes, Radiant and Brighter conducts business to business training, which sees them work with organisations to address internal culture, diversity issues and community engagement. Their work to date has seen them recognised by Scottish Parliament, as well as work alongside some of the UK’s biggest banks and high-street retailers.
Everyone has the ability to innovate
The decision to operate as a business, rather than a charity, may surprise some people but for Pheona it was a straightforward one.
"Charity is great, but that’s not what we do, we’re a social enterprise. The act of charity is great and we do that through our work but to be continually handed money is not what we wanted, we want to be able to do business. Everyone from our advisory board to the individuals we work with are part of one big family and the movement of radiance and brightness we’re creating."
The Matouvas embody the sort entrepreneurial spirit that so many aspire to, having overcome adversity the likes of which few other business leaders could relate to. So, was turning to entrepreneurship something Pheona always had in mind?
"Being an entrepreneur is not something I planned," she admits. "All I thought is that I want to make a future for myself and my family. However I wouldn’t call it an accident either. It started off as a challenge and ended up with the enlightenment that I needed. My husband has always been an entrepreneur but I wasn’t, however I believe everyone has within themselves the ability to innovate and do something different. Everybody has something intrinsically unique about themselves, you can’t deny it."
To find out more about the Voom Tour, including this week's final leg in Dundee, head over to the Virgin Media Business website.