Living on the Edge
How a Microsoft apprenticeship helped a former gang member turn his back on the streets
“School was the light and the streets were dark. When I got expelled at 15, I didn’t see a future for myself except for violence, drugs and gangs. My role models were the guys on the streets, the guys selling drugs, the guys stabbing people, the guys involved in crime. They became my father figures.”
Joshua Uwadiae believes he was a reflection of everything he saw around him, forced to adopt a “dog-eat-dog” mentality in order to survive growing up in a rough area of East London.
During those dark days, what he needed was a positive influence, someone to show him a different path in life, someone like the 24-year-old Joshua Uwadiae who is now sitting in the office of the company he founded.
WeGym, a website that connects people who want to exercise with affordable personal trainers, is the result of years of hard work by Uwadiae on a Microsoft partner apprenticeship scheme and in the IT sector, coupled with the self-belief to take the leap into becoming an entrepreneur.
“I wouldn’t have been introduced to entrepreneurship without Microsoft in my world. I owe a lot to the experience. It had a massive impact,” he said.
The strong mentality and confidence that could have got him killed him on the streets helped him build a business and possibly saved his life.
In an office near Brick Lane, in east London, Uwadiae welcomes me with a huge smile and an even bigger handshake. He is relaxed, confident and likeable. It’s hard to imagine him as an angry young man, getting into fights and being shot at.
He turned away from the streets after being extorted for money; and decided to go to college in Clapton to study a BTEC in IT. Uwadiae was walking through the Brooke House Sixth Form College campus one day when he noticed a poster asking students to apply for the Microsoft Apprenticeship. It was a perfect way to start his new life.
“I was in a positive place. I was around people who were positive and wanted to do something with their life,” he said. “At the end of the first year of college someone mentioned university and I didn’t want to go and do more education, even though my mum wanted me to go. I wanted a job and to start earning money. I saw a poster for the Microsoft Partner Apprenticeship on a wall one day and towards the end of my second year I applied for it.”
A Microsoft Partner Apprenticeship offers young people across the UK the opportunity to combine hands-on work experience within one of the company’s partner businesses, gaining vital Microsoft certifications at the same time. Around 20,000 young people have been snapped up by thousands of businesses since the scheme was launched in 2010.
Uwadiae wasn’t an apprentice for long before recruiters began contacting him on LinkedIn offering jobs with £12,000 salaries – “I thought ‘Oh my God, £12k!’”. The offers turned his head, and the 17-year-old was tempted to quit the Microsoft Apprenticeship.
“My mum said I needed to learn to finish what I start, so I stuck with it,” he remembers.
As part of the partner apprenticeship, Uwadiae was placed in the IT department of Ecourier, a 60-person courier service based in London. He worked full-time but spent three weeks training and sitting exams every two months. During those training breaks, Uwadiae learnt new skills and ways of working that he would take back to Ecourier and introduce, a “cause and effect” that made him want to learn more because he was seeing the direct value in it.
Every year, Microsoft awards a prize to the apprentice who has had the most impact over the previous 12 months. Uwadiae’s strong mentality came to the fore once again.
“I was obsessed with the Microsoft apprentice of the year,” he said. “It was one of the reasons I applied to the scheme. I saw all the names of the people who had won and I wanted to win it, too.
“In the end, I finished as runner-up, but it meant I went to the House of Commons for the award ceremony. They called my name and I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘I’m a street kid from Hackney, what am I doing here? I’m in the House of Commons with all these fancy people.’ Your identity is shaped by those moments; you realise that these things can happen. ‘It’s possible’ suddenly becomes a concept in your mind.
“I learnt a lot of key lessons, like putting yourself out there. No one in my cohort thought I would get close to winning the apprentice of the year. That taught me a big lesson about not listening to the crowds and doing what you think is right.”
At the end of the partner apprenticeship, Uwadiae became a Microsoft Certified Professional, which proved to employers that he was an IT expert. But the experience did more than give him qualifications; he admits it helped shape him into the person he is today.
“I was so excited to be at work, wearing a shirt and tie and a blazer,” he said. “I loved it at Ecourier and was so excited to have a job. It was a big moment for me. My job was to find and fix and improve Ecourier’s IT systems.”
Uwadiae’s ambition and confidence in his own abilities meant he thrived at Ecourier, and his year-long partner apprenticeship turned into a permanent role as a systems administrator, looking after servers and networks and managing infrastructure.
Eight months later his boss left and the now 20-year-old Uwadiae became head of IT.
Uwadiae was young, ambitious, had a job he loved and was well-liked at Ecourier. Finally, everything seemed to be coming together for him.
Then he quit his job.
“I wanted to know whether I was successful because of me or because of the company I was at. Could I do it again in a different place? I also had a growing interest in consumer technology and was becoming more enthusiastic about that,” Uwadiae says.
“A lady from Microsoft Philanthropies had a big influence on me. She said: ‘You’re somebody who likes to be challenged’. I internalised that comment deeply, and I asked myself: ‘Am I challenged by my work?’ I decided I wasn’t. I was 20, I was paid well, I had progressed really fast and I had worked for it, but I wasn’t challenged by it anymore. I wasn’t being pushed to the edge of my abilities and that bugged me.
“I started to be attracted to high risk and high reward. I wanted something I had to work really hard for that would either pay off or wouldn’t.”
Uwadiae flew to Brussels for a Microsoft conference that focused on education, entrepreneurship and computer science. While he was there, he met a group of entrepreneurs – “I didn’t know what entrepreneurship was at that point” – and was stunned to hear teenagers talk about the businesses they had set up.
“I said: ‘What? You’re 19 and you’re working on a business? What does that mean?’ It was a paradigm shift. I thought it was amazing and wanted to do something like that.”
Uwadiae followed that up with a trip to another event, this time at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington. He met a Microsoft employee who introduced him to Zak Malamed, the founder of online blog Student Voices, who invited Uwadiae to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.
Once he got back to the UK, his ideas for a business started to grow. Once again, Uwadiae was influenced by his surroundings.
“One of my best friends had started a business and was telling me about his ideas; he was so passionate and excited. Setting up a company was influenced by who I was surrounded by, the feeling of wanting to do more and a whole chunk of Microsoft’s ecosystem.”
Leaving Ecourier was certainly a risky move. More than half of new businesses don’t survive beyond five years, according to research from British commercial insurer RSA.
Despite the statistics, WeGym was incorporated in 2015 on Uwadiae’s birthday. Instead of celebrating with a few drinks, the young entrepreneur was in a London coffee shop with a laptop, making his dream of starting a business a reality.
People sign up to the website and are paired with a personal trainer, who draws up a workout plan specific to that user. They can exercise together whenever and wherever it’s convenient – from a park to your own home. Group sessions start from £23, while a one-to-one session costs £35, which the company claims is 56% cheaper than the average cost of a personal trainer in London. WeGym also offers nutritional support such as bespoke meal plans.
A lot of WeGym’s users are women, who are uncomfortable working out in front of a group of men, and find that the app is a perfect way to help them stay fit.
“Our main users were women and they said the guys at their gym were pervs or muscly and intimidating; or it was a scary concept – what should be like going to a doctor is more like trying to work out in front of the strongest guy in class,” Uwadiae says.
Three people turned up to WeGym’s first group session, which was led by a friend of Uwadiae, and two went to the next one. His new business was up and running.
In the months that followed, Uwadiae taught himself to code so he could improve the website during the day. At night he would sneak around London in a hoodie to put up posters advertising WeGym, which would get ripped down again the next morning.
“I would put up posters for three or four hours until 2am or 3am, go home, sleep, get up at 8am and take bookings. We got five or six customers the first time I did it, then 10 after the next one.
“We have the opportunity to change the narrative around who can access a personal trainer and what the product of a personal trainer is. We’ve democratised it in a small way, for a small subset of people.
“About 57% of people who have used WeGym have never had a personal trainer before, so we are opening up that addressable market. We’ve now got 10 trainers and hold up to 600 sessions a month, and we’re growing our revenue – all with a team of two.”
Uwadiae has learned that “business is hard” but he’s also used to handling tough situations. The streets taught him that when he was a teenager.
He was born in Tottenham and moved to Hackney when he was around eight years old. It was a “rough place”, he admits, where being bullied and robbed was normal.
Uwadiae vowed to never be a victim, and began to get into fights at school.
“You’re so relentlessly defensive, because you’re hurting and being picked on. You’ve got barriers and so much intensity, because you’re broken. I had some anger issues too. I went through secondary school, fighting and getting into trouble. It’s the spirit of Hackney, in a way: the bad boys are cool, so you end up adopting the posture of a bad boy, for no other reason than it’s the spirit of the area you grow up in. It’s what you see around you, what the music is saying – drugs and gangs. So you’re influenced. There’s 30 kids, and we’re all the same. We are all living with our egos on our sleeves; and if someone troubles you, you’ve got to defend yourself. You’ve got all this, this cooking pot. Then you get older, and things get worse and worse.”
Uwadiae believes he was no different from the thousands of other wannabe gangsters whose lives are intertwined with the streets of the capital. A report from the Mayor of London in 2014 estimated that there were 224 known gangs in the capital, comprising of 3,495 individuals – 97.8% of whom were male.
When one of Uwadiae’s friends was beaten up, they retaliated. The tit-for-tat violence resulted in another member of their gang being stabbed in the leg at a party. Uwadiae suddenly didn’t feel safe unless he was carrying a knife.
“Your character changes, you’re more rebellious, more of an individual, less likely to listen. You’re just an outlaw. There were moments I wondered what I was into. One day one of the older gang members came to our estate with a knife and started stabbing people, shouting: ‘Everyone’s got to learn they have to be invincible.’ Or you get shot at, which happened once or twice.”
The “really dark” situation he found himself in resulted in expulsion from school at 15. After that, Uwadiae “pressed the button”.
“Teachers told me I would end up in prison and that I wouldn’t amount to anything unless I stopped. There was a downward spiral that was happening,” he says.
Ironically, violence had pulled him into the life of a gangster, and it was violence that was to pull him out again. Uwadiae hit someone with a bottle and robbed them. The victim’s brother got involved and demanded money, which Uwadiae handed over. He admits it could have been a lot worse.
“I was scared straight,” he says.
His sister was involved in the local church and, not wanting to go back to the streets, Uwadiae joined her. “I changed. I had joined a loving community of people who cared about me. That was radically different from the cold and hard street life, where no one really cares about you. I was as obsessed with the church as I was with the streets.”
He admits to not being a religious person but at that time he believed there was a God, who set him on the right path. Soon after, he went back to college and by chance saw that Microsoft partner apprenticeship poster.
“I was lucky I found a way out. I was never stabbed or shot, and the scar tissue from the streets is what makes it really hard to leave that life. I feel like l have lived three lives.”