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The barefoot entrepreneur behind Norwich Mustard

Known as the Barefoot Entrepreneur, Robert Ashton has spent 2018 bringing a community-owned mustard company into existence.  It is the latest in a long line of Norfolk initiatives that this Wymondham-based Quaker has helped to make happen. Jenny Seal reports.

Social entrepreneur and Norwich Quaker, Robert Ashton has a gift. He can see things as they could be and knows how to push and shove to make those things happen.  When combined with his commitment to Quaker principles, it is a powerful gift for good.

Some 15 years ago, Robert became disillusioned running his own marketing agency, and decided to focus on social impact and enterprise instead.  He set up office at his home, a two-acre farm near Wymondham, which he shares with his wife Belinda. 

From there he has written 19 books and been instrumental in birthing positive initiatives such as the Norfolk Community Foundation, the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford and Swarm Apprenticeships. 

He became a Quaker a few years ago, but his life and work have always been directed by Quaker values. Calling himself the ‘Barefoot Entrepreneur’ he seeks to bring change with sensitivity and gentleness.

Now 63, his latest project is Norwich Mustard. Since January, when Unilever announced that Colman’s was leaving Norwich, Robert has been on a quest to create a community-owned mustard company to replace it.

It started with a 90-second video of Robert, sat on his prized 1964 Fordson tractor, speaking to camera. “Rather than complaining about it, rather than throwing rocks at Unilever, I said ‘why don’t we create a community-owned mustard company to replace it?’ 5,000 people watched the video over a weekend.  It was amazing,” he said.

After a successful crowdfunding campaign and match funding from the Lottery-funded Power to Change programme, Norwich Mustard launched a pilot batch of mustard for Norfolk Day.  The 600 jars sold out over a weekend in July at a pop-up shop in House of Fraser.

The second batch, 200 kilos of wholegrain Norwich Mustard, has now been produced and the jars will be filled and labelled by inmates of Norwich Prison. The jars will be distributed by local company Crush Foods to retailers across the eastern region and London for Christmas.

The plan going forward is that Norwich Mustard, in a variety of flavours (one with local brewery Redwells), will be made in HMP Norwich once funding becomes available for equipment.  “And as we make money,” he explains, “we will put money in a fund to support these guys when they come out of prison.” The fund will be there for ex-offenders to take up training, education and other needs to help them succeed outside prison. 

Norwich Mustard will also set up a Heritage Centre in one of the disused medieval churches in the city, charting the history of mustard production in Norwich.  The centre, whenever possible, will employ former prisoners. 

In January 2019, just a year on from its inception, Norwich Mustard will offer the public the opportunity to buy community shares eligible for tax relief and membership benefits. 

“People will get rewarded with mustard and stuff,” said Robert. “And then when we open the Heritage Centre, hopefully at Easter, people will be able to have a sense of ownership that this is our place, it belongs to us. And we’ll have member discounts in the café so you can enjoy a Norwich Mustard sausage roll and a coffee!”

“So it’s all falling into place actually quite interestingly,” he observes in his modest, laid back manner. “There is that concept that if you set out to do the right thing for the right reasons, the right thing happens.”

Norwich Mustard has now hired a CEO with funding from the Virgin Money Foundation so Robert can take a step back and no doubt focus on another venture before starting a full-time Masters in Creative Non-Fiction at UEA next year. “I never look back at what I’ve done and think that’s fantastic. I always look at what needs to happen next,” he said.

He is also involved in setting up a community shop, the Walled Garden, in Little Plumstead. As well as providing the village with a much-needed local shop, the driving force for Robert is that it will also create work experience opportunities for people detained in the neighbouring medium secure unit, the Broadland Clinic.  During September and October the initiative raised £21,000 in a community share offer. With grants and sponsorship it is likely to open for business late next year.

“I guess I’m quite good at seeing things that could be,” he said. “So many people just see what’s there and if it isn’t there they can’t see it and don’t get it but I can very clearly see what could be.”

Robert, who appeared on the front of MENSA magazine last year, didn’t fit with the education system.  “I failed my eleven plus largely on purpose,” he said. “I ricocheted around the secondary education system and didn’t do any good at all. I was the classic bright kid who didn’t fit in the system. Ever since that I’ve been around equality of opportunity. So finding people who are different but excluded because of their difference and putting them right in the centre, that’s important to me.”

Although he always looks to the next project it is clear that history and a sense of place is profoundly important to Robert, especially in relation to his faith. 

When talking about Norwich Mustard he points to Norwich Quaker and social reformer Elizabeth Fry as his inspiration for taking the enterprise into prison. He was also struck by the historical link to Joseph Rowntree at the launch of Norwich Mustard. 

“On Norfolk Day we launched on the site of Rowntrees,” he said. “It just struck me that here am I standing, as a 21st century Quaker, launching a business to the public on the site where an 18th century Quaker made chocolate.  It somehow seemed to be appropriate.” 

It was this interest in history and its connection to the present which led Robert to Quakerism a few years ago. His primary school headmistress, Florence Evans, was a Quaker and her commitment to including those at the margins had a lasting impression on him.  “She wasn’t overtly a Quaker evangelist, because they don’t exist,” he said.  “But her gentleness and commitment to equality of opportunity has stayed with me.”   
Then, three years ago, he went to visit Ironbridge in Shropshire and happened to visit the house of 17th century innovator and Quaker Abraham Darby.  The tour guide mentioned that the Telford Quakers met there once a month. “It made it real that they should meet there. And then I sort of felt compelled to find a meeting locally.”

 “So I went to Norwich [Quaker Meeting House], because Norwich is a large meeting and because the building is built by the Gurney family, who my grandmother’s family worked for back into the mists of time. I just went there one Sunday morning; diffidently walked in and I’ve been there ever since. It just fitted me like a glove. I don’t believe in being on the fence. I’m either in or out.”

He clearly enjoys the non-traditional approach of Quakerism with its lack of doctrine, as well as its values of equality, peace, simplicity and truth.
“I love that Quakers don’t make any assumptions about who or what God is,” he said. “We keep looking.

“When I say I’m a social entrepreneur, I’m a writer and I’m a Quaker, people now get it and understand that’s why I do what I do.”


Pictured above is Robert Ashton with jars of Norwich Mustard.

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