Mark White, 36, is the founder of grassroots campaign Your Town, which aims to connect people to each other and to the places they live. Your Town started in his home town of Hoddesdon. Now five years later, Your Town is running in six towns with a series of spin-offs including Primary School Projects (#WeAreNext), Running and Walking communities and more.
Earlier this summer, global brand Red Bull chose Mark to take part in its first UK programme for social champions driving positive change in their part of the world. No wonder that major household names are wanting to get a piece of the action.
Hertfordshire LEP is proud of its association with Your Town. Here in this interview, communications intern Mia Bashford finds out what motivates Mark and what’s next for Your Town.
Your website states that the idea for Your Town started with an email you sent yourself back in 2011. Was this something that you had been thinking about for a while?
I started running back in 2011 to keep fit and to quit smoking. A friend of mine suggested that this might help us both to stay inspired and act as a motivator. Running unearthed a creative energy in me and helped me stay off the cigarettes. When I realised that all my runs were centred around the town centre in Hoddesdon - that was it, the idea was born! I emailed myself the suggestion to start ‘Give Your Town The Run Around’ later that same year. Following its success, I created Your Town to enable us to grow outside of the running space.
I went to a launch of the Economic Development Strategy in our borough and they were talking about town centre vibrancy, economic development, community engagement and fitness. I learnt that at that time, Hertfordshire had one of the highest rates in the South East for inactivity and childhood obesity. I approached them with my idea, realising that it tapped into everything they had spoken about.
Why is locality so important to you?
There’s no clear answer to that, a lot of it was Your Town forming itself over the years. We were essentially building a new model and the more it evolved the more locality played a central part in our mission.
As Your Town grew, I was educating myself in this nationwide chat about how town centres have changed. The narrative was that people felt disconnected locally and they were looking at how younger generations are engaged and who they are influenced by.
Cities get a lot of attention. Their strong branding enables them to exert a lot of influence. I wanted to get the message across that you don’t need to go to the bright lights of the city to find opportunities. There didn’t seem to be anything locally that was inspiring and energising. I wanted to create a brand that represents locality but with that excitement of the city.
Was there an element that you felt was missing in towns that Your Town would bring?
Your Town is very solution seeking. I was having conversations with local authorities, corporates, small SME’s as well as schools and colleges. This was a wide audience that harmoniously talked about inactivity, town centre vibrancy, childhood obesity and health and wellbeing.
Your Town wanted to positively tackle these issues with a solution and with a community ‘up mentality’. Also, being a father, I was passionate about getting involved and playing my part. Events like ‘Give Your Town The Run Around’ brought positive energy to towns and encouraged everybody from shops, sports clubs, businesses large and small and charities to get involved and do something that would benefit their local area. We wanted to demonstrate positively that we all have a responsibility to do something and come together.
Why did you choose to base your events around running?
Originally the fitness came from a personal place. I like to run and there were no running events that I could see locally. Fitness did lend itself well as a way to connect with others and generate an audience. To start and finish a run within a town was rare, which I thought would bring an exciting energy. It also allowed for a wider conversation to take place about who we are, the importance of fitness, well-being, both physically and mentally.
Fitness was an obvious place to start for me because I was immersed in it and I could see its benefits. Thanks to my healthier lifestyle, after taking up exercise and giving up smoking, my food choices changed. And, being a father, meant that I wanted to be a good role model for my children. Running just opened up a new world for me and I wanted to share that experience with others.
Who are your heroes? Was there one single influence behind Your Town?
The person who had a major influence on me was Bruce Lee. I just loved what he stood for, his open mindedness which I’m a big believer in, his forward way of thinking, his approach and willingness to adapt. I felt like what he put out there into the world was largely positive.
My wife and children have been a constant support. People label me an entrepreneur and I understand why but it can be perceived as a funky way of life and it isn’t. It has meant that my family have had to come on my journey with me. So to have their reassurance and for them to see the impact it’s having on people’s lives in their home town just spurs them on to spur me on.
What has the experience of creating Your Town taught you on both a personal and business level?
I’ve learnt not to give up, even on the most challenging of days. It is all about creating momentum, and seeing the impact of what we are doing on other people’s lives. This told me that I should trust this path.
Building Your Town has made me realise this is where I belong. I was in a sales environment before all of this started, I wasn’t unhappy but I didn’t thrive in it. Now I’ve learnt about this new world that excites me, makes me anxious and inspires me.
What are you aspiring to achieve?
I want Your Town to grow and create conversations around what we, as people, do and why we do it. How can we take responsibility? Who are we? Do we complain? Do we give more than we take? How do we talk about where we live? How do we talk about each other? Do we put people down? Do we rise them up? Do we talk about where we live in a demeaning way? Or do we say, yeah, it isn’t great but what can I do to make it a better place?
This is something that will take time, there will be no instant results but the conversations need to happen.
What is your vision for Your Town over the next decade?
Our mission is to connect more people to where they live. Currently we do this through physical activity as well as trialling co-working in our Hoddesdon office as an incubation space for new local businesses. We want to broaden this by setting up more co-working spaces in towns so businesses don’t have to go to the cities. Creating places for people to stay overnight, a bit like Airbnb, so it’s about building a new local model that will regenerate the use of towns. I want Your Town to be involved in the education space which is something I’m really passionate about. Creating conversations around how we behave and what sparks our creativity and imagination.
Congratulations on being the first person in the UK to take part in the Red Bull Amaphiko programme. With Red Bull being such an international brand and with locality being so important to Your Town, how do you plan to work with them to keep your vision and values central?
This programme is for social entrepreneurs and despite being a global brand they want to nurture what makes your business work. For Your Town it’s locality. Red Bull is giving people who already have established ideas a chance. Ultimately, Red Bull is a springboard to share our mission, who we are and our intentions.
I didn’t go to university, I became a dad quite early and I went straight into the sales environment. Your Town has allowed me to explore my creativity and capabilities. and I am extremely pleased with what we have created. Now, with Red Bull’s support, I’m curious to explore where this could take me.
Do you think Your Town has had a personal impact?
Yes, I believe that’s the true intention. Human connection is where the real power is. We want to give people opportunities to connect and find out about themselves and guide them in certain ways, consciously and unconsciously. I have some incredible stories. A lady called Jo who suffers from anxiety and depression initially joined our walking group and then took part in the running events and became a big part of what we do. It’s had a huge impact on her confidence, outlook and self-belief and to have played a part in that is great.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone who wants to give something back to their local community?
Just go for it. If you’ve got an idea and you want to do good in the world, it’s not a bad place to start. I’ve always kept these three things close to me which are:
- to be honest
- to be humble
- to be willing
Mia Bashford, August 2019
Mia conducted this interview while on a summer internship programme at Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership. The LEP sponsored Your Town in 2019 when Mark embarked on his biggest community challenge yet, to run across Hertfordshire connecting towns and communities.