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Becoming a social entrepreneur

Trina Wallace

A man holds a globe in his hand

Social enterprises are businesses with social or environmental agendas. It is a movement the government has been keen to encourage. Trina Wallace speaks to two social entrepreneurs about this growing sector

The terms ‘social entrepreneur’ and ‘social enterprise’ only went mainstream in the last decade. Yet they are now key to the government’s Big Society agenda.

In April, David Cameron launched Big Society Capital, a new bank for social enterprises and charities with £600 million to invest.

Young people are interested and passionate about social causes. Many now don’t want to work for FTSE 100 companies if they don’t have social and ethical values

“Big Society Capital is going to encourage charities and social enterprises to prove their business models – and then replicate them,” said Cameron. “Once they've proved that success in one area they'll be able – just as a business can – to seek investment for expansion into the wider region and into the country.”

This means more social entrepreneurs will be able to set up businesses that tackle society’s problems and that social enterprises will have access to funds to bid for government contracts.

Below, two leaders of social enterprises discuss their careers, the skills they think you need to lead a business that tackles social problems, and the future of the sector.

Jude’s story

Former broadcast journalist Jude Habib set up sounddelivery in 2006 to help charities tell their stories with maximum impact. The agency trains charity staff and community groups in social media and gives 10% of profits to charities such as Chill 4 Us Carers, the Kiloran Trust and Carers Together.

“You have to make money to give it away.”

That’s what Doug Richards, a former “Dragon” from the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, told me when I interviewed him for a project.

I was thinking about how to structure my company legally and decided after that to become a limited company.

I wanted to make a difference and to help charities tell their stories better but I didn’t want to set up a charity and be dependent on grants. I wanted to trade because I think business can be a force for good.

Before I started sounddelivery, I hadn’t heard of the term “social entrepreneur”.

I’d worked on social programming for the BBC as a freelancer and producer for 12 years, on things like Children in Need, Comic Relief and a huge carers’ project called Ring Around Carers which put the issue on the political agenda. It was my dream job. But I decided to take the risk and leave because things started to change.

I felt that there was a top-down approach to projects I was involved in and I always liked to work at a grassroots level.

My training at the School for Social Entrepreneurs was invaluable.

We learned through action learning sets, which is when you work in small groups to reflect on a challenge or action. I still use it with two girls I know in the sector today. We meet up regularly to give and get advice on issues with our careers.

Sometimes social entrepreneurs forget that they have to make money because they are so passionate about what they do.

I am motivated by money in the sense that it helps achieve our vision.

It means that we can run things like soundinnovation, which we set up to develop innovative projects that give a voice to marginalised groups. So, in 2011, we bought a group of 25 carers to London for a three-day short break. It’s a project I am very proud of.

To be a social entrepreneur, you need to know about profits and margins, as you would running any other business.

You need to have a good plan and be able to take criticism. And you can’t be afraid to fail or take risks.

You need to be good at persuading people.

My skills from the BBC have helped – I often had to persuade people to get on board with the programmes I was making with no budget. Often people in the charity sector seem to take it for granted that donors will give to them. But they need to be persuaded.

I don’t enjoy the management side of things but I’m learning all the time.

I learned early on that you need to surround yourself with good people and we have a team of excellent associates who are passionate, have a social conscience and believe in what we do.

I’d like to train myself out of work.

One day, I hope the sector doesn’t need our services anymore.

There will be more social enterprises and social entrepreneurs in the future.

Young people are interested and passionate about social causes. Many now don’t want to work for FTSE 100 companies if they don’t have social and ethical values.

Tessa’s story

The Brightside Trust is a charity and social enterprise which connects young people with volunteer mentors from a range of professional backgrounds. Mentors support young people into further or higher education, or the world of work. Chief executive Dr Tessa Stone joined the organisation in 2009.

The social enterprise movement wasn’t really around when we were established in 1999.

We are a hybrid: a charity with a business approach. Our staff log their work on timesheets and have targets to meet. I think if we were set up now, we might be a community interest company or something similar.

Skills you need to be a social entrepreneur aren’t that different to ones you need to have your own business.

You have to know how to develop your product and use feedback.

I’d say you always need to have an eye to the next chance, to be one of those people who always accepts a meeting. You don’t know what collaborations might come out of it.

My management style is light touch.

I like to give staff the freedom to come up with their own ideas. In this sense we’re more like a charity because it’s very much team focused – there are only 12 of us. But I always have an eye on the bottom line.

I learnt diplomacy from my time working in academia.

I used to be a university admissions tutor and there was a lot of politics in that environment.

The one-to-one empathy skills I developed are useful in my current role. My average day involves lots of meetings with external people and following up leads with organisations we might do business with.

There will be more social enterprises in the future because increasingly we understand that it’s the kind of work people want to do.

Companies think about corporate social responsibility now and are engaged in this way of doing business.

You need to be prepared to sell your idea as a social entrepreneur.

And you may have to work harder at selling it than you think.

Writing a business plan can be tedious but it will help you to persuade people. You need an understanding of the space you are operating in – and passion. Get out there and start having conversations.

Be quite business like and not too 'third sector' about social enterprise.

We didn’t used to fully cost what we were trying to achieve.

We didn’t realise that each hour a member of staff spent on a project was a cost. But now we make sure we cover our core costs in all our projects and have lots of targets. We know the full cost to the business.

Be shrewd as soon as you can.

Doing good can be ineffectual if it means you miss something; if you’re not properly planning, things go pear-shaped.

Depending on one income stream is not good. Just because what you do is good doesn’t mean people won’t cut you off.

Before I joined the Brightside Trust, we used to live from project to project because we didn’t have a proper strategy. Now we’re on the cusp of going big.

I think we were chosen as one of consultancy company Deloitte’s Social Innovation Pioneers because of our growth potential.

We can’t afford to pay for expert services, so this means we have access to their skills and expertise to help us better sell ourselves and take a fresh look at our ambitions.

What we do is scalable and it’s a marketable idea. Being an e-mentor is a great way for corporate staff to give back.

Deloitte's input and expertise can help us reach our ambition to provide e-mentoring support to 50,000 young people per year by 2014.

Five famous social enterprises

  1. The Big Issue: Magazine sold by homeless people.
  2. The Eden Project: Cornwall-based garden centre which runs social and educational projects.
  3. Fifteen: Chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurant chain which works with unemployed young people.
  4. Ben & Jerry’s: US-owned ice cream manufactures which invests in ethical supply chains and sets standards in sustainability.
  5. Whole Foods: World’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods.



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