“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle I no longer despair for the future of the human race” – H.G. Wells, 1866-1946
XO Bikes is not a business with a purpose it is a purpose with a business. The purpose is, like that of Offploy to break the cycle of re-offending, and it’s the first business from the charity Onwards & Upwards which creates businesses specifically to employ prison leavers and young people on a path likely to end in prison. XO Bikes trains people to repair and maintain bicycles and then employs them as full time mechanics, refurbishing donated bikes. They also work with the Bicycle Association to find opportunities in the industry for those it is unable to employ.
Profits from sales are redistributed by the charity, as with all of its start-ups, which are expected to be both profitable and scalable. Profitable in order to fund the training courses, vital pastoral support (education, legal advice, mental health etc.) and core staff costs. Scalable to create opportunities for prison leavers across the UK.
The brainchild of Stef Jones, a Durham University Geography graduate who spent 30 years in advertising before partnering with another experienced business leader, Rob Love, Onwards and Upwards became a UK registered charity in 2021. While it relies on donations, sponsorship and corporate partnerships, the intention is that it will be self-funding by the end of 2023, as a result of the trading activity of its own sustainable trading businesses. XO Bikes, its first business, was set up in 2022 with £140,000 raised from family and friends. This has been used to purchase equipment and provide the mechanic training workshops that equip the participants with the manual skills they need. Many of the bikes on which they learn are lost or stolen bikes donated by London’s Metropolitan Police Service. Once they have been refurbished they are then sold, and the profits are returned to the charity. The idea is to create brand fame through strong marketing in order to drive consumer choice, achieve a price premium, and importantly, tell the story of the staff. “We’re in business to rebuild lives. We just happen to do it by refurbishing bikes”, says Stef.
The mission of XO Bikes is to bring employment rates up and reoffending rates down. In the U.K., re-offending costs £18 billion a year but, as Stef recognises, it also causes suffering, not just for the victims, but for families and communities. If it can be reduced, both society and the economy will benefit. But it is a huge task on both fronts, so XO Bikes has to demonstrate to employers that it makes good business sense to employ ex-offenders, thereby changing employer behaviour, and consumer perception and prejudice. Meanwhile, having completed a successful proof of concept in June 2022, XO Bikes intends to train 400 new mechanics every year, and to employ 150 of them within 5 years.
Stef’s motivation stems from his faith and his experience as a volunteer business mentor in HMP Brixton in London. Here he discovered, in his words, that most prisoners “aren’t bad people, they’ve just done some bad things. But haven’t we all?”. In order to ensure XO Bikes achieves its objectives, and help ex-offenders gain “employment, opportunity, purpose and hope”, he has created the “Gang4Good” (G4G), a team of senior, ex gang members from across London who share his vision and passion to break the cycle and help transform lives. G4G, with all their lived experience, act as a steering committee, sense-checking and advising on all O&U initiatives. Also he has formed partnerships with leading commercial organisations such as Wates Construction, Squires Locks, Vanarama Microsoft, Vodafone etc., who support Onwards & Upwards in its mission of “freeing ex-offenders, their families, communities and wider society from the cycle of re-offending”.
XO Bikes is very much people oriented and although it does not address environmental issues directly it does so indirectly by encouraging the use of non-motorised transport and recycling many bikes that, in the traditional linear production-consumption model, would otherwise be scrapped. It is a circular economy sustainable enterprise that addresses, directly, SDGs 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 10 (Reduced Inequalities), 1 (No Poverty), 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities) and 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production) as well as 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). Indirectly, also, it contributes to SDGs 3 (Good Health and Well-being), 13 (Climate Action), and 15 (Life on Land). While recognising the importance of “making as much money as possible” XO Bikes does not do so at the expense of people and planet. Rather, it ensures that profit, planet and people are in Harmony with each other.
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Early days for a great concept – training and giving ex-offenders an opportunity to turn their lives around. Society has let many young people down and anything that can be done to address the challenges and pressures has to be commended. Good luck to the team which has a similar ethos to Timpsons, the shoe repairers, who have always been committed to giving people a second chance.