Hackney People: Claire Martin

The co-founder of social enterprise Mill Co. Project talks about giving back to the community

CLAIRE Martin, who together with business partner and friend Nick Hartwright co-founded the Hackney-based social enterprise Mill Co. Project, is telling me about the all-important ‘Co’ in its name. “It stands for co-operation, not company,” she explains.

The distinction may seem trivial but, in fact, it is central to what they do. “I grew up in Rochdale, the very first successful co-operative model was created there,” says Claire.

The derelict cotton mills of her childhood stayed with her, symbols she says of ‘community and hard work’. At 15, she was working in a local trainer shop when she met Liz Birkbeck, with whom she would go on to found Mill Co, a co-operatively inspired creative agency.

The pair remained close friends, though their professional lives took them far away from the shop and into what Claire calls ‘the London rat race’. Adding: “I was working as a PR and marketing manager for Wrangler, but I was getting more and more disillusioned. I was working long hours, commuting back and forth from Hackney to the West End … I felt like there had to be more to life.”

So in 2008, she made the decision to quit and trained as a yoga teacher. Claire says: “I took a course, travelled around Mexico and Central America and realised I couldn’t go back to that life. I’d been chatting to Liz for years about all these amazing freelancers we knew who were fantastic at producing creative work, but less effective at organizing the business side of things and profiting from their creativity. I thought: wouldn’t it be great to bring them together through a co-operative agency that supports them?”

She was inspired to found Mill Co, returning to London to set it up with Birkbeck in 2009. Birkbeck left to pursue other projects and, in 2010, Martin and Hartwright launched the organisation’s other half: the Mill Co. Project. It is predominantly an organisation that provides accessible work space for the creative sector.

By the time Hackney Council moved its archives out of the Rose Lipman Building in De Beauvoir, in 2012, demand for the project’s services was rocketing, with requests from illustrators and photographers, film-makers and writers. Claire says: “Collaborating with the council and moving into the building has meant we can provide studio and event spaces to local people at below the market rate.”

She adds: “Every project we work on, every person who is involved is expected to give something back to the community. It’s central to what we do.” 

The building also houses a community hall/theatre, rehearsal space, studios, and event space, and the project has graduated to working with the major players in the UK’s cultural scene.

But whether they are collaborating with the Barbican or the Royal Court Theatre, Martin and Hartwright ensure that free tickets are made available to the local community. 

In 2013, Royal Court directors ran free workshops in acting and scriptwriting for young De Beauvoir residents, and tech education organisation General Assembly puts on monthly talks for local people. Artists mentor young people on subjects from performing arts to multi-media, through a scheme called Arts Awards. Children’s dance workshops are free to Hackney Homes residents, and there is a broad range of events and workshops on offer that are open to all. 

Local charities also have space in the building. The youth carnival group Tropical Isles is based there and benefits from the same spirit of collaboration that its creative professionals value, with some members finding work experience at top fashion companies.

Future plans include more studio spaces and a store selling products made by the Mill Co. Project collective. 

Claire says: “That’s what the Mill Co. Project is all about: supporting each other and bringing brilliant people of all sorts together to everyone’s benefit. 

“We’ve grown so fast that we now have eight buildings across London. But Hackney’s our home, it’s where we started and where we hope to stay.”

By Harriet Worsley