Changemakers: Turly Humphreys’ streetwear stores help young people into work

Circle Collective in London tackles confidence issues and lack of experience to break down the barriers to employment for under 30s

Circle Collective is about more than hoodies, trainers and bags. The skate and streetwear stores, based in London’s Dalston and Lewisham, were created by Turly Humphreys to help young people break down the barriers keeping them from work. From CV coaching to confidence-building, the support received by young people in her Big Issue Invest-backed stores goes well beyond the shop floor – and helps an impressive 76 per cent of them into successful working lives.

Originally from Bedford, Humphreys forged a career in commercial business and franchising. But there was something missing. “You just get disillusioned,” the 59-year-old explains. “I wanted to make a difference, and I’ve always had a passion for seeing young people reach their potential, regardless of their circumstances.”

She was also tired of mistruths she heard peddled about young people. “They say young people just don’t want to work. Maybe that they’re lazy. It’s nothing like that.” Last year it was estimated that across the UK there were nearly 800,000 16 to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training (more than 11 per cent of all people in this age group).

“Some have mental health problems or huge confidence issues,” Humphreys continues. “Loads just don’t have the money to even get to a job interview. And it’s more difficult than ever to get a job without work experience nowadays – which you can’t get without a job. They’re receiving no support from the government.”

In 2010, Humphreys found herself at the helm of a local charity shop and was struck by an idea. She went to her nearest job centre and asked for nine young people to come on board as staff. The project grew into Circle Collective.

“It wasn’t a quick growth,” Humphreys says. “I don’t believe it should be if you want to create something stable and develop a really strong business.” But now, one store has become two; an initial nine young people have become 400 overall; and the team reckons it generates £4.66 of social value from every £1 it spends, with 76 per cent of its graduates going on to steady jobs. 

“Some people might be with us for a week, some might be around for six months,” the founder explains. “Everything we do is tailored to them.” The stores sell all the most popular skate and streetwear brands like Nike, Vans and Dickie, with bold window displays to get people through the door to shop and support the social enterprise’s mission.

Whether referred through services like mental health charity Mind or accepted after applying themselves, 16 to 24-year-olds (Lewisham) and 18 to 30- year-olds (Dalston) involved with Circle Collective do two four-hour shifts a week. Nearly half of the people who go to the social enterprise have no work experience at all before heading out to the shop floor.

Most are quick to treat it as seriously as they would a job, Humphreys points out. They learn in-work skills like using a till, visual merchandising, and customer service (“Lots of them come to us without the confidence to speak to anyone outside their peer group,” says Humphreys). But behind the scenes, the Get Employed programme offers one-to-one mentoring, interview practice, employability and confidence-building workshops, personal finance lessons and employee rights classes plus regular opportunities to meet employers. The coaching prepares them for entry-level jobs across all sectors, not just retail.

The founder and CEO brought her business skills to the project, and as a result Circle Collective formed unlikely partnerships with companies like property developer and Lewisham shopping centre owner Landsec, which has supported the programme “amazingly, much more passionately than you can usually expect from a big corporation,” Humphreys says. It is one of several companies that offer Circle Collective candidates entry-level jobs. The company has also contributed funding for training courses, talks by their staff on job opportunities and free retail space to the social enterprise. 

They say young people just don’t want to work. Maybe that they’re lazy. It’s nothing like that

Consumer credit company Experian provides credit rating training days, which Humphreys raves about: “They make a dry subject so engaging,” she says. “They put it in real terms. These young people learn that if they mess about with their phone contract now, they might not be able to buy a car further down the line. I think a lot of us would benefit from those lessons as we enter the world of work.”

The Circle Collective team is working on holding more events and exhibitions in their stores, looking to create a community space as well as supporting young independent artists. Humphreys, who is Entrepreneur in Residence for London College of Fashion, is leading the development of Circle Collective’s own-brand range, which will offer the opportunity for young creatives to see their work on clothes and will be produced by women at Downview Prison.

Humphreys explains: “The young people and the women – their problems are rooted in similar issues. Now the young people care about the women currently in prison, the women care about the young people succeeding, it’s a really beneficial project.” The clothing line is set to launch in September.

“All of this… It is extremely rewarding. Challenging too, of course,” says Humphreys. “But hearing from a young person that they have the confidence to go out and speak to anyone now – something as small as that is all you need to hear.”