Phoenix is a highly participative development programme designed to help those least engaged or with “complex barriers to employment” to grow sustainable businesses. It does this by equipping them with the mindset and tools needed to turn their skills into cash thereby quickly building a sustainable income stream. The ultimate aim is to remove their reliance on benefits enabling them to make the contribution they are so capable of making.

Rehabilitation through entrepreneurship

There is plenty of evidence that employment reduces reoffending.  The problem is how few employers will take on ex-offenders.  So as few as 17% find work within a year of release.  Entrepreneurs don’t need CVs.  They don’t need to disclose their past.  By offering valuable products or services that customers trust them to deliver, they can earn a respectable living.  Sadly, programmes that truly equip keen entrepreneurs to discover, define and deliver a valuable product or service are rare.  So few offer real life practical experience.  We recognise that you are short of resources so we show you how to minimise risk and expenses to maximise your chance of success.

Enterprise training can, at best, teach people about entrepreneurship.

Self-employment is a whole new ball game.  Whatever people learn about entrepreneurship never quite prepares them for the gritty reality of doing it themselves.  Being your own boss is empowering and scary in equal measure and no amount of theory really teaches people how to make money.  That is why we launched the Phoenix Programme.  For maximum impact we need real life experiences that empower rehabilitation through entrepreneurship as this example shows.


We have found that many of our participants know (or think they know) what they should be doing, but struggle with how to actually do it.  The reason is simple;  although there is a lot of business advice out there, unless it is adapted to each person’s individual circumstances, it is almost impossible to put into practice.

Our focus is pretty simple; we help individuals identify the best way to sell their skills.


Individuals have different capabilities and psychological barriers to be worked through. We evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each individual, enabling us to determine a personalised strategy for success.


Based on the initial evaluation, we work with our participants to bridge any gaps in knowledge and resources (from both a business and psychological perspective).


Routes to market and sales strategy are collectively mapped out to play to the strengths of each individual. The entrepreneurial experience of our program leaders provides our individuals with first class advice and planning.


Concept testing is an integral part of the Phoenix process. We work with our participants to test their business idea and strategy in order to prove their concept. This provides confidence to participants that they can succeed as an entrepreneur and will often result in their first sale.


Establishing an initial customer base is made easier when you’re part of a switched on network of like-minded entrepreneurs. Phoenix partners with trusted networking fellowship, Love Entrepreneurs where participants are asked to present challenges and be part of providing advice and solutions for one another. This gives participants a sense of belonging and acceptance in their new role as a business owner.


Phoenix is a community-led organisation. Between the program leaders and the wider group, there is rarely a problem we cannot find an imaginative solution to including funding.  A lot is possible on a shoestring including free websites, social media and neighbourhood marketing schemes. Phoenix is also partnered with Silvatree, a platform that enables businesses to purchase and sell goods and services at discounts of up to 95%, through using spare capacity.


A potent mix of lived experience and teaching expertise

Mark Neild - founder of Grow Inspires

Principal and Grow Inspires founder – Mark Neild

Mark has inspired and transformed the lives of thousands of entrepreneurs on the verge of poverty in Africa and Asia as well as delivering big impact for paying UK clients.  He is an award-winning mentor, author and innovation consultant, renowned in entrepreneurship nationally and internationally. He works with the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of Bristol – recently awarded the best enterprise education team in Higher Education when not running his business and Grow Inspires. Oh, and he is a keen sailor, former Naval Aviator and thoroughly nice chap.

Love Entrepreneurs co-founder – Eleri Haf-Cosslet

Cofounder of Phoenix, Eleri amassed a business worth £17M before losing it to fraud.  She is an ex-offender, who left prison with nothing but the statutory £43 pounds to her name.  She has managed to live on her wits, speak out and is creating a truly extraordinary business empire.  Her experiences inspired Phoenix because she found so little to help her when she came out.

Her passion for entrepreneurship is truly infectious.


Phoenix rose from the ashes of a chance meeting between Mark Neild, a leading innovator and change leadership coach and Eleri Haf Cosslett LLM, an international lawyer, polyglot, philanthropist but also someone with lived experience of the criminal justice system at its worst. Together, their chance meeting enabled both parties to understand that their stories and passions, albeit different in substance was united in theme; Mark helping and supporting survival entrepreneurs in sub-Saharan Africa and Eleri’s desire to support those who have entrepreneurial skills but who have been blighted by social exclusion, whether due to poverty, life circumstances or simply going to prison.

Eleri herself has enjoyed huge wealth achieved through innovation and entrepreneurial agility, spanning property and construction to trading with bartering systems and fin tech platforms, going to prison was both an eye opener and a blatant reminder that nothing, in spite of the best will in the world, had changed since Dickens. Prison was predominantly for poor people, a dumping ground for those who simply did not fit into mainstream society, a very unwelcome reminder of the infantilisation of women and the general acceptance that once a prisoner always a prisoner, with little or no recognition of individual talent or capability.

The lack of formative entrepreneurial education in prison shocked her to the core. The assistance on hand was very much aimed at great but simplistic business models, where for example, setting up or running  a mobile hairdressing salon or cleaning business as entrepreneurial, but for this to be the zenith of ambition lays bare the underlying assumption that anyone inside could never build a sustainable business employing others and making a meaningful contribution to society.  Unfortunately, this view was not confined to prison, it perpetuated and was heightened outside the gate with those hired by probation to assist “the fallen” simply not prepared to recognise that an ex-offender might actually have a “real” business brain and therefore be capable of running a sustainable business. Past careers or business experience appeared to count for little. Once a prisoner always a prisoner.

The similarities between the plight which befalls ex-offenders and essentially those who have not been provided with the same life opportunities seemed striking. The one underlying and unifying similarity appeared to be lack of belief that an ex-offender or a person who is “poor” through no fault of their own could possibly have and be just as effective as anyone without this lived experience.

So, we set about to challenge and change this perception, to see whether we could offer these people the same thing as is being offered to graduates at Bristol University taking the entrepreneurship and innovation model.  The focus is very much on ensuring that the business idea is ready to rock prior even releasing it on the public, both in terms of its development, its financing requirements and whether or not it is likely to succeed or not.


Why don’t the powers that be think we are worth rehabilitating?

This is the story of an ex-offender whose experiences of entrepreneurial education inside and on release were so bad that she created her own.

This question often crossed my mind sitting in my cell at Eastwood Park Women’s Prison pondering the pointlessness of the flower arranging course just offered to me by the head of education.  She thought it a boon and, I suppose, vote of thanks for my teaching 27 women to read. Yes, illiteracy in the female estate was 48% in 2015 – an astounding statistic, closer to the third world than a modern democratic heavy weight, as Great Britain purports to be.

As a serial entrepreneur of pedigree and intelligence caught up in the vortex of a pernicious drugs   narrative that took on a life of its own and mine with it, leaving me homeless and destitute, I was shocked how little formative entrepreneurial education there was in prison. You could consider running a mobile hairdressing salon or cleaning business as entrepreneurial, but for this to be the zenith of ambition lays bare the underlying assumption that anyone inside could never build a sustainable business employing others and making a meaningful contribution to society.  I thought that this view was confined to prison, that outside the gate things would change.  Alas no.  I enthusiastically showed my probation officer my business plan who arranged a meeting with a local agency engaged by probation to assist “the fallen”.  I sat through a two-hour lecture on why my exit strategy would not attract an investor, before the mentor capitulated, admitting that not only had he miscalculated the figures, but didn’t even understand them. Never did it occur to him that an ex-offender might have a business brain.

Fredericks Foundation were recommended by the Department of Work and Pensions Job Fayre.  Again, they told me that my business plan was too complicated. Unsaid but implied was that it was just too complicated for an ex-offender.

Soldiering on undeterred I managed to get myself on to the New Enterprise Allowance with the promise of funding at the end of the rainbow. But “computer says no” was the inevitable outcome despite the very competent assessment from my New Enterprise Allowance Coach.

I recalled a very bright yellow and orange GEL poster on my wing in prison promising jobs. Let’s face it anything is better than £73 a week. I approached them noting they had just received some £6 million from the MoJ to fund ex-offenders into enterprise and support them into self-employment. They told me that they only deal with simple businesses.

How do these people get away with misrepresentation on such a scale?  In subsequent dealings with MoJ it became clear that self-employment was not really a priority, and, in any event, it was covered by OLASS.  Weston College, the delivery partners at Eastwood Park did a marvellous job in my opinion. Their widely publicised service to help ex-offenders become self-employed taught me how to write my name and compose a CV, as well as reminding me that I ought to register my business with HMRC and for VAT.  VAT registration is a nice problem to have because it implies having revenues.  Yet none of the enterprise courses helps with the one thing small businesses need – getting paying customers.  A course completion certificate is not great currency for paying bills.

Society believes in rehabilitation.  The Ministry of Justice seems to believe in it too, yet all the service providers seem intent on preserving the “ex-offender” label in perpetuity.

I had met Mark Neild, a leading expert in the field of entrepreneurship, leadership and managing innovation. We often exchanged experiences and thoughts. Indeed, Mark kindly invited me to join him as a co-Trustee of his charity Grow Inspires, recently formed to help the socially excluded improve their life chances through entrepreneurship.  However due to emphatic objections from a fellow candidate, who it turned out contributed nothing but a headache to the formation of the charity, I was dropped. After hours of rigorous and often vocal debate about what offenders really needed we both concluded that it really was simple: “to be treated just like and given the same chances as any other people wanting to start up in business”.

They don’t want employability courses to teach them how to write a CV, neither do they need to be taught how to write a business plan, with no help with any of the activities needed to test the plan and turn it into reality. What people need is to be taught how to sell, write copy and pitch to raise finance, all on a shoestring.  Tutors need to understand how to motivate success and the mind-set of winners, and most importantly, something which Mark and his team specialise in, how to prove the business concept first before spending money.

Thus Phoenix rose from the ashes of empty promises and shattered dreams.

The Phoenix pilot gave hope and support to 10 ex-offenders using much the same approach as Mark uses with the brightest university students.  All grasped the concepts with ease and most struggled (in much the same way as students do) to apply them needing motivation and being held accountable for taking action.  The theory is the easy bit, which is why most courses don’t go any further.  As a newcomer to the criminal justice world, what really surprised Mark was the almost pathetic gratitude shown by participants for being treated as responsible human beings with grown up ambition.

If we are serious about rehabilitation why don’t we start by assuming that it is possible.

Co-written by Mark Neild and Eleri Haf Cosslett

Mark and Eleri co-run Project Phoenix and Love Entrepreneurs, a network for ambitious entrepreneurs focusing on innovation rather than improvement being the key to growth. The only requirement to joining in is the desire to set up a business.

Since leaving prison with £43, Eleri has founded Love Entrepreneurs (www.love-entrepreneurs.com); has set up McGuire Mitchell, (www.mcguiremitchell.com) a law firm with a new vision for legal services, being affordable, entrepreneurial and commercial and is an equity investor in Yewtrade (www.yewtrade.com) a tech platform specialising in enabling businesses to purchase goods and services from each other at discounts of up to 95% through using their spare capacity.


Our participants action speaks louder than words. Phoenix participants become more engaged and mentally prepared to get out and sell their products. The epiphany is the realisation that they are responsible, enabling us to coproduce a process designed around their unique circumstances that empowers their success. Here are few examples (names changed to protect privacy):

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When Ian could not get funding for his barbershop business, we set him a challenge to find a new idea that required less capital.  A year out of jail and working for a charity that helps combat substance abuse, he was very familiar with the challenges faced by reforming addicts.  We helped him set up a half-way house.  From pitching the idea to a housing company, through negotiating a partnership where the company funded the conversion costs in exchange for a share of higher future rental income to dealing with the necessary compliance and taking on an employee, we gave Ian the confidence and capability to see it through.  We showed him how to play to his own strengths, to consider his partners perspective and think through and plan for the things that might go wrong.


Gill is amazingly talented; dance coach, mountain climber, storyteller, she seemed able to turn her hand to anything until cancer stopped her in her tracks.  Unabashed, she fought through to remission helped by her own remedy made from chilli, but found herself overwhelmed with too many ideas, but not enough income.  Gill knew that she needed to focus; her difficulty was with where to start.  We helped her put a plan together to distribute her chilli sauce through as many outlets as our collective imagination allowed, setting stretching but achievable targets backed by an actionable plan.  She set to it with renewed sense of purpose, securing a stand in a local market and selling to delis.


Just 6 weeks out of prison, Chris was just starting to find his feet.  He had worked hard on his painting and decorating qualifications while inside and was now struggling through construction certification.  But he had more imagination than just to slap magnolia emulsion on the walls of new build homes, his daring designs were eye-catching; he just needed to find a customer that appreciated them.  We encouraged him to put together a Facebook page to showcase his talent and share it amongst people he knew; he was soon getting enquiries.  Our biggest gift to Chris was the confidence to live to his potential rather simply accepting what fate cast in his path.


Jane was a struggling in the world of work.  As a single mother with school age child, her working day as a carpenter was severely curtailed and most employers did not want to know – plenty of men had no such constraints.  We helped Jane sell her woodworking skills directly to customers.  We helped her identify the customers she most wanted and describe her offer to attract them.  She started advertising her services and soon found paying clients willing to offer testimonials and referrals to help her grow her business.  We have also helped her put together a free Google for Business site to further spread the word.  Jane had most of the skills, she was just struggling to deploy them.


To arrange a chat with one of our program leaders, send us a message.