Interview with Mark Simpson

Black History Studies

Black History Studies is a family run social enterprise that was set up to teach black history from an African perspective. Due to a lack of outlets that offered a range of learning opportunities, husband and wife team Mark and Charmaine Simpson (pictured above) decided to set the business up to educate people and fill the gaps on topics that are not taught at school.

Today Black History Studies offers a range of courses (beginner, advanced and short courses), they organise and deliver events such as, museum tours, their flagship event ‘The Black Market and Film Festival’ and other independent film screenings, which included the UK premiers of Tariq Nasheed’s Hidden colours series. Under sister company Black History Study Tours, Mark and Charmaine organise trips across Europe and Africa, where they highlight the black experience. The trips also give students the opportunity to see and immerse themselves in the environments where some of that history originates. For example, some of the trips have included Andalusia in Spain, Moorish Portugal, Black Netherlands, Black Paris and Egypt.

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Mark Simpson is multi-tasking when my zoom call gets through to him. He asks me to excuse him for a few minutes while he sets up another computer for his daughter to do her school work. This juggling act has become the norm for most parents, something that would have never been thought of until the global pandemic forced us all to spend more time at home. I say to him that his daughter can join us in the interview, to which he replies “No, because she’ll take over”.

Mark wears a red short-sleeved T-shirt with the ‘Black History Studies’ logo printed on the left pocket. He looks like a normal dad. Relaxed with a lock-sock on his head to cover his dreadlocks. There is a lot of African art and sculptures hanging on the wall behind him. It’s clear to me that this is a family that is really involved in the study and understanding of Black History and arts.

“I am ready to start when you are sista” says Mark, once all audio issues are fixed and daughter is happily getting on with her work in the background.

Thanks so much for taking the time to have this interview, especially during home schooling hours.

Mark Simpson: That’s fine sista. My daughter will be fine now that she is busy getting on with her own work.

When did you start Black History Studies and what was your motivation to start it?

We started BHS in 2006 because we felt there was a lack of readily available information on the subject matter. Therefore, we felt that rather than complain, we’d set something up ourselves and be the change that we wanted to see.

“We’d set something up ourselves and be the change that we wanted to see”

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I love that mentality and totally agree with it. Which is why I am doing this interview with you today. So, what were you doing before starting Black History Studies?

I was a civil servant for 20 years and worked in various government departments before being made redundant. When that happened, me and my wife deliberated whether to invest the redundancy pay in bricks and mortar or to pursue our passion of educating people. We chose the latter 😊

Interesting, so had you or your wife worked in education or done some work outside of your day job that prepared you for this business?

We actually used to organise small events, but had also attended a number of educational events. To be honest my wife and I just felt that people deserved better. The people needed a service that was professionally set up. For example, there were times when we’d attend an event but when we got to the venue, there was no one or the venue had not been set up yet or they’d be last minute venue changes.

We got frustrated by the disorganised manner in which these events were being delivered. We felt that a professional set up would encourage more people to attend these courses, which would help to instil confidence in the service they were getting.

Where can people find your courses, tours and books?

Everything can be found on our website. All of our courses are now online although I do miss running our face to face classes. We sell our products through our online shop.  

If people like what we do and what to support us, they can donate via the website as well.

I know people are not interested in travelling at this time, but we do organise tours and details for those can also be found on the website. All tours have been pushed back until 2021 given the situation surrounding Covid-19.

What are your thoughts about black history especially the type that you cover on your courses being included on the school curriculum?

Everything that we teach can be taught on the current school curriculum. It comes down to what the schools want to teach. For example, if schools taught about Egyptian history, they would likely only cover ‘New Kingdom (mid – 17th Century BC)’ and not ‘Old Kingdom (5717 – 4430 BC)’ and ‘Middle Kingdom (3440 – 1674)’.

It is our opinion that the reason for this is that the New Kingdom part of this history is a lot more cosmopolitan and teachers can point to themselves in history and take some of that legacy for themselves.

“The scope is there to teach all these things in the current school curriculum, its what the schools choose to teach”

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The way we look at it at BHS is that rather than petition or lobby and make noise about teaching these things in our schools, there is nothing stopping us from teaching it ourselves. It’s a better use of our time and efforts.

So how long did it take you to build the customer base to make it a viable business for both you and your wife?

To be honest we are still building as there is always room for improvement. It took us 2 years to get established. Luckily for us, we had support from Lorna Campbell and Sonia Scully from PCS – Public & Commercial Services Union. The Public & Commercial Services Union allowed us to use their office space as part of their contribution to Black History Studies. This helped us to establish ourselves because we had a place where people could find us.

Do you have a certain age group that you target for your courses or are they age agnostic?

We focus on adult education therefore our core customers, on average are adults aged 22 – 45. We do deliver programs for children as well but this is not as frequent. Interestingly, we have also found that our classes are usually made up of 80% women. This seems to be the trend in everything we do. 

“Our classes are usually made up of 80% women”

Tell us about some of the challenges you faced while running your business

Surprisingly, one of the challenges we found was generating interest for the classes from the Black community. I think this is potentially due to false stigmatization of Black businesses in the past.

Everyone is welcome to our events and we do not target a specific demographic because we believe that everyone should know this information. However, it was difficult at first to get support and trust from the Black community. For example, people would ask if our courses were approved and accredited by authorities before signing up.

What advice would you give to future entrepreneurs?

The only advice I would give anyone wanting to set up their own business is to:

  1. Make sure that you research the market
  2. Do it for the right reason
  3. Put 100% into what you are doing, otherwise it will fail

Thanks so much for your time Mark. If you have enjoyed this story, share it with everyone and subscribe to our weekly newsletter!

UK’s Patty King

Wade Lyn started Island Delight in the depths of the 1988 recession. Ever since then the company has been feeding the nation with its range of patties, frozen foods and ready meals. Patties are a Jamaican delicacy made from short crust flaky pastry with a variety of fillings such as chilli beef, jerk beef, chicken, jerk chicken, vegetable and salt fish.  These products have helped to bring the vibrant Caribbean tastes and flavours to the British market.

More than 30 years later, with over 24 business lines, Island Delight, which is operated by Cleone Foods Ltd, commands more than 50% market share of the UK’s patty industry. They produce 150,000 patties a week, supplying the UK’s supermarkets such as Sainsburys, ASDA, Morrisons, NISA, COOP as well as smaller distributors such as Heron foods and Farm foods.

Keen to understand the story behind one of the few remaining black family owned businesses, I caught up with Wade’s daughter Cleo. She’s looking after the business in the interim while her father recovers from an illness. We talked about Wade’s upbringing within an entrepreneurial household, starting a business during a recession and her future plans for Island Delight.

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Island Delight Patties

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me. I am impressed that the business has been going for 30 years, especially as it was started during a recession. What was the light bulb moment that led to your dad starting Island Delight?

Dad was born and raised in Jamaica and moved to the UK with my grandparents to attend University. My Grandmother had had a gas business back in Jamaica, so when the family moved to UK, they got a petrol station in Smethwick where dad worked as a pump attendant.

When he finished University, he worked for a food processing company that made a similar product but he felt he could do it better and manufacture a superior product. This was his main driver and it still is today.

Dad is a tireless innovator who is always looking for new and faster ways of doing things to improve processes and the core product. Originally, we were producing 30,000 patties a week and now we produce 150,000 patties a week. We are also the UK producer and distributor for Juici Patties. These are predominately sold in Morrison’s and Sainsbury across the UK.

Dad is a tireless innovator who is always looking for new and faster ways of doing things to improve processes and the core product

Did you ever ask your dad what it was like running a business in UK in 1980s as a black man?

In short, it was very tough for him. When he started Island Delight, he was the MD as well as the sales person. As a young child I remember him being away a lot because he was on the road visiting the head offices of various supermarkets. Eventually dad persevered with Somerfield and Safeway making the first order for Island Delight patties. As a matter of fact, he framed his first cheques from these supermarkets and never cashed them because it meant so much to him.

Starting a business is hard enough late alone doing it during a recession, a period usually marked by high unemployment and limited potential for bank borrowing. Recessions can also be synonymous with social instability, as was the case when Wade started Island Delight.

Wade’s first factory location came with ‘regeneration’ grant funding from the Government and Birmingham Council because it was in Birmingham’s deprived Newtown, which had been hit by riots.

Through his careful planning and understanding of the business environment he was about to enter into, Wade registered the business a year before he had any intention of trading. This meant that when he was finally ready to open, suppliers and potential funders would see a year-old company instead of a brand-new start-up. He leveraged his network to secure trade references, which showed a business with a track record. In my conversation with Cleo, I wondered what advice, if any Wade would give to entrepreneurs of today.

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What kind of advice would Wade give to today’s aspiring entrepreneurs?

Dad is super competitive and determined. He comes from a sporting background as he was middle-distance runner in high school and I guess this is where he gets it from. We are both similar in that sense, because I play field hockey and so we are both competitive. Therefore, if dad were here, he would say:

  1. Be persistent and determined to make sure your business is successful.
  2. You have to put in the time and energy in order to make it work and you have to realise that a lot of people are going to say no but you can’t stop at the first huddle.
  3. Make sure that you have a plan A, B and a plan C before you go ahead
  4. Always look ahead and try to be an innovator where possible

Be persistent and determined to make sure your business is successful

Do you have /run /engaged in any community outreach programs?

Yes, we are long standing partners with BITC (Business in the Community Foundation). It’s a national organisation created by HRH The Prince of Wales to champion responsible business. On a regional level, members in this organisation support communities in whatever they need.

For example, during lock down we helped 3 different communities. We worked with a school in Bristol where we donated 3000 patties to be delivered as part a school lunch scheme for kids. We provided boxes to an organisation in Birmingham which was delivering food packages to the vulnerable and donated 1500 patties to another organisation in Gloucester which was delivering school lunches to kids.

That’s just what we have done during lockdown but we have always been giving back to communities and to those that need it.

Island Delights Flaky Pastry range

I am always so happy when businesses are positively involved in communities. Going back to the business, I noticed that you mostly produce Patties, frozen foods and ready meals. Have you got any plans to develop other products? Maybe sauces?

Looking at the business with fresh eyes I realise that we have over 24 different business lines. That is a lot, especially when it comes to decision making because when your brain has too many decisions to make, you end up not making any. Therefore, I will be looking for ways to stream line what we currently have.

If we did consider a new line, it wouldn’t be until next year as we would want to see what the world looks like after COVID-19 and if there is a gap in the market for that product. The food industry is ever changing with different trends, so we would need to invest time into understanding and researching any opportunities that we see.

Ok, so what does the future look like for Island Delight?

As owners we are very focused on the future direction of the business. For example, we have started thinking about how people’s habits may change when things go back to ‘normal’. For example, will going out food shopping become a thing of the past?  Patties are associated with lunch time and if people have to continue working from home, will they prefer making their lunch meals? It’s important to understand what the future looks like for our sector.

Carnival is one of our busy periods as we distribute to different stalls however, with the pandemic, it’s unlikely that Notting Hill Carnival will take place this year. We have been thinking about different ways to navigate that. All I can say is watch this space!

Thank you so much Cleo for a great conversation and insight. I look forward to seeing what you guys decide to do for Notting Hill Carnival this year.

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