- Ife Obikoya, Aneira Rose.
'The Blair Project' - Nile Henry brings colour to the green industrial revolution
This week we’re speaking with Nile Henry: Founder and CEO of the Blair Project and member of the Climate Change Youth Board about his pioneering work to increase diversity in the UK green tech sector.
Could you tell us a little about the Blair Project and the motivations behind it?
The Blair project is a trailblazing social enterprise that exists to build the diverse talent pipeline needed to fuel the green industrial revolution. I started the Blair Project when I was 18 years old, back in 2014, to make motorsport more affordable, accessible, diverse, and sustainable. It’s called the Blair project after my younger brother; a former cart racer and the inspiration behind it. Motorsport is a very expensive sport to get into. To race competitively at a grassroots go-kart level, you'd have to spend up to £35,000 per year. To get to F2, the level just below Formula One, you would have to bring in £2million just to compete. For a lot of people, it’s not doable. So, to make the sport more accessible, and because climate change and green technology are a big passion of mine, I decided to come up with innovative STEM challenges like our Proto EV program, converting petrol go-karts into fully electric E-karts.
The Proto EV Challenge taps into the climate change activism of young people by providing them with hands-on opportunities to learn and tinker with green technologies. We work with teams of 13–19-year-olds, who then get to race to see which go-karts are fastest and most energy efficient. We are the only organisation in the world currently doing this and our core mission is to facilitate diversity in motorsport and STEM subjects. We work with young people from BAME backgrounds and low-income households, inspiring them to pursue rewarding careers in the digital tech and engineering sector. We’re also working alongside the Hamilton Commission, which is Lewis Hamilton’s initiative with the Royal Academy of Engineering, making sure we have more young people from BAME backgrounds getting jobs within engineering and Formula One.
One challenge in our line of work is that, although we do so much work with young people, inspiring and enthusing them using green technology, to go down the route of careers in engineering, in the field of retrofitting vehicles there’s been no pathway for them to go down, because all of these technologies are so new. So, in 2020, we wrote a feasibility report for, what we call, the Manchester Innovation Activities Hub (MIAH) and, I'm delighted to say that we’ve been awarded £4million pounds from central government. It will open in September of 2022, and specialise in rapidly up-skilling, re-skilling, and retraining Manchester residents for industry 4.0 technical skills; anything from low carbon propulsion and battery technologies, cybersecurity, 3D printing and AI (artificial intelligence) to virtual reality. The MIAH centre will provide a pathway for the young people participating in our Proto EV Challenges to progress into rewarding jobs within Manchester Science Park, to acquire practical engineering experience and create relationships with SME employers. It will also be an innovation space to collaborate with universities on rapidly prototyping new products and services.
In your experience, what other challenges are there to increasing diversity and inclusion in the green tech sector?
Off the back of the government’s race report, there will be a lot of challenges. Part of my role in the Black United Representation Network is to talk with employers and say, “Look around your workplace and spot who's missing.” In the city of Manchester, we have 35% BAME residents. In Greater Manchester, the county region is made up of about 24% BAME residents, but if you go into the city centre and look around these workplaces, it’s like spot the Black or Asian person. Part of that is having those courageous conversations with employers asking, “Why is that the case?” I sit on a lot of boards, and I speak at a lot of Innovate UK events for the engineering sector, and we actually have a massive shortage of engineers. A lot of employers are having to hire from outside the UK, and we need to start thinking about what we can do to make sure young people in this country are studying engineering and getting those jobs. There is a bit of unconscious bias around that. So, 27% of engineering graduates are Black, Asian, minority ethnic, but they make up only 7% of the workforce. Part of that conversation with employers is asking why we aren’t tapping into the talent we already have? They’re now starting to see we need to address this, and that comes from people like myself and others working in this space being vocal and saying, “You guys need to do more.”
I do believe that a lot of employers don't do it on purpose. It is unconscious. A lot of employers tend to employ people that look and sound like themselves, and it's just about getting them to think about why their workforce isn’t inclusive? Why isn’t it diverse? It's about highlighting that and saying to them, “If you have a more diverse workforce, it leads to different ideas, in terms of the creativity people bring in, which is going to increase productivity in your organisation, which is then going to generate huge revenue and growth and could even allow you to grow and expand to the point where you're doing business in international markets. So, why wouldn't you want diverse voices and views within your organisation?” When you bring that to their attention, they start to take action, and we're starting to see more people from ethnic minority backgrounds getting those opportunities.
Another challenge is that a lot of people higher up in the sector, many of the Directors of these organisations, have never interacted with a person of colour. So, what they see is the negative stereotypes they get from the media, whether its young Black people are criminals and all they can do is cause damage and thuggery, or if it’s Asian people, then it’s, “Are they terrorists?” When you put somebody like me in front of them, they're like, “Oh wow. We didn't know there are people like yourself,” which is kind of shocking, but it’s about getting those people to feel comfortable engaging with somebody from a different ethnic background.
It's also important to dispel myths and stereotypes around the traditional Black, Asian, minority ethnic career paths. We have conversations with parents who think their children can only go into certain careers, educating them about well-paid jobs and where there are job shortages, making them aware their children can go and do these jobs. We break down those models and stereotypes with teachers as well. In terms of engineering, teachers and parents may still have ideas of engineering as dirty, oily, like the industrial revolution, whereas engineering is one of the cleanest working environments. Most of it’s done on a laptop. We work with employers, bringing technologies into schools, not just educating young people, but teachers and parents as well, so they can see opportunities for their pupils, sons, and daughters in STEM careers, making them more accessible and inclusive.
There is a common narrative that ethnic minorities, burdened with economic challenges, have less engagement with environmental issues. From your perspective, how do you feel ethnic minorities relate to the environmental or green side of your technological projects?
In terms of the young people I've worked with, they just love tinkering around with these technologies. If you show them a 3D printer or an electric go-kart, they're quite interested in it and once they get their hands on the project, they just love it and excel. The secret sauce to the Blair Project’s success, we call the ‘See me, be me’ effect. Because I'm a young Black person, not far off their age; they see their possibilities through me. When we first started the Blair Project, we had retired Jaguar Land Rover engineers teaching the program, and although the young people enjoyed it, they didn’t believe it was for them because they couldn't see the possibilities. The following year, we had myself and my younger brother teaching. The young people were more engaged with a stronger appetite to learn. They could see their possibilities because they were thinking, “Wow. If Nile and Blair can do it, I can do it too.”
In terms of the climate and environment, one of the biggest barriers to many young people from BAME backgrounds engaging on these issues is due to poverty. There are bigger concerns in their lives. Am I going to be able to pay the rent next month? Am I going to be able to put food on the table? I do understand those things, and part of my role on the Manchester Climate Change Youth board is educating leaders, so they’re aware of the challenges people are facing. The environment might not be the first thing on their agenda, but part of what we need to do is go into schools and communities educating about climate change and sustainability and how we can make sure the world is cleaner, greener, safer. If you give them a practical activity like Proto EV, where they're learning hands on practical skills to reduce carbon emission levels, then they’re really interested and end up pursuing it, starting local groups within themselves and taking action. Generally, young people are passionate about climate change, and they want to make the world a better place. We've had a lot of young people wanting to start their own groups and initiatives, holding our leaders to account, so we start to see lasting change, but I do think one of the key things is educating the parents about it and about these opportunities so we can begin to break some of the stereotypes.
Are there any other ways the Blair Project works to increase ethnic minorities’ involvement in green technologies to make the sector more inclusive?
Yeah, sure. So, one of the things the Blair Project has come up with is the need to create safe spaces for young people to come together. One of the problems we have in our society, especially for young Black kids, is that it's not seen as cool to be a nerd or to be smart. They feel like they can’t talk to other young people about, for example, physics or chemistry, because they’ll be labelled a nerd or geek, but if you can create those safe spaces where they can find other young people like themselves to collaborate with on cool and exciting STEM projects, then that changes. There's an initiative we've come up with called STEMulus, which does just that. It’ll be launching later this year.
You’ve achieved so much already! Does the Blair Project have any other plans for the future?
One of the cool things we're doing, I can't name the organisation yet, but we've just agreed to a deal with a large motorsport organisation to become their global diversity and inclusion STEM partners. We’ll be able to offer apprenticeships and scholarships to young people from BAME backgrounds to go to university and study engineering as a pathway to careers in the motorsports industry. As part of that partnership, we’ll also be working with a team of students from Trafford College in Greater Manchester to develop an app for our Proto EV Stem Challenge, so young people all over the world will be able to download the app and build their own virtual electric go-karts, test and simulate them, and compete against each other as a way of getting even more young people interested in and excited about careers in green technologies.
You can hear more from Nile and keep up-to-date with the Blair Project at...