Mo Isap: Creating a level playing field

While politicians talk about levelling up, Mo Isap is busy getting on with it.

The Blackburn entrepreneur is a man on a mission, to open up opportunities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and deprived communities – giving them access to the education and skills that will fast track them into technology careers.

His IN4 Group is operating at pace on multiple fronts, from delivering digital skills to individuals to working with Lancashire businesses to give them the confidence to adopt the new technologies that will give them the cutting edge and create job opportunities.

Mo talks with passion about technology, skills, education and employability, and the need to bring all those together for the benefit of communities that in many ways have been left behind.

He says: “Our mantra is fair access to everyone. This is our mission, and we are on a mission. To have a solid economy in places in Lancashire like Blackburn and Burnley and Accrington there has to be that fair access and it is still not there.”

His approach to changing that is through a “blueprint” that sees innovation, skills and start up activity all working together to drive prosperity.

The business is developing successful partnerships with academic institutions, including the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and Lancaster University, as well as blue chip companies such as BAE Systems and major government departments like GCHQ

I grew up in a place where a lot of the education system was not set up to give us opportunity

£1.2m from the Department for Education, one of the largest providers to deliver its ‘Skills Bootcamps’. The cash is giving 450 people fair access to digital skills training, breaking down the barriers faced by those from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Mo recalls the story of just one of those people, a father who was unable to take advantage of his degree in the early 90s and became a taxi driver because he had to “put food on the table”. He is now set for a new career with a Lancashire tech business and Mo says: “He told us he just wanted to make his son proud.”

Its ‘Skills City’ bootcamps are looking to help address gender inequality in the sector: Currently, 43 per cent of those attending are women. There is a drive to attract more females from ethnic minority backgrounds and IN4 Group is aiming for 50 per cent of skills bootcamps attendees to be women.

IN4 Group is also working with Silicon Valley-based tech giant Unity, the largest game development platform in the world, to help more people in the North West forge careers in the massively growing gaming and immersive technology industry. Again, much of the focus is on giving people from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to shine.

Mo believes this is a sector which offers massive opportunities for young people in Lancashire and is urging the county to take full advantage of it. His organisation is developing a blueprint for esports academies across the North West.

He says: “If we don’t move on this, someone else will. It’s a whole new economy, a massive new industry. It’s a creative sector and that is what Lancashire is all about.”

IN4 operates the HOST innovation hub at Media City and in an initiative with GCHQ is offering emerging businesses access to the intelligence and security organisation’s tech skills knowledge in fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The business is also set to work with the new National Cyber Force in Samlesbury, looking to establish further innovation and skills as part of the emerging northern cyber corridor. Mo sees cyber as a “key enabler” in creating prosperity in Lancashire.

He says that in all this activity IN4 is “bridging the gap” between industry and education. When it comes to working with SMEs, its aim is to help them identify key areas where digitilisation is going to have “its biggest impacts.” In the past 12 months it has worked with more than 500 of them across the North West.

He explains: “We are taking them on a journey, to develop the understanding and then to move to concept. If businesses understand it, they will have the confidence to start to engage with it. It’s breaking down the barriers.”

Breaking down barriers is what Mo does. His commitment to ‘fair access’ to education and skills goes beyond the business world. He is also a founding director and vice chair of Star Academies, a multi academy educational trust that began life in a terraced house in Blackburn and has become one of the country’s leading state school providers.

It continues to open opportunities for young people and has recently signed a landmark partnership agreement with Eton. Located in the Midlands and North of England, colleges will fast-track young people - often from deprived communities - to the most academic UK universities.

Mo, who still lives in Blackburn and is chair of the trust’s Tauheedul Islam Boys’ High School, highlights the importance of access to education if there is to be real levelling up.

He says: “My dad was a teacher in India, he gave all of that up for us and came here to work in a textile factory as a machine operator. He never saw his parents again.

“I grew up in a place where a lot of the education system was not set up to give us opportunity.”

Mo says his parents instilled a “reverence for education” and adds: “For me it was always understanding that there is more and, by luck more than anything else, I got through that stage. Many of my friends didn’t and their lives went a certain way, like it does for so many.

“That is the reason why I’ve been so involved In Star Academies. We knew the education system wasn’t giving the best aspirational education that everyone deserved.”

Our conversation is taking place in the new Engineering Innovation Centre on the UCLan campus in Preston city centre. Mo says there is a need to create a way to get young people from all backgrounds to see value in places like this.

Mo has a degree in accounting and finance but soon realised that profession wasn’t for him. His career as an entrepreneur began after university when he joined a digital printing operation in Manchester in the mid-90s.

Mo went on the own the business, scaling up before selling it and moving on to develop a company that went on to become one of the leading 3D printing and laser scanning operations in the UK, in the architecture and the built environment field.

He also found time to create several joint venture tech spin outs with universities in the region. The 47-year-old says his approach to business is simple: “I say to all entrepreneurs, find the fulfilment in what you do. It is not just about the contracts you can win; it is the fulfilment, the joy of making a difference.”

Today IN4 Group has grown to an organisation that has a 50-strong team and has achieved revenues approaching £5m this year. He talks with enthusiasm about its future development and growth in towns and second cities in their regions, places like Preston and Salford, and further afield Coventry.

He says: “We operate in cities and towns where the levelling up agenda is being talked about. We are actively doing it on the ground and showing how it’s done.”

Warming to the theme, he wants Lancashire to stop thinking of Manchester as “the enemy” and to start thinking about what the county can bring to the table as a “key partner”.

Mo adds: “We have to work collaboratively as a region. Lancashire needs to be sure in its identity and confident in what it can provide. That’s why I started the business - the confidence and belief that things can happen here.”

  • To read this feature in full and access further Lancashire business news, advice and analysis subscribe to Lancashire Business View magazine or join the LBV Hub from just £2.50 per month. Click here to subscribe now.